>>> For more on this topic, read the complete Bear East series here.
The armored train trundled into the far eastern Russian region of Primorsky Krai after a marathon journey as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made his first foreign trip in four years. Within hours of his Sept. 10 arrival, Kim was clinking champagne glasses with President Vladimir Putin at a hub of Russia’s space program, amid speculation that North Korea would be trading desperately needed weaponry to Moscow in return for missile and rocket technology. To most of the watching world, this was a summit of two outcast leaders, united by their international isolation. And even for many Russians, it was an outlandish spectacle. Within 15 minutes of the Russian RBK media group posting a video of Kim disembarking from his train to an honor guard, its Telegram channel lit up with hundreds of reactions from readers, half of them with clown face emojis. Andrei Lankov, a Seoul-based Russian author and lecturer who has spent many years studying North Korea, said despite the Soviet-era ties between Moscow and Pyongyang, there’s also a disconnect between them. “For the Russians, North Korea is a very exotic and frankly very bizarre, even comic place with a crazy personality cult that the average Russian person probably doesn’t really respect,” he said. As Russia’s military struggles for ascendancy in its war in Ukraine, it has no diplomatic supporter as staunch as North Korea. Their ties are rooted in the history of the Soviet Union, which was instrumental in the creation of the North as a communist state after World War II. South Korea’s spy agency says that Russia has even proposed a trilateral naval exercise with China and North Korea. If that happened, it would be the first joint military drills that the North has held with any foreign country. And yet, North Korea-Russia is a contrived partnership. North Korea has always been suspicious of outside influences. The neighbors have little bilateral trade. In years past, Russia has signed up to U.N. Security Council resolutions against North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs – commitments it appears increasingly willing to ignore. “Russia’s approaching Pyongyang for military support only shows that Russia is in a very desperate situation,” said Choe Wongi, a professor at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy. Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un shake hands during their meeting in Vladivostok, Russia, April 25, 2019. Credit: Yuri Kadobnov/Pool via AP Bizarre and comic “North Korea was created by Soviet generals,” Lankov said. “The founder of DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] Kim Il Sung was a junior officer in the Red Army, who was appointed in 1948 by the Soviets to run the country, which served as a buffer zone between Japan and Soviet borders. “For a while, up to a quarter of North Korean officials were Soviet citizens dispatched by the Soviet government, but they were eventually kicked out because Kim was a Korean nationalist who didn’t want to be controlled by Russia. “It was a nasty surprise for the Soviets,” Lankov added. Nevertheless, the Soviet Union remained a major source of political and military support to North Korea up until the USSR dissolved in 1991. According to Lankov, the North Koreans “love the Russians” because in their limited interactions with foreigners, “the Russians were the most economically prosperous and politically liberal.” “Even during the Leonid Brezhnev time (1964-1982), when Russian people experienced political stagnation and a suffocating censorship, to the North Koreans Russia was still a place of creative freedom where you could write an entire novel without mentioning nor quoting Brezhnev even once!” “For them, Russia was a country which is intellectually attractive, sophisticated, with an interesting culture and a great deal of freedom and creativity,” he said. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia under its first President Boris Yeltsin was not keen on providing support to North Korea as it wanted to develop relations with South Korea. For a long time, “Moscow was not ready to invest a lot of money in Pyongyang and limited itself to just diplomatic reciprocity,” according to Lankov.