Russia throws N Korea a new lifeline

Andrew Osborn –
Russia is quietly boosting economic support for North Korea to try to stymie any US-led push to oust Kim Jong Un as Moscow fears his fall would sap its regional clout and allow US troops to deploy on Russia’s eastern border.
Though Moscow wants to try to improve battered US-Russia relations in the increasingly slim hope of relief from Western sanctions over Ukraine, it remains strongly opposed to what it sees as Washington’s meddling in other countries’ affairs, according to Russian diplomats and analysts familiar with the Kremlin’s thinking.
Russia is already angry about a build-up of US-led Nato forces on its western borders in Europe and does not want any replication on its Asian flank, the sources added.
Yet while Russia has an interest in protecting North Korea, which started life as a Soviet satellite state, it is not giving Pyongyang a free pass: It backed tougher United Nations sanctions against North Korea over its nuclear tests last month.
At the same time Moscow is playing a fraught double game, by quietly offering North Korea a slender lifeline to help insulate it from US-led efforts to isolate it economically.
A Russian company began routing North Korean Internet traffic this month, giving Pyongyang a second connection with the outside world besides
China.
Bilateral trade more than doubled to $31.4 million in the first quarter of 2017, due mainly to what Moscow said was higher oil product exports, according to Russia’s ministry for the development of the Far East.
At least eight North Korean ships that left Russia with fuel cargoes this year have returned home despite officially declaring other destinations, a ploy US officials say is often used to undermine sanctions against Pyongyang.
And Russia, which shares a short land border with North Korea, has also resisted US-led efforts to repatriate tens of thousands of North Korean workers whose remittances help keep the country’s hard line leadership afloat.
“The Kremlin really believes the North Korean leadership should get additional assurances and confidence that the United States is not in the regime change business,” Andrey Kortunov, head of the Russian International Affairs Council, a think-tank close to the Russian Foreign
Ministry, said.
“The prospect of regime change is a serious concern. The Kremlin understands that (US President Donald) Trump is unpredictable. They felt more secure with Barack Obama that he would not take any action that would explode the situation, but with Trump they don’t know.”
Trump, who mocks North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as a “rocket man” on a suicide mission, told the United Nations General Assembly last month he would “totally destroy” the country if necessary.
He has also said Kim Jong Un and his foreign minister “won’t be around much longer” if they made good on a threat to develop a nuclear-tipped missile capable of reaching the United States.
To be sure, Beijing’s economic ties to Pyongyang still dwarf Moscow’s and China remains a more powerful player in the unfolding nuclear crisis.
But while Beijing is cutting back trade as it toughens its line on its neighbour’s ballistic missile and nuclear programme, Russia is increasing its support.
People familiar with elements of Kremlin thinking say that is because Russia flatly opposes regime change in North Korea.
Russian politicians have repeatedly accused the United States of plotting so-called colour revolutions across the former Soviet Union and any US talk of unseating any leader for whatever reason is politically toxic in Moscow.
Russia’s joint military exercises with neighbouring Belarus last month gamed a scenario where Russian forces put down a Western-backed attempt for part of Belarus to break away.
With Russia due to hold a presidential election in March, politicians are again starting to fret about Western meddling.
 — Reuters