This is why experts tend to stick to writing papers that are only read by other experts, and leave the actual politics to other people. It is also an excellent example of a logical fallacy that crops up surprisingly often when dealing with threats to Our Western Way of Life. Daniel Kahneman talks about availability cascades and narrative plausibility and such like biases, but in my mind it’s filed under the heading ‘Everything Funds Terrorism’.
Terrorism is illegal; drugs/piracy/tax evasion/etc. is illegal. Therefore terrorism is linked to drugs/piracy/tax evasion/etc.
North Korea is subject to Western sanctions; Russia is subject to Western sanctions. Therefore the Russia-DPRK relationship must be based on Western sanctions.
Attributing the Russia-DPRK rapprochement to a wish to evade sanctions is the equivalent of assuming that the corner boys handing out $20 wraps of crack down the road from your house have a direct hotline to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. They may do, but if so it has nothing to do with their respective business interests.
It is lazy and stupid for several reasons:
1. Russia is not particularly isolated, and North Korea is growing increasingly less so. From an Asian perspective, Western reporting of Russian sanctions has had an endearingly self-absorbed quality to it: a sort of modern take on the Times’ celebrated ‘Fog in the Channel: Continent Cut Off‘ headline. I’ve already covered the Rest Of The World’s entire indifference to anything that may be going on in Ukraine right now here, and the fact that the sanctions were probably never intended to have much of an effect anyway here. Moreover, North Korea – whose economy has improved rapidly in recent years – has been making gradual reforms to attract foreign investors, with many members of the Eurasian group showing an interest.
2. North Korea doesn’t really have a great deal that Russia may want, except for the port of Rajin, which it already has. I have no idea how the foreign policy experts think that North Korea is going to replace the EU as a trading partner, but then my friendly local crack dealer has direct ties to Al Qaeda, so clearly nothing is impossible.
So if it’s not about sanctions, what is it?
It seems to be a reputation-management move on Putin’s part. There is an increasing sense not just in Asia but throughout the developing/recently developed nations that the Beijing consensus (a willingness to trade coupled with total indifference to one’s partners’ political regimes) is the way to go, not merely as far as self-interest and economic advantage are concerned, but also in the sense that it is a better system for ensuring international stability than Western interventionism.
If Putin can been seen to be the one guiding North Korea’s integration into the international system by applying Beijing consensus principles – particularly in light of the long-term failure of sanctions and a refusal to engage to achieve the same end – this will be an enormous propaganda victory.