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After more than a decade of isolation, the North Korean government is reaching out, increasingly bidding for sponsorship from old friends — limited military assistance from Moscow and economic help from Beijing.
Washington will find it more and more difficult to manage relations between North and South Korea as the Chinese and Russian governments once again make their influence felt on the peninsula, reports Stratfor, the global intelligence company.
North Korea is attempting to revive the Cold War patronage system, under which two world powers — the Soviet Union and China — sponsored North Korea and helped it withstand confrontation with the United States.
A high-ranking North Korean delegation headed by Kim Il Chol, North Korea’s armed forces minister, traveled to Moscow last week to discuss bilateral military cooperation and regional security issues with top Russian officials, reported the Korean Central News Agency. After meetings with members of President Vladimir Putin’s Cabinet, Kim Il Chol signed a military-technical cooperation agreement and a broader cooperation agreement April 27, reported Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency.
After 11 years of isolation, the regime in Pyongyang is trying to restore ties with its Cold War patrons. The regime is attempting to reverse the deterioration caused by economic crisis and international isolation. Kim Jong Il, North Korea’s supreme leader, apparently believes he will strengthen his weakening grip on the country and its elites if he again enjoys strong backing from Moscow and Beijing. Kim is also sending a message to the new U.S. administration that North Korea has two powerful backers once more.
Beijing is willing to provide economic, but not military, aid to North Korea. China’s new grand strategy for improving its geopolitical position is to provide economic leadership to communist and third-world countries. On one hand, Beijing apparently believes its economic guidance will help Pyongyang move back from the edge of collapse while strengthening ties with Beijing. This strategy was evident during Kim’s recent visit to China, where he showed an interest in Chinese market reforms. On the other hand, Chinese sources say selling new arms to Pyongyang might once again escalate tensions on the peninsula.
Moscow, more interested in acquiring a larger say in northeast Asia, will provide only limited military assistance to Pyongyang. The Russian government is trying to reassert its influence abroad though the resumption of limited arms sales, but not at the expense of its increasingly important relationship with Seoul. Therefore, Moscow will work to cooperate with both Koreas. In selling defensive weapons to Pyongyang, Moscow hopes to land a diplomatic coup by enticing Kim Jong Il into visiting Russia.
North Korea’s aging conventional arsenal needs updating; the last major requisitions were made 10 years ago. Russia is a natural choice, as 80 percent of North Korea’s aircraft, about 95 percent of arms for its ground forces and 100 percent of its air defense systems are Soviet-made, reported Russian smi.ru.
During Kim Il Chol’s visit, the two governments agreed Moscow would modernize North Korea’s aging Soviet-era weapons systems, provide regular security consultations between militaries, train North Korean personnel and send Russian technical specialists to upgrade and repair North Korean weapons and material.
Pyongyang is disappointed with the deal to upgrade its weapons systems because it is not enough to significantly modernize the Korean People’s Army. The North Korean leader still requests new tanks and other advanced military equipment, as well as Russian oil supplies, reported Agence France-Presse. Kim has demanded new Russian arms for the KPA as a precondition for his long-planned visit to Moscow, according to a Russian military source.
Moscow’s compromise is offering to sell North Korea largely defensive weapons such as SU-27 interceptors, MiG-29 fighters, short-range air defense missiles, some small naval patrol vessels, unmanned Pchela-1 tactical surveillance planes and radars, reported the UK’s Sunday Times. The Russian-made radars could monitor American and South Korean military movements across the North-South border. The arms deal, worth about $525 million, is yet to be negotiated and formalized, however.
Putin seems willing to proceed with this arms deal despite the fact that North Korea already owes Russia $3 billion — money that is unlikely to be paid, as a Western diplomat in Moscow told the Sunday Times. Moscow’s main motivations are the desire to preserve a military balance on the peninsula and to restore some clout over Kim in order to enhance Russia’s geopolitical position in the region.
Moscow will tread a middle path, maintaining cooperation with both Koreas in order to increase its influence. Moscow will probably continue to reject Pyongyang’s requests for offensive arms but supply defensive arms and spare parts. This approach will not hurt Russia’s relations with South Korea, because Seoul will not see the military balance on the peninsula shift toward Pyongyang.
Upgrading Pyongyang’s existing conventional arsenal is a matter of maintaining this balance, not changing it in favor of North Korea. Without the upgrades, the North Korean air force is obsolete. North Korea now has 160 MiG-21, 60 MiG-30 and 30 MiG-29 jet fighters, along with 22 SU-25 bombers, among others, reported Russian AVP . Without the newer MiG-29 and SU-25, North Korean combat aircraft is no match for modern U.S. and South Korean planes. Also, North Korean pilots do not have enough air practice due to fuel shortages.