North Korea's relations with Russia getting closer

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korea's economic cooperation and personnel exchanges with Russia have conspicuously grown these days while its intimate relations with its closest ally, China, remained sluggish.

A ceremony symbolizing the cooperative Pyongyang-Moscow ties was held in Pyongyang on April 28 to mark Russia's donation of tens of fire engines to North Korea, with senior North Korean and Russian officials in attendance.

The North Korean attendees included Ro Tu-chol, vice premier of the DPRK Cabinet, Kung Sok-ung, vice minister of Foreign Affairs, Kim Sung-bom, vice minister of the People's Security, and its officials. DPRK is North Korea's official name.

From the Russian side were Yuri Trutnev, deputy prime minister and presidential envoy to the Far East Federal District of the Russian Federation, and his party on a visit to the North, Russian Ambassador to Pyongyang Alexandr Timonin and his embassy officials.

The North's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said the speakers at the ceremony expressed belief that the fire engines "associated with warm sincerity and friendship of the Russian people" would play a big role in ensuring the security of the (North) Korean people.

Besides the donation, there were a variety of economic cooperation events. On the same day North Korea and Russia signed an economic cooperation agreement as part of the two countries' recent moves to strengthen bilateral relations.

"An agreement on trade and economic cooperation was signed between the DPRK ministry of Foreign Trade and the Amur Regional Government of the Russian Federation," said the KCNA without giving any further details on the pact.

Trutnev met with Vice Premier Ro earlier in the day.

"At the talks both sides exchanged views on the issue of boosting the economic and cooperative relations between the two countries and other issues of mutual concern," said the KCNA. The talks were also attended by North Korea's Minister of Foreign Trade Ri Ryong-nam, Vice Minister Kung, Im Chon-il, consul general of the North in Nakhodka of the Russian Federation, and the Russian Ambassador.

Trutnev's Pyongyang visit followed a series of exchange visits of high-level officials between the two countries.

A delegation of the Center for Energy and Security Studies of Russia headed by Director Anton Khlopkov visited Pyongyang from April 22-28 while the delegation of the Sakhalin Regional Government of Russia led by Gakh Elena Nikolayevna, deputy minister of Economic Development, and the Committee for the Promotion of International Trade of the DPRK signed a protocol on bilateral trade and economic cooperation in Pyongyang on April 24.

Alexandr Galushka, Russia's minister of the Development of Far East, visited Pyongyang from March 24-28. He is concurrently chairman of the Russian side to the Inter-governmental Committee for Cooperation in Trade, Economy, Science and Technology between the DPRK and Russia.

Rustam Minnikhanov, president of the Republic of Tatarstan, also visited North Korea earlier in the month.

In September 2013, a 54-kilometer, double-track rail link reopened between Rason, in North Korea's northern tip, and the nearby Russian town of Khasan after several years of renovation.

In February, North Korea's octogenarian ceremonial head of state, Kim Yong-nam, attended the opening ceremony of the Sochi Winter Olympics.

The closer Pyongyang-Moscow ties can be gleaned from the frequency of reports about Russia by the North's state media. The number of articles that included the word "Russia" carried between April 1 and April 29 by the KCNA totaled about 200, far surpassing the number of articles about China numbered at about 120.

The increased cooperation and exchanges between North Korea and Russia can be attributed to the North's effort to reduce its dependency on China. The North Korean regime led by Kim Jong-un has stressed the need to diversify its foreign trade partners as part of its efforts to promote economic development, North Korea watchers here said.

Russia is also has a necessity to expand cooperative ties with North Korea in order to secure nonfreezing ports and increase its political and economic influence on the Korean Peninsula.

"North Korea's move to strengthen cooperative ties with Russia is intended to reduce its dependency on China and diversity trade partners," Cho Bong-hyun, an analyst at the IBK Economic Research Institute, said. "Russia also requires cooperation with North Korea in order to check China and develop its Far East region," he added.

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