Today’s reports of the death of Kim Jong-Il and the subsequent uncertainty are the latest in a chain of events that started with the Russo Japanese war of 1905. Given the the events in the lead up to 1905 one could make a plausible argument it started earlier, but 1905 will do
One of the key learnings of that war for Russia was just how fragile the Russian hold on Primorye and the strategic port of Vladivostok. If the war had gone on longer they could have concievably lost Vladivostok as well as losing warm water access at Dalian.
That learning was reinforced during the Russian civil war when the West, along with Japan, attempted to sustain a viable puppet government in Siberia, based first of all on the Menshevik SR rump government in Omsk, and later by engineering a coup by Admiral Kolchak against the Omsk government to ensure that there was no rapprochement with the Bolsheviks.
Japan, which had occupied Korea in 1910, devoted 70,000 soldiers in support of the west, and clearly hoped to play a significant role in any rump Siberian state.
Under pressure from the west, Japan withdrew in 1918, but events in Manchuria showed, Japan still retained ambitions to expand beyond Korea.
The Russians also realised this, retaining control of the rail line to Vladivostok via - Harbin as long as possible, and indeed by not risking a war with Japan until 1945 after victory with Germany was secure.
It was into this context that Kim Jong-il was born, most probably at a Soviet army camp in Eastern Siberia, in 1941,where his father, Kim il Sung was being groomed to lead a Soviet puppet state in Korea. The date is significant – already by 1941 the USSR was planning for a war in Manchuria and Korea, and before Pearl Harbor and the bombing of Darwin.
While the Japanese Communist party was a significant force in post war Japan, and Stalin may have entertained hopes of proSoviet government in Japan, Kim il Sung and the DPRK was a backup plan to ensure the security of Primorye, Vladivostok and access to the mineral resources of Eastern Siberia. The last thing Russia wanted a pro US state in Korea.
By 1949 it was clear that there would be no socialist revolution in Japan, and that the DPRK route was going to be the only way of establishing a friendly buffer state on the Korean peninsula.
Later, after the Sino Soviet split the DPRK had an even greater value to the USSR as a means of protecting Primorye from the Maoists, especially after the government of China began to claim that Primorye had been unequally and unfairly annexed by the Russian empire from the Qing state.
What the Buryat or the Evenk or other tribal peoples inhabiting the area thought was of course ignored, as were the wishes of the vast majority of Koreans.
However such was the strategic value to the USSR of the DPRK that it even managed to acheive a degree of East German style prosperity, and was possibly even a little richer than South Korea during the seventies.
Of course, when the Soviet Union came apart the DPRK lost its major backer, but it struggled on, perhaps on the odd crumb of aid from Russia as the strategic imperatives remained the same, even if the flags and slogans remained the same.
It’s no surprise that Kim’s last foreign foray was to meet Dmitry Medvedev in Ulan Ude.
Korea is a hostage of geography and its recent political history a result of this hostage-dom. With Kim’s demise there is the possibilty of change, but to a large extent it will depend on the ability of the army to manage change and for Russia to resist the urge to meddle and pursue its own strategic objectives ….