By Ilya Arkhipov
July 25, 2017, 2:01 PM PDT
( North Korea's Mangyongbong-92 ferry in Vladivostok, Russia, on May 18, 2017 | Photographer: Yuri Smityuk/TASS/Getty Images)
In retrospect, said Vladimir Bogdanov, it wasn’t the best time to start the first passenger-ship service between Russia and North Korea shortly before Kim Jong Un shocked the world by announcing he’s successfully tested a missile capable of striking the U.S. mainland.
“We were in a hurry, thinking we’d be too late. We should have slowed down,” said Bogdanov, who’s organized nine trips since May between Russia’s far east port of Vladivostok and Rajin in North Korea’s Rason special economic zone. “Still, there’s no turning back” for the service, which is loss-making so far after filling at best a quarter of its 193 places each time, he said.
Economic ties between Russia and North Korea, which share a narrow land border, are similarly beleagured, with trade down for a third year to just $77 million in 2016, according to the Russian customs service. While the volume is small, it’s becoming a point of tension between President Vladimir Putin and his U.S. counterpart Donald Trump, who’s pressing Russia and other powers to ramp up opposition to the Communist regime’s nuclear-missile program. Russia regards the trade relationship as a means to safeguard its position with Kim in diplomacy to try to defuse the crisis on the Korean peninsula.
“We can’t afford to argue with North Korea because it will completely cast Russia to the sidelines,” said Georgy Toloraya, head of the Russian Academy of Science’s Center for Asian Strategy. “Our interests will not be considered” if North Korea sees Russia siding with the U.S., he said.
Just as with Iran, when Russia maintained ties amid U.S. and European Union pressure on Tehran over its nuclear ambitions, Putin’s unwilling to isolate North Korea completely. He opposes tougher sanctions because he believes they won’t affect the North Korean leadership, said two senior Kremlin officials, who asked not to be identified discussing internal policy.
The U.S. is pressing Russia to end a program for taking 30,000 to 50,000 North Korean migrant workers, in order to “deprive Kim Jong Un of all his money,” Toloraya said. “This is what they demand from Russia right now, very actively.”
Any country that hosts North Korean workers “is aiding and abetting a dangerous regime” that’s “a global threat,” U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said after Kim announced the successful missile test on July 4.
“Russia has never been a supporter of dialogue by sanctions,” which is a “futile approach,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters in April. That position hasn’t changed after Putin and Trump met at this month’s Group of 20 summit, he said.
While Trump and Putin had “a pretty good exchange on North Korea,” they differ in tactics and pace for dealing with the threat, Tillerson said after the Hamburg talks.
Russia and China, which is North Korea’s closest ally and accounted for nearly 90 percent of its $6 billion trade last year, urged restraint and renewed dialogue in a joint statement after the missile test. Kim boasted he’d send more “gifts” to the U.S., which held joint drills with South Korea in response.