The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has long ties to the former Soviet Union. Russia and North Korea share a short border but have had deep ties in the past. The following timeline highlights the milestones in their relationship.
1689: Treaty of Nerchinsk
The treaty defined the Russia – China border at the Stanavoy Mountains and the Argun river. The treaty confirmed Outer Manchuria to the Qing dynasty.
1858: Treaty of Aigun; 1860: Treaty of Peking
Having lost the Second Opium War (1856-1860) to the British and French, Prince Gong of the Qing dynasty was forced to sign treaties with both countries. The Convention of Peking resulted in the Qing dynasty ceding not just territories of the Kowloon Peninsula and Stonecutters Island as part of Hong Kong to the British but parts of Outer Manchuria to Russia, which was not directly part of the Opium Wars.
Under the Treaty, the China-Russia border was redefined in favor of Russia. The latter got access to the territories along the Ussuri and Amur rivers giving Russia access to Noktundo (earlier an island but now part of the Tumen River peninsula).
The Tumen River originates in the upper reaches of the Paektu Mountains is 324 miles long (521 km), and represents the boundary between North Korea, China, and Russia.
The treaty enabled Russia to get access to the land along the critical lower part of the Tumen River, extending 11 miles (17 km). This segment flows through the Primorsky Krai region in Khansansky district in Russia, marking the border with North Korea, before draining into the Sea of Japan.
Handing over this segment of the territory to Russia denied China direct access to the Sea of Japan. China has always called the two treaties the treaty of ‘unequal.’
1945: The Korean Peninsula divided
The Second World War came to an end with the Japanese surrender. Japan withdrew from the Korean peninsula that it had occupied since 1910. The Korean Peninsula was then divided into north and south zones along the 38th parallel. The north was influenced and supported by the communist Soviet Union, the south was supported by the United States.
1948: Formation of two countries
On August 15, 1945, the Republic of Korea was established (South Korea) with Syngman Rhee as its head. On September 9, of the same year, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) formed with Soviet trained Kim Il-sung as its premier.
1950-1953: The Korean War
On June 25, 1950, the communist army of North Korea invaded the South and overran most of the territory. The United Nations responded by sending in forces led by the United States to defend South Korea. The US-backed forces managed to push the North Korean army back across the 38th parallel and continued to push onwards till they almost reached the border with China at the Yalu River.
The move forced China to enter the war. The Chinese forces, supported by the North Korean forces, managed to push the UN-backed forces across the 38th parallel. The 1953 armistice resulted in a stalemate with both sides digging in along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), close to the 38th parallel, marking the border between the two Koreas.
1952: First train from Russia crosses into North Korea
Russia constructed a railway bridge across the Tumen River, becoming the only land access between the two countries.
1956-1966: Rise of Chinese influence in North Korea
This period witnessed a political fall-out between the Soviet Union and China. It resulted in the rise of Chinese influence and involvement in North Korea at the cost of the Soviet Union.
North Korea kept open its relations with both countries.
Despite its influence waning in North Korea, the Soviet Union continued to supply heavily subsidized arms, oil and other essentials to North Korea.
1985: Gorbachev calls for a reduction in North Korean subsidies
By 1985, USSR was under severe economic stress and political discontent. President Gorbachev called for a reduction in financial aid, subsidized arms, and other supplies to North Korea. The policy was carried forward by Boris Yeltsin, his successor. It impacted the already precarious economic situation prevailing in North Korea and contributed to the famine in the 90s.
1994-1998: North Korean Famine
The reduction in Russian support and mismanagement by the North Korean regime caused the devastating famine. The North Korean government refused to officially recognize the extended famine, instead calling it the ‘Arduous March,’ referring to the time when the founder Kim II-sung famously fought against the mighty Japanese with his small band of men and meagre resources. It is estimated the famine resulted in 500,000 and 600,000 deaths by starvation between 1993 and 2000.
2000: Treaty on Friendship, Good-Neighborly Relations and Cooperation with Russia
The treaty signed in February 2000 laid the foundation for the first summit held in July between President Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-il, the North Korean leader. Both sides agreed to build cooperation between the two countries.
2002: North Korean Department of Atomic Energy officials visit Russia
A delegation from North Korea opened the way for Russian support for nuclear research in North Korea.
In response to being included in the ‘Axis of Evil’ label by President Georg W. Bush, North Korea announced in December its plans for restarting the Yongbyon nuclear reactor and followed it up by removing monitoring devices of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
2011: Kim Jong-un takes over
After the death of his father, Kim Jong-un took over reins of North Korea. Relations with Russia have improved after Kim Jong-un’s take over, but his subsequent actions regarding missile and nuclear testing have put Russia in a difficult situation.
Under President Putin, Russia has made large investments in North Korea, but sanctions imposed by the United Nations has been hurting Russia. President Putin had hoped for increasing Russian influence in North Korea and had been trying to shield North Korea from further isolation but finds itself losing out on both investment and diplomatic clout.
2018: Russia waits for the outcome of the US-North Korean summit
The surprise meeting at the DMZ between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and his South Korean counterpart, President Moon Jae-in, has raised hopes for a proposed meeting in Singapore between President Trump and the North Korean leader. If the summit takes place, there is a chance the North Korean leader will join the talks.
Both Russia and China find themselves sidelined, although the latter continues to wield influence over North Korea. Russia is likely to be the biggest loser in case of a positive outcome from the proposed summit. How it plays out going forward, remains to be seen.
Here is more information regarding North Korea and Russia: