Historic Parallel: Why Russia Is Likely to Abandon Its Korean Equidistance Strategy

The symbolism behind the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) and Russia’s implementation of a “comprehensive strategic partnership” is hard to miss—Vladimir Putin traveled to Pyongyang to sign a document that strongly upgrades the DPRK-Russia relationship from the last version he signed in 2000—the last time he visited the country. Particularly given the fact that the new treaty sets the stage for deeper DPRK-Russia military cooperation, the prospect of Moscow and Pyongyang teaming up even further than prior to the 2024 summit on security matters is a cause for concern across the world.

Russia has, since the mid-1990s, pursued a strategy of diplomatic “equidistance” between North Korea and the Republic of Korea (ROK or South Korea). For now, the Kremlin appears to be using a time when North Korea has been effusive in its support for Russia to solidify its relationship with the DPRK, a once-burgeoning relationship in many ways put on hold during the pandemic. Yet the codifying of strengthened Russian ties with the DPRK and the concurrent decline of Moscow-Seoul ties may prompt the Kremlin to ultimately abandon its equidistance strategy.

By laying the groundwork for military cooperation with North Korea, which South Korea considers a military adversary, Russia’s current strategy toward the Korean Peninsula has become significantly less sustainable. Such cooperation would subsequently herald a return to a truly Cold War-style Korea policy of explicitly favoring ties with the DPRK over relations with the ROK. As such, the upgrading of DPRK-Russia military relations marks one of the most significant shifts in Russia’s Korea strategy in three decades.

The Roots of Russia’s Korean Equidistance Strategy

Immediately following the Cold War, the Russian Federation, as the main legal successor to the USSR, withdrew its support for the 1961 mutual defense agreement it had with the DPRK. To be sure, Moscow was in a very different position at that time—namely, attempting to gain its footing in a new global order while viewing the collapse of the North Korean government as a stark possibility.

As part of the overhaul of Moscow’s Korea policy immediately following the Cold War, Russia’s then-president Boris Yeltsin initially pursued a track that favored ties with South Korea over the North. At that time, Moscow viewed its longtime ally, North Korea, as a political liability while considering the newly-industrialized ROK as an important economic partner for a Russian Federation whose own economy was wracked by its free market transition.

In the end, the North Korean government did not collapse, and the decisions it made about its security future, after being left without allies, presented new security challenges. The damage had been done to North Korea-Russia relations however, with Pyongyang becoming highly distrustful of the Russian Federation. Meanwhile, South Korea ultimately did not view the economically embattled Russian Federation as a particularly important economic partner. Not having markedly strong relations with either the DPRK or the ROK thus left Russia in a weakened position on the Korean Peninsula overall.

As such, from the mid-1990s, Russia began pursuing a strategy of “diplomatic equidistance” between North and South Korea, which has more or less served as the basis of Russia’s policy toward the Korean Peninsula since that time.

Moscow’s Korean Equidistance and the DPRK-Russia-ROK Triangle

One of the primary drivers of Moscow’s hedging strategy between Pyongyang and Seoul has traditionally been the Kremlin’s desire to foster inter-Korean collaboration in the economic realm, which would, in turn, influence security dynamics and help promote peace on the peninsula.

This equidistance strategy has long been complementary with South Korean hopes to engage North Korea in a multilateral format, keeping with policy moves to normalize relations with North Korea’s former backer, the USSR, under Roh Tae-woo’s Nordpolitik in the late 1980s. Improved relations with Russia had also long been a critical facet of South Korea’s own “northern strategy” (which originated in 1983) of engaging with North Korea in partnership with Russia to strengthen economic activity between the Korean Peninsula and the Eurasian landmass.

The idea of a northern strategy, with its roots in Nordpolitik, has taken various forums under different administrations in Seoul, such as Park Geun-hye’s “Eurasia Initiative“ and Moon Jae-in’s “New Northern Policy.” Indeed, inter-Korean dynamics have significantly impacted Russia’s relations with both Koreas—especially during periods of inter-Korean rapprochement, like under the Moon Jae-in administration from 2017-2022, which arguably positively influenced the trajectory of ROK-Russia ties.

Under the Moon’s New Northern Policy, along with Russia’s “turn to the East,” inter-Korean summitry and South Korea’s “nine bridges“ strategy toward Russia, South Korea hoped not only to bolster economic cooperation between Moscow, Pyongyang and Seoul, but also to foster peace.

This prospect of economic trilateralism between North Korea, Russia and South Korea was a frequent theme in Moscow’s relations with Pyongyang and Seoul prior to 2020, even as it had been primarily limited to talk of infrastructure development.

From Russia’s perspective, many policymakers had long viewed Russia as serving a role in helping to foster Korean unification. In their mind, trilateral economic cooperation between the DPRK, the ROK and Russia, particularly in the realms of energy and rail transport, could reduce political tensions, help strengthen inter-Korean ties and place the Russian Federation in a relatively well-suited position to foster inter-Korean collaboration.

Today, however, the Yoon administration appears to have chosen not to pursue its own variation of a northern strategy aimed at fostering trilateral cooperation between itself, the DPRK and Russia. At least, this is how Moscow views the situation, given South Korea’s decision to align with the West in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

In terms of North Korea’s missile and WMD capabilities, Russia has traditionally sought to leverage its relatively balanced ties with the DPRK and the ROK to position itself in broader multilateral talks directed toward Korean denuclearization. One potential track that Russia has floated as a way to compensate for its deficit of leverage in Korean security has been for Moscow to serve as an intermediary between the two Koreas, although the feasibility of this has certainly always been questionable because of its dearth of leverage in the first place. Indeed, given the unlikeliness of Russia serving an intermediary function, Moscow has traditionally relied on multilateralism to pursue its security interests on the Korean Peninsula, in particular by way of policy coordination with China at the United Nations (UN). The former Six Party Talks were one of the few avenues Russia had to exercise any influence over Korean security, and their demise subsequently constituted a setback.

Amid these multilateral efforts, Russia and South Korea have also frequently interacted at the bilateral level over Korean denuclearization. Until early in the Yoon Suk Yeol (also written as Yoon Suk-yeol) administration, South Korea had actively sought to work with Russia on denuclearization, calling for the Kremlin to play a constructive role in bringing North Korea back to the negotiating table. Nevertheless, the dynamics of the ROK-Russia relationship vis-à-vis denuclearization have shifted. The most notable illustration is the diplomatic spat between Russia and South Korea in February 2024. During a visit to the ROK from senior Russian diplomat for the Asia-Pacific Andrei Rudenko, Seoul called on Russia not to abet North Korea’s weapons acquisition ambitions. This led to a back-and-forth between the ROK and Russian foreign ministries, signaling that the growth of DPRK-Russia ties had caused notable discomfort in Seoul well before the June Kim-Putin summit.

The sum total of recent developments in Russia-South Korea relations – diminished prospects for multilateral economic cooperation and shrinking chances for cooperation over denuclearization – has left North Korea as Russia’s most amenable partner on the Korean Peninsula.

The Pendulum Swings to Pyongyang

The recent upswing in North Korea-Russia relations has spillover effects on Russia-South Korea ties, which have cooled significantly since 2022. Likewise, the worsening of inter-Korean ties, particularly Pyongyang’s designation of the ROK as its principal enemy and North Korea’s self-declared nuclear status, significantly undermine prospects for the Kremlin to foster diplomatic or economic cooperation between the two Koreas, let alone Russia’s role in Korean denuclearization. Therefore, Russia’s strategy of equidistance, which may have served Russia’s interests even up to the recent past, is much less feasible today.

On the one hand, the Korean Peninsula’s diplomatic and geopolitical environment has changed to such an extent that Russia now has significantly less incentive to cooperate with South Korea, reducing the necessity for Russia to maintain its equidistance strategy.

Russia’s sidling up to North Korea in the defense realm is particularly concerning to policymakers in South Korea. Even as North Korea has been reportedly sending armaments to the Russian military for use on the battlefields of Ukraine, the Kremlin has made it known in no uncertain terms that South Korea arming Ukraine would ruin already-damaged Moscow-Seoul ties. Indeed, Russia reiterated its warning to Seoul when the South Korean government announced it would consider arming Ukraine following Putin’s trip to Pyongyang.

Nevertheless, South Korea is in a strong position vis-a-vis its relationship with Russia.

South Korea has long occupied a unique position in Russia’s aforementioned “turn to the East,” particularly in the economic realm. Russian policies regarding the development of the Russian Far East, and even iterations of Russia’s foreign policy concept, have specifically mentioned South Korea as an important partner due to its potential as an investor as well as its technological prowess.

At the same time, South Korea is hardly beholden to Russia and has been moving away from economic cooperation between the two since 2022. Although Putin himself stated that he hoped Russia and South Korea could cooperate on economic issues, his attitude toward Seoul has more-or-less been that the ball is in South Korea’s court. The Yoon administration, in stark contrast with the preceding Moon administration’s outreach to Russia, has significantly reduced energy imports from Russia, concurrent with a reduction in Russia’s importance for South Korea as an export market.

In diversifying away from Russia in the economic realm, South Korea has reduced the levers of influence Russia may have in the ROK. Furthermore, South Korea’s decision to distance itself from Russia and align with the West over Ukraine has been beneficial for Seoul, although not without some degree of economic loss in the short term. South Korea incurred some economic costs by reducing its trade with Russia but gained dividends of boosting the ROK’s image as a responsible democracy and its ability to align more closely with the West.

Looking to the Past to Guide the Future

Picking up where Boris Yeltsin’s Korea policy left off, Putin has spent decades attempting to build up the Kremlin’s influence on a Korean Peninsula where China and the US both outweigh Moscow’s leverage by far. Now, however, Russia appears to be on track to abandon the principles that guided its Korea strategy for the better part of the post-Cold War period.

It would be an exaggeration to say that Russia will re-adopt a Cold War-era Korea strategy of maintaining diplomatic ties exclusively with North Korea. During the Cold War, the USSR did not have diplomatic relations with South Korea until the very end of the Soviet period. There is currently no evidence that Moscow wants to break diplomatic ties with Seoul. Nevertheless, the unfeasibility of the Kremlin continuing its equidistance strategy means that there will be definite parallels between Moscow’s pre-1990s approach to Korea and its relations with the two Koreas going forward.

Thus, it is possible, even likely, that Russia will adopt a Korea strategy somewhat reminiscent of the period leading up to the Krasnoyarsk Declaration that paved the way for Moscow-Seoul rapprochement, namely a tightknit relationship with North Korea and a highly limited relationship with the ROK. Russia’s abandonment of its equidistance strategy would particularly depend on how much South Korea determines that it values the relationship. Indeed, the Kremlin appears to have calculated, after weighing the variables that informed the equidistance strategy, that a more singular focus on developing ties with North Korea better serves Russia’s interests.

One significant difference between Moscow’s pursuit of a Korea strategy more disposed to the DPRK in the past and now is the implications of this shift, which will not only affect security in Northeast Asia, but will also impact geopolitics and security in Eastern Europe. The involvement of both North Korea and South Korea on respective sides of Russia’s war in Ukraine means the shifting triangulation between Russia and the Korean Peninsula is likely to have a direct impact on that conflict, such as a potential increase in support from Seoul to Kyiv. How that might change the course of warfighting is yet to be seen.

For the time being, DPRK-Russia relations are only poised to get stronger. But the true strength of the relationship will only be proven once it is put to the test, namely in how Russia engages with North Korea militarily, including participating in arms technology transfers to North Korea that signal the Kremlin has turned its back on South Korea, and the liberal international order more broadly.

Stay informed about our latest
news, publications, & uploads:
I'm interested in...
38 North: News and Analysis on North Korea