In North Korea, too, Putin fishes in troubled waters

Last week, the Third Committee of the U.N. General Assembly voted to condemn North Korea for crimes against humanity by a vote of 112 to 19, with 50 abstentions. (HRNK intern Raymond Ha, the extraordinarily bright young man who checked every footnote in my report on North Korea’s sponsorship of terrorism, has a new post out analyzing the voting patterns on recent UN resolutions.)

Russia, of course, has voted against all recent attempts to hold North Korea accountable in the Security Council. And while Russia has never been enthusiastic about accountability for Pyongyang’s rulers, it has recently joined China in actively violating UN Security Council sanctions on Pyongyang’s behalf. In its intent, if not in volume, Russia is now as bad as China as a violator of UN sanctions against North Korea. Around the time of the Ukraine invasion, Russia went from passive non-enforcement of the sanctions to openly helping North Korea violate them

putin fishing

[Christmas gift ideas: a treadmill desk, Photoshop CC2015.]

For example, the entire Chong Chon Gang transaction (the Cuba arms shipment seized in Panama) was arranged by North Korean shipper Ocean Maritime Management (OMM) from its Vladivostok office, at this apartment. OMM has since been designated by the UN, and its entire fleet has been designated by the Treasury Department. The UN Panel of Experts has opined that all member states are obliged to immediately seize any OMM property that comes within their jurisdictions. Instead, OMM vessels continue to dock in Russian ports, do their business, and leave on a regular basis.

In 2014, Russia also allowed North Korean officials to attend an arms fair in Russia, despite the fact that the U.N. imposed an arms embargo on North Korea in 2006, and has repeatedly reaffirmed it in the years since then. More alarmingly, Russia has reopened cooperation with North Korea’s General Bureau of Atomic Energy, which is designated by the U.N. Security Council, inviting its scientists to do research in Russian laboratories. 

On the financial front, Russia recently proposed opening a bilateral trade clearing house to process transactions in local currency, presumably rubles. This is a transparent sanctions dodge — an effort to avoid the dollar system, and Treasury’s capacity to regulate and block dollar-denominated transactions cleared through New York banks. I have real doubts about whether the North Koreans are really interested in rubles, and far greater doubts that the Russians want to be paid in North Korean won. Furthermore, at some level, this trading house will eventually want to cash out its proceeds through the dollar system. The next president should make it a priority to sanction this trading house into extinction.

Yesterday’s fireworks in Syria were a reminder that while all great powers have a hard time fighting insurgencies, none has historically had a harder time than Russia, with its long historical record of losing wars to smaller countries. For the last three years, Vladimir Putin has correctly sensed, and taken advantage of, the weakness in our government. In some cases (Georgia, Ukraine) Putin’s goals were clearly territorial or hegemonic. Putin may have hegemonic interests in North Korea, but Russia’s support for North Korea mostly looks like retaliation for U.S. sanctions over its invasion of the Ukraine.

Our conflicts with Putin may be beyond the point of reset, simply because of Putin’s predatory personality. Fortunately for the long-suffering Russian people, Russia is not North Korea, and although opposition there is certainly muzzled, it can and does exist. My sense is that Churchill was correct when he said that Russia is never as strong or as weak as it looks. From where I sit, Russia looks overextended. Although I suspect that Putin remains popular, he is probably past the peak of his popularity. As Russia’s economy continues to decline under the strains of low oil prices, mismanagement, and sanctions, will its people continue to support the expense and loss of these foreign adventures? In recent years, ours didn’t, and historically, neither have Russia’s.

Certainly secondary sanctions against Russian banks are one important tool for dissuading Russia from supporting Pyongyang. Another may be to raise our support for our friends (Ukraine, the remaining moderate rebels in Syria) and frenemies (Turkey) who have common grievances with the Russians. If the Ukrainian forces today were as well-led and well-armed as the Finns were in 1940, we would see renewed Russian interest in a peace deal that gives autonomy to russified areas of the Ukraine, while restoring the Ukraine’s nominal borders to the status quo ante. In time, raising the costs of those conflicts for Russia may result in us having a more reasonable Russian leadership to negotiate with.