North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Feb. 3 sent letters congratulating the world’s Lunar New Year on Feb. 3.
In the list of Pyongyang-friendly countries that received such letters, North Korea’s official news agency first put Russia ahead of China’s traditional allies.
The gesture of placing Moscow at the head of this symbolic hierarchy of allies, repeated for the third consecutive year, did not go unnoticed and is cited by analysts as a sign of a rapprochement between the two countries.
In the face of difficulties in relations between North Korea and China, «Russia has increased its attention to the Korean Peninsula, prepared to forge stronger ties with its isolated neighbor,» wrote in a May 5 report the intelligence firm Stratfor.
«Although Russia’s ability to benefit economically from closer ties with North Korea is limited, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s willingness to deepen his alliance with Pyongyang underscores Moscow’s desire to expand its role as an actor in peacekeeping On the Korean peninsula, «wrote Samuel Ramani, an expert on Russian foreign policy at Oxford University, in The Diplomat.
But what are these links between Moscow and Pyongyan?
Transportation and energy
According to a recent Reuters report, one area in which both countries are cooperating is transport.
A new ferry service with capacity for 200 passengers and 1,000 tons of cargo will make the trip six times a month between North Korea and the Russian port of Vladivostok.
And according to the same agency, five North Korean-flagged oil tankers loaded unidentified goods at ports in the Vladivostok area on a Thursday in late April before departing for North Korea.
Earlier this year, representatives of the Russian railway company also visited North Korea to discuss the expansion of their rail links.
Another area of growing cooperation between the two countries is the energy sector.
According to Ramani, Siberian companies have been selling oil to North Korea.
And this has been a «vital» source of foreign exchange for the regime, which has processed it in chemical plants and then sell it to Chinese consumers, Ramani said.
Both countries have also reached an agreement to repatriate North Korean refugees who have entered Russia illegally and deter more deserters.
«They want to keep the people inside North Korea because the more they deserted Russia, the more likely there is negative information about the regime reaching the outside world and this is a source of instability,» Anthony Rinna, an analyst on Russia expert group Sino NK.
A common border
North Korea and Russia share a 17-kilometer border and have a long history of common relations.
After the division of the Korean Peninsula between the Soviet Union and the United States, communist North Korea and the United States’ allied South Korea became a battlefield within the Cold War board.
In addition to ideological ties, Russia and North Korea maintained strong economic ties.
When Putin came to power in 2000 he saw «the strategic value of maintaining good relations with North Korea,» the Stratfor report says.
And in recent years Russia has increased its participation in several strategic areas of North Korea.
In 2014, Moscow condoned 90% of North Korea’s $ 11 billion debt and allowed it to pay the rest over 20 years without interest.
Russian Deputy Finance Minister Sergei Storchak told local media that money could be used to finance mutual projects.
North Korea, for its part, approved for the first time long-term visas and multiple entry for Russian executives.
Russia employs thousands of North Korean workers in its territory (an estimated 50,000 were granted work permits in 2015), with North Korea estimated to receive $ 170 million in remittances.
The geopolitical role
This expansion of Russian investment in North Korea «has rooted the role of Moscow as guarantor (along with China) of the survival of the Kim regime,» Ramani wrote.
He continued: «Although Russian politicians have consistently supported sanctions against North Korea for its nuclear weapons program and publicly criticized the regime’s belligerent foreign policy, the Kremlin has played a critical role in alleviating the economic isolation of North Korea «.
As the BBC’s Russian service editor Famil Ismailov explains, Russia sees Kim’s government as «legitimate», contrary to what happens, for example in the case of the United States.
And the Kremlin wants to «be seen as a major superpower,» so if a plan for North Korea’s nuclear deterrent is rigged, «Russia wants to be there.»
This week, in a new show of divergence between China and North Korea on the threat of new sanctions, the North Korean agency criticized the «insincerity and betrayal» of Beijing.
Russia is not China
Although experts do not cast doubt on Russia’s interest in strengthening ties with North Korea, some are skeptical about the feasibility of implementing the plan.
«The intentions are there, but so are the limitations,» Sino NK’s Anthony Rinna told BBC World.
«In the short term, it is a long time before Russia can replace China as North Korea’s main partner,» says Rinna.
According to the expert, «although China is increasingly irritated by the behavior of North Korea, I do not think the distance is as large as it may seem.»
Chinese governments and elites have many more high-level contacts with North Korea, deeper in nature and depth, according to Rinna.
In addition Russia lacks the economic power enough to influence North Korea in such a significant way, explains the editor of the Russian service of the BBC.
«Russia knows that North Korea is the back country of China and will not do anything to irritate Beijing,» Ismailov said.