For North Korea, the collapse of the Soviet Union—a major ideological, economic, and military patron—posed a clear threat to the regime. Pyongyang survived by lobbying China for additional aid, and by turning the screws even tighter on a ruthlessly repressed society at home. But a heightened sense of vulnerability created even more incentives to advance its efforts to acquire nuclear weapons, a challenge that may reach a new level of intensity in 2017.
Meanwhile, the persistent threat of an eccentric, brutal, and revanchist dictatorship less than 40 miles from Seoul made it very difficult for South Koreans to feel that the end Soviet Union had made them any safer. After all, they still had limited options to address the existential threat posed by North Korea's “Dear Leader” Kim Il-sung.
Russia's decision to improve relations with North Korea and its subsequent “Supreme Leader”, Kim Jong-il, in the mid-90s dashed any hopes in South Korea that the rebirth of Russia as a post-Soviet democracy would result in a fundamental and lasting disruption of ties between Moscow and Pyongyang that Seoul could exploit. The Soviet Union's dissolution ended the Cold War in many places throughout the world—but not quite on the Korean Peninsula.
Scott Seaman focuses on the economic and trade policies and foreign relations of Japan and South Korea. His sectoral expertise includes energy, insurance, and information technologies.