Kim Jong-un, seeking to escape international isolation, has found a willing partner in Russia’s Vladimir Putin and thereby revived Pyongyang’s Cold War art of pitting Moscow against Beijing, perfected by his grandfather Kim Il-sung. The collapse of the Soviet Union just prior to Kim Jong-un’s father’s ascent in 1994 ended the game for a time. But Kim Jong-il tilted a bit back toward Moscow after the arrival of Putin, and his son is doubling down. From plans for a joint military exercise to an invitation to visit from the Kremlin, a series of gifts have recently arrived in Pyongyang marked “from Russia with love.”
The three-year rule of neophyte leader Kim Jong-un has been marked by strained relations with Beijing, North Korea’s sole patron for the past two decades. Beijing was unhappy when a defiant Kim Jong-un conducted a third underground nuclear test in early 2013, and the Chinese supported additional U.N. sanctions—as did the Russians, although in a less vocal manner. Sino-North Korean estrangement reached its zenith in late 2013 when Kim publicly purged and then summarily executed his uncle Jang Song-thaek. Jang, widely seen as Beijing’s point man in Pyongyang, was condemned partly for economic crimes linked to Chinese interests. Beijing responded by continued snubbing of Kim. While Kim Jong-un has yet to be invited to Beijing, Chinese president Xi Jinping has been cultivating rival South Korean president Park Geun-hye, hosting her in Beijing and paying a return visit to Seoul.
Kim Jong-un, increasingly isolated, turned first to Tokyo. When repeated contacts with Tokyo in 2013 and 2014, including with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s special adviser Isao Iijima, failed to bear fruit, Kim then turned to Moscow. There he seems to have found a soulmate in Putin.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russian president Boris Yeltsin chose to distance Moscow from North Korea, seeking to cultivate economic ties with South Korea. In a 1992 visit to Seoul, Yeltsin promised “to put pressure on North Korea to give up its effort to develop nuclear weapons,” reported the New York Times. Yeltsin “wanted to change or abrogate part of a 1961 treaty between the Soviet Union and North Korea calling for the two countries to aid each other in a war.” Pyongyang was left with Beijing as its sole ally.
Yeltsin used the occasion of a 1994 trip to Moscow by Kim Young-sam to present the South Korean president with 216 previously classified documents from the Soviet archives. The documents provided new evidence on North Korea’s invasion of South Korea on June 25, 1950, and close Soviet coordination of strategy with the North during the Korean War. (Kathryn Weathersby’s translation and documentation can be found in the Spring 1995 issue of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Cold War International History Project Bulletin.)
Tellingly, a June 26, 1950, top secret report from Soviet ambassador Terenti Shtykov in Pyongyang to Soviet Marshal Matvei Zakharov contained the following:
The concentration of the People’s Army in the region near the 38th parallel began on June 12 and was concluded on June 23, as was prescribed in the plan of the General Staff. The redeployment of troops took place in an orderly fashion, without incident. The intelligence service of the enemy probably detected the troop redeployment, but we managed to keep the plan and the time of the beginning of troop operations secret. The planning of the operation at the divisional level and the reconnaissance of the area was carried out with the participation of Soviet advisers. . . . The attack of the troops of the People’s Army took the enemy completely by surprise.
Documents such as this one largely laid to rest the revisionist interpretation of Korean War history put forward by leftist students and so-called progressives in South Korea. They had asserted that South Korean president Syngman Rhee, either singlehandedly or in consultation with his American ally, had conducted military probes that provoked a counterattack from the North. After Yeltsin released these documents, it was clear that Kim Il-sung, in collusion with Stalin, had launched an unprovoked attack on South Korea.
Yeltsin’s resignation in December 1999 ended this episode in North Korean-Russian relations. Kim Jong-il reportedly welcomed the arrival of Putin with the comment that Russia now had a leader “with whom we can do business.” A Treaty of Friendship, Good Neighborliness and Cooperation was signed in February 2000, and Putin first visited North Korea that July.