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Russia Should be Wary in Supporting North Korea

The memory of the Cold War seems distant, but the relics of a bygone era can still be seen in the international arena. This is made evident when one takes a closer look at the political and economic ties of North Korea and Russia. There is a deliberate move by Russia to defy expectations and instead of focusing on its new course and developing its economy as a nation that embraced capitalism, it is considering risky moves such as supporting Kim Jong Il. Old habits die hard and the Russian government could not help but extend a helping hand to an old friend. Still, it is emphatic that the Russian government should be very careful in its dealings with North Korea. It must establish open communication to the United States and other European countries to explain why they are helping North Korea, making it very clear that they there to help not endorse the plans of Kim Jong Il.

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Present day Russia could not be fully understood without tracing its metamorphosis from being a part of the Russian Empire, to becoming the Union Soviet Socialist Republic – when it was ruled by a communist party – to its present structure as the Russian Federation. The drastic transformation of the Russian Empire into a country ruled by communists can be traced back to the negative backlash of the Industrial Revolution that swept Europe between the 18th and 19th century. The Industrial Revolution that transformed major European and American cities began to spread like wildfire all over the world and it is not hard to understand why many would like to copy their newfound means of creating wealth.

Great Britain and the United States benefited greatly from the rapid technological changes that resulted in the confluence of hundreds of years of inventions and innovations. It was as if science and technology experienced a momentum that allowed it to leapfrog into the future. As a result Europe experienced breakthroughs in transportation, communication and most importantly the mechanization of the production lines. A new philosophy also emerged which scholars labeled as capitalism. Capitalists who possess resources and technical know how would invest in manufacturing plants while those who could not offer anything but manual labor will come in to work for them.

The technology that was perfected during this age of radical changes was not only limited to the manufacturing sector. After the Industrial Revolution it was possible for many Europeans to travel and communicate over long distances. It also made possible the ability to maximize production of goods. Yet more importantly, the efficient means of manufacturing products made many businessmen rich beyond their dreams. As a result factories began to sprout up in England and in key cities of America.1 The efficient use of railways made it possible to transport goods, raw materials and people transforming sleepy towns into booming urban centers.

The impact of the Industrial Revolution was felt not only in the cities but also in the rural areas where capitalists can access raw materials and tap into vast human resources.2 For the farmers and local forks who supplied the raw materials for factories, the Industrial Revolution was heaven sent. For the families who had to let go of their adults to work in the factories, the Industrial Revolution was bittersweet. They can now be assured of a steady paycheck but a member of their family must leave them behind in order to go to the city and find work. In the long run, families began migrating into cities and they had to endure the shabby living conditions, the cramp quarters, and the high standard of living.

One of the problems that emanated from the rapid development of technology is the exodus of rural folks into cities. A normally populated city began to suffer from the influx of migrants coming from the countryside and into the commercial centers where the factories are located. The sudden rise in population made it impossible for the city to absorb more people but the numbers kept on rising. The overpopulated centers became the breeding ground for crime and lawlessness.3 Aside from that the workers were exploited. As the number of workers increased the number of jobs remained the same. Thus, businessmen can afford to maltreat the workers knowing that there are many who are willing to take the place of the aggrieved employees.

Karl Marx was one of the philosophers who saw the sins committed by capitalists. Marx developed a system of thought that later on became known as Marxism.4 Karl Marx argued that there must be a revolution to straighten what was crooked and to destroy the wicked. In Russia there was also a clamor for change in relation to the effects of the Industrial Revolution. Although Russia never experienced the same level of industrial sophistication that occurred in England and America, Russian intellectuals knew enough to be alarmed by the possible impact of capitalism in a highly conservative Russian society.

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One of the intellectuals who were influenced by Marxism was Lenin.5 Just like many Russian thinkers, Lenin feared the outcome of a Russian Industrial Revolution and he did his best to prevent it from happening.6 In his quest to destroy capitalism a new type of socialism was developed in Russia and it will be later known as Leninism. The ideology developed by Lenin was perpetuated by the Communist Party that ruled the centralized government of Russia in the early part of the 20th century. Aside from Russia there were other socialist countries that shared their beliefs and dreams of a future wherein the masses will live in an egalitarian society. In the Asian region it was China and North Korea that formed the Communist bloc that opposed the Western countries led by the U.S. and U.K.

It was in the Cold War of the post-World War II international political arena that cemented the bond between the aforementioned communist countries. But for North Korea, Russia demonstrated its loyalty and commitment when it became its major backer in the Korean War.7 As mentioned earlier ideology and politics are two major reasons why Russia and North Korea can see eye to eye on many issues. The friendship between their respective leaders was also strengthened because they faced a common enemy. The Japanese Imperial Army was a problem to both Russians and North Koreans.8

In the early phase of the 20th century Korean and Japanese relations became bitter when the land of the rising sun was able to exert dominance in the Korean Peninsula. The Japanese Imperial Army was able to occupy Korea but the oppressed yearned for freedom and guerilla fighters refused to give up the fight for their motherland. One of the anti-Japanese guerilla units was led by Kim Il Sung who would later become the charismatic leader of North Korea after World War II.9 In 1940 Kim Il Sung sought refuge in the Russian Maritime Province (Primorye) when his group was defeated by the Japanese regular army.10

Kim Il Sung decided to be under the protection of the Russians until the end of the Second World War. It is in this region where he received further training and education from the Russian government.11 It is also interesting to note that his son whom the world will come to know as the “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il was born in 1942 in the village of Viatskoe located in the Khabarovsk area.12 After the Korean War, the bond of friendship was strengthened when Russia and North Korea had to stand firm against America and its allies in the battle of ideology during the Cold War.

The Problem with the North

In the 21st century the world is light years away from the Industrial Revolution and yet radical changes continue to occur in telecommunication, transportation and the Internet. Yet even with these changes there are things that will remain the same. This can be seen in international politics wherein one country needed the help of allies in order to survive in a highly competitive world. The two world wars and numerous major conflicts in Asia and the Middle East did not only mean that the past century was one of the bloodiest in human history, it also reminded everyone that long lasting peace is not a certainty in this planet.

While wars and rumors of war will continue in the present day and age, the inevitability of future wars can be delayed with the use of diplomacy as well as the expert use of psychological warfare that prevents others from even remotely considering an attack on its neighboring countries. The best way to send the message that one is strong is to create a sophisticated national defense system and this must be complemented with alliances that can be counted upon in times of need.

It should have been an easy decision to support the North Koreans because Russia could never be under the hegemony of the United States its options are limited to a handful of neighboring European countries, China and of course North Korea. Everyone will understand the necessity of strengthening Russia-North Korean relations if only Kim Jong Il and his cohorts did not make it extremely hard for its allies to show open support. One commentator was able to put euphemistically when he described North Korean policies as “adventurous behavior” and no doubt about it Kim Jong Il seemed to master the art of provocation especially when it comes to agitating the United States of America.13

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While there have been nothing but mostly friendly relations with Russia and North Korea, the reverse can be said about the Kim Jong Il’s country and the United States. Depending on what historical account will be used both sides claimed victory in the Korean War a few years after World War II. Needless to say both countries are not only wary of each other but it can also be said that each side wished the others failure not success. Americans believe that North Korea is not good for Asia while North Korea believes that the increasing dominance of the United States in global affairs is not good for everyone.

The United States wanted to reunite the Korean Peninsula in terms aligned to U.S. interests alone. There is no need to elaborate that Kim Jong Il wanted the same thing but have a different sent of conditions in mind. He wants to see a united Korea but on his terms and he has proven time and time again that he will not be bullied by anyone, especially the United States. The U.S. sees North Korea an international relation problem because Kim Jong Il will not collaborate with America in creating peace in the Asia Pacific region. It does not mean though that North Korea is not amenable to the peace process but it simply refuses to be dictated by America, something that Kim Jong Il is intensely proud of.

Kim Jong Il is known as “Dear Leader” in his own turf but the outside world sees him as nothing but a megalomaniac who happens to be also the dictator of an impoverished nation. The whole world is simply waiting for socialist Korea to implode in the same way that the former Union Soviet Socialist Republic buckled under the weight of a centralized and yet inefficient government. But as of the moment Kim Jong Il is in control and although his country is far from being highly industrialized like its closest neighbor, the venerated leader is doing everything to maintain his defiant stand against the West.

Aside from defying America in every turn, North Korea seemed determine to maintain its reputation as a rogue nation and its leader eager to demonstrate that he can do everything that he wants to accomplish and not mindful of any consequences.14 For instance North Korea is not afraid to challenge international laws by engaging in illicit activities. Kim Jong Il’s resolve to show who is boss as well as the desperate need to tap into alternative sources of income made way for the creation of state-sponsored crime spree. Kim Jong Il will have no problem justifying criminal activities for the sake of nation building.

The highly esteemed leader oversees a state-owned conglomerate that is responsible for illegal export businesses.15 The illicit enterprises ranged from drug trafficking to money laundering. This is in accordance to various sources – from dozen current and former government officials in the U.S. and East Asia as well as academic researchers and private investigators.16 Kim Jong Il will continue to use the same facilities because he is in dire need of resources. It was estimated that the illegal business operations help North Korea earn about $1 billion a year.17 This is a very profitable enterprise considering that in 2005 all of North Korea’s legitimate exports only provided $1.7 billion in revenue.18

There are many dictators from rogue nations that continue to organize and oversee illegal export businesses similar to what was outlined above, the only difference with North Korea is that it can funnel its income to build nuclear weapons. The United States can ignore the other illegal activities of Kim Jong Il and his cohorts but the development of a nuclear program is unacceptable. According to military strategists, “With enough plutonium to make six o eight nuclear warheads and a cache of medium-range missiles, Kim is currently a menace to his Asian neighbors … with nukes and a fully functioning intercontinental missile, he can threaten the U.S. too…”19 It is not a good thing for the U.S. to be threatened especially with long range nuclear missiles.

Kim Jong Il is not only a menace to his Asian neighbors but he is also responsible for increasing tensions within the Korean Peninsula. There is good reason for worry because based on the track record of the U.S. government they will not take this threat lightly. If Kim will prove to be reckless and imprudent, especially with his recent display of nuclear capability, the Americans will be forced to shut him down. This is a scenario that Russia could not allow to happen. This is the reason why Russia is forced to interfere.

A Pragmatic Approach

Vorontsov’s in-depth analysis of current Russia-North Korea relations is an indispensable piece of literature when it comes to determining whether it makes sense for Russia to support Kim Jong Il or not. Vorontsov provided three major areas of discussion when explaining why Russia has no choice but to help its neighbor and these are listed as follows:

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  1. The two countries are allies in the Asian region and both have similar interests when it comes to the balance of power in this corner of the globe;
  2. Russia will benefit greatly if it can exert influence in the Korean Peninsula and this means that it has to maintain friendly relations with both North and South Korea;
  3. The Russian Federation is heavily invested in the Korean Peninsula; its leadership must do everything it can to maintain communication lines between North and South Korea; and more importantly
  4. There is no evidence to show that North Korea will self-implode and that Kim Jong Il’s political power will not wane – at least in the near future.20

One possible method that can be used to pressure North Korea is the use of an economic embargo. The United States ca spearhead this move against Kim Jong Il and hoping that by tightening the noose around him he will realize that he is no match for an international coalition of rich nations desiring to ensure peace in the region. Yet this is no guarantee because while other countries can be threatened with economic embargo, North Korea has proven itself resilient when it comes to the hardships that will be brought about by this type of international arm twisting. In other words North Korea can handle an economic siege because their leader will not think twice in sacrificing the lives of his people for the sake of maintaining his defiant stance as well as his ambition to be a nuclear power in Asia.

Vorontsov’s view on these matters can be proven to be prescient especially when he asserted that the Russians already reached the conclusion that Kim Jong Il will be around much longer than expected. This means that the solution of the crisis is not to simply wait out for the death of Kim Jong Il and hope that his successor will be more agreeable to U.S. demands. Even if something untoward will happen to the great Kim Jong Il there is no assurance that the successor is less hardcore than him. According to Vorontsov Russia is willing to take the road less taken and hopeful that at the end, by helping Russia it will be able to achieve all of its goals.21

Russia is also hoping that by supporting the North Koreans achieve its goals without sacrificing peace in the Korean Peninsula, Russia will earn the trust and confidence of the South Koreans. According to Vorontsov there was a time when South Korean leaders ignored Russia because they though that the Russian Federation is no longer influential within the administrative government of North Korea. Russia will attempt to erase this misconception and hope to hit two birds with one stone.

Russia will be able to help North Korea and at the same time strengthen ties with South Korea by doing two things: 1) indirectly stimulating economic reforms in North Korea; and 2) increasing North Korea’s gradual involvement in the process of international cooperation.22 By increasing the economic reforms in the North the Russians will be able to improve trade relations with this country, something that is beneficial for the two nations. By encouraging North Korea to participate in international cooperation the Russians will not only gain favor from the South Koreans but can even gain the approval of the Americans.

The Russian government is in the position to initiate the abovementioned plans because it is one of the few countries that Kim Jong Il has warm political ties. Kim will listen to Russian leaders but the same could not be said of other political leaders. Furthermore, the Russians can have easy access to North Korea, a privilege not available to other countries. This is also the same reason why Russia genuinely believes in the aspiration of Kim Jong Il to have a secure source of energy for the future. In other words Russia is convinced that North Korea’s main goal for building nuclear facilities is not mainly to develop nuclear warheads but to simply create alternative sources of energy.

Aside from Russia’s unique position and access to North Korea, there is also so much incentive for the Russian government to succeed in steering North Korea far away from danger. This is because Russia has invested heavily in this region. If Russia fails to convince two opposing camps that the de-escalation of conflict is best for both groups, the region will plunge into war. An overview of the Iraq War will reveal that the United States prefer a preemptive strike as opposed to waiting for their enemies to strike first. If war will break out in this region, Russian investments will go down the drain.

Need for Caution

While it Russia is forced to support and help North Korea there is a need to exercise caution. Russia need not look far it must simply try to remember its recent history to be reminded that it is not as strong as it used to. After the failed experiment with socialism, the Russian people realized that the creation of an egalitarian society can never be fulfilled under communist rule. In the latter part of the 1980s, Russia began to plot a new course and this time they are guided by principles of capitalism that can be found in countries that they once considered their enemies. As their leaders learned to swallow their pride and began to participate in free enterprise, Russia began to emerge from poverty and inefficient governance.

In short Russia continues to experience the euphoria of success brought about by the profitable sales of natural resources. Yet, Russia must resist the temptation to project itself as a new superpower. It is not yet in the same league as the United States and the United Kingdom. Russia must not forget where it came from and it must be regularly reminded that the end result of non-collaboration and isolation from other highly industrialized countries can be poverty. In the 21st century globalization is the name of the game and there is no nation in this planet that can survive in isolation. Russia must never forget that decades ago the country experienced economic problems that brought it to the brink of anarchy.23

Close proximity to Kim Jong Il can be misinterpreted by Western powers. It is not hard for American policy makers to suspect the Russians of aiding a rogue nation because the same behavior is also prevalent among Russian leaders. Russian leaders are prone to “adventurous behavior” and the best example is Putin’s threat to retarget Russian missiles at some of America’s allies in Europe.24 Such types of behavior will invite contempt and not open communication with the West.

If Russia is willing to help North Korea based on the factors that was outlined above then it must do so but with caution. Russia could not afford to make enemies with the United States and its allies. A decade or so ago, Russia experienced serious financial crisis. It is the type of problems that require the help of other nations.25 This is precisely the reason why Russia should tread softly when it attempts to be the mediator between North Korea and the West. It must not appear to be overly protective of Kim Jong Il and give the Americans the idea that Russia is doing something that is highly suspicious. The Russians must come out in the open and explain that their interest will be in peril if the allow the crisis to escalate.


After the failure of the Allied Forces to unite the Korean Peninsula during the Korean War, North Korea began to distance itself from the West and relied heavily on Russia and China for support. In the Cold War the relationships between communist States was strengthened because they faced a common enemy as well as object of their hatred – the United States of America. When the Cold War was over and communism was proven to be inadequate to solve the economic problems of Russia and other communist countries there was a shift from socialism to capitalism.

While Russia and China succeeded in the transition from a socialist state to a free market economy, North Korea remained stubborn in its resolve to maintain the status quo. Under the firm leadership of Kim Jong Il, North Koreans seems unable to see beyond the confines of their borders and just like their leaders reluctant to bridge the gap between nations and content to be isolated from the rest of the world. There is no need to elaborate on the negative consequences of isolationism coupled with the intense hatred of anything that is Western.

Recently the Kim Jong Il succeeded in missile testing and at the same time equally successful in developing nuclear reactors. Many believe that that North Korea is not simply building nuclear reactors for the sake of creating alternative sources of energy but in fact building this type of facility to pursue a nuclear armaments program. Despite the denials of Kim Jong Il it is hard to believe the contrary because after all this is a rogue nation that insisted on doing things on its own without considering the ramifications of such actions.

It is harder still to believe Kim and his political advisers when there is evidence to prove that they engaged in criminal activities just so they can tap additional sources of income. A government that is willing to stoop to that level just so they can ensure financial security can be counted upon to shore up its military defense to ensure its survival in the 21st century. This is precisely the reason why it is hard to erase the suspicion of North Korea’s plan to become a nuclear power in Asia.

Based on the preceding discussion Russia is perhaps the only nation that sees the problem from a different perspective. Russia is willing to believe that Kim needed nuclear capability not so that he can develop long-range intercontinental nuclear warheads but it is simply doing everything it can to improve the economic situation in the North. Kim Jong Il’s country has limited natural resources and for sure it is not floating under a sea of crude oil. Aside from that North Korea is situated in a region where there are more enemies than friends. It is therefore easy to understand why it is doing everything in its power to secure the future for the next generation of North Koreans.

Still, Russia must be very careful in dealing with the North Koreans. At the end of the day Russia must not be left holding an empty bag. There are numerous times when North Korea would seem cooperative only to turn its back at the last minute. Aside from appearing foolish in the eyes of the international community the Russians must not appear to be cuddling the megalomaniac from Pyongyang. They must make it clear that they are there to help everyone who is concern with the growing nuclear capability of North Korea.

Vorontsov was correct in pointing out that the best move for Russia is to indirectly stimulate economic growth in the North as well as to encourage Kim Jong Il to participate in bilateral talks. If Russia will succeed that it can be assured that its investments are safe. Aside from that it will earn the respect of the South Koreans and therefore increasing its stock in the region. The Americans will of course applaud them for doing something considered by many to be impossible to accomplish and if the U.S. and Russia are in friendly terms then the rest of the world will rest easy.

Works Cited

Brzezinski, Zbigniew. (2007). How to Avoid a New Cold War. Web.

Gumbel, Peter. (2009). Russia: The Trouble with Putinomics. Web.

Landes, D. The Unbound Prometheus: Technological Change and Industrial Development in Western Europe from 1750 to the Present. 2nd ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Malkasian, Carter. The Korean War. University Park, IL.: Osprey Publishing, 2001.

Matthews, M. Patterns of Deprivation in the Soviet Union Under Brezhnev and Gorbachev. CA: Hoover Press, 1989.

Mcgeary, Johanna et al. (1999). Russia’s Ruble Shakedown. Web.

Powell, Bill. The Tony Soprano of North Korea. Web.

Vorontsov, Alexander. (2007). Current Russia-North Korea Relations: Challenges and Achievements. MA: The Brookings Institution.

Washington, Elaine S. (2006). How to Curb North Korea. Web.

Wesson, Robert. Lenin’s Legacy: The Story of the CPSU. CA: Hoover Press, 1978.


  1. Landes, D. The Unbound Prometheus: Technological Change and Industrial Development in Western Europe from 1750 to the Present. 2nd ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 4.
  2. Landes, p. 4.
  3. Landes, p. 7.
  4. Robert Wesson. Lenin’s Legacy: The Story of the CPSU. (CA: Hoover Press, 1978), p. 11.
  5. Wesson, 12.
  6. Wesson, p.11.
  7. Carter Malkasian. The Korean War. (University Park, IL.: Osprey Publishing, 2001), p. 7.
  8. Alexander Vorontsov. Current Russia-North Korea Relations: Challenges and Achievements. (MA: The Brookings Institution, 2007), p. 3
  9. Ibid, p.4.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Elaine S. Washington. (2006). How to Curb North Korea. Web.
  15. Bill Powell. The Tony Soprano of North Korea. Web.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Elaine S. Washington. (2006). How to Curb North Korea. Web.
  20. Vorontsov, p. 3.
  21. Vorontsov, p. 3.
  22. Vorontsov, p. 16.
  23. Matthews, M. Patterns of Deprivation in the Soviet Union Under Brezhnev and Gorbachev. (CA: Hoover Press, 1989), p. 59.
  24. Brzezinski, Zbigniew. (2007). How to Avoid a New Cold War. Web.
  25. Mcgeary, Johanna et al. (1999). Russia’s Ruble Shakedown. Web.

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