SEOUL/VLADIVOSTOK (Russia) • When North Korean leader Kim Jong Un sent Chinese New Year greetings this year, the first card went to Russian President Vladimir Putin, ahead of leaders from China and other allies of the isolated country, according to its official news agency.
Some academics who study North Korea argue Mr Kim could be looking to Russia to ease any pain if China, which accounts for about 90 per cent of North Korea's trade, steps up sanctions against the country as part of moves to deter its nuclear and missile programmes.
United States President Donald Trump lavished praise on Chinese President Xi Jinping last week for Beijing's assistance in trying to rein in Pyongyang. A day later, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson pressed the United Nations Security Council to impose more sanctions to further isolate Pyongyang.
There is no sign of any sustainable increase in trade between Russia and North Korea, but business and transport links between the two are getting busier.
A new ferry service starting in the middle of this month will move up to 200 passengers and 1,000 tonnes of cargo six times a month between North Korea and the Russian port of Vladivostok. The original launch was set for next Monday, but Nikkei Asian Review reported that it has since been pushed back.
Shipping data on Thomson Reuters Eikon shows there has been a recent steady flow of oil-tanker traffic from Vladivostok into North Korea's east-coast ports.
Last Thursday, five North Korean-flagged oil tankers had loaded up at Vladivostok-area ports and identified North Korean ports as their destination. It was not known what products they were carrying.
Earlier this year, Russian government officials had visited Pyongyang to discuss more cooperation in rail transport, according to media reports.
Russia, especially Vladivostok, is also home to one of the largest overseas communities of North Koreans in the world, and they send home tens of thousands of dollars in much-needed hard currency each month.
Russia has already taken over the supply of jet fuel to North Korea after China halted exports two years ago, according to industry sources in China.
"North Korea does not care about China's pressure or sanctions because there is Russia next door," said Dr Leonid Petrov, a North Korea expert at Australian National University. Pyongyang has been playing Beijing and Moscow off each other for half a century, he said, letting them compete for the right to aid and influence North Korea.