“Challenges for the Biden Administration: Hot Spots in the Indo-Pacific”
A Russian Perspective on the Tensions on the Korean Peninsula
An authoritative Russian book makes clear how Moscow views the situation on the Korean Peninsula and what it would like the new US administration to do. The starting point is sharp criticism that the West ignored equal dialogue, respect for Russia’s sovereignty, and consideration for its core interests. While the Korean Peninsula is not a core interest, it has become a testing ground for Russian interests in the Asia-Pacific and whether it is treated with respect. When Vladimir Putin began his third term as president in 2012 and, even more, after relations with the US deteriorated in 2014, the peninsula was seen in a different light. Conservative rule in Seoul continued, damaging understanding of Russia’s position on the peninsula, and a new leader in Pyongyang raised Russian hopes, although he was slow to open up to Russia. Having delegated UN sanctions to China, Russia was eager to try something new. Talks with North Koreans led to arguments that Russia should see them as engaged in the same battle for a new world order and that Russia’s lack of attention was hypocritical.
There is no mystery about how Russia thinks the Biden administration should proceed. It should go back to the Hanoi summit and offer North Korea what it wants. It should join with Moon Jae-in in supporting engagement over denuclearization. And it should support the establishment of a regional security framework at the expense of US alliances. This new book affirms these views.
Pyongyang calculated that it could demonstrate closeness to Russia to make China nervous in 2014 and to take advantage of the Russo-US clash. The focus over the year was on a visit by Kim Jong-un to Russia for the February Winter Olympics in Sochi or for the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII in May. As Kim’s first visit abroad, this showcased Russia’s role on the peninsula and stimulated talk of joining the Korean and Trans-Siberian railroads. Yet Russia was negative about military cooperation. Pyongyang’s main aim was to make Beijing envious to extract concessions. At the last minute, Kim chose not to visit, but Moscow kept showing its sympathy toward the North as in the August 2015 shooting at the DMZ. Only in 2016 were ties tarnished by Kim’s hydrogen bomb test and Moscow’s condemnation.
Trump’s 2017 overtures to Russia and China led to support for “maximum pressure,” although China succeeded in limiting the humanitarian damage and Russia won an exception for the Khasan-Rajin transit for coal trade and an air route. DPRK leaders were not sanctioned, and some oil and petroleum products could still be sent there. Russia unwillingly supported UN Resolution 2397, a reason why Pyongyang discarded the Russian card and decided that only direct dialogue with the US could resolve its problems. In July 2017, proposing the dual freeze with China, Russia sought to persuade North Korea of its support after working against its own interests. With the 2018 détente, Russia strove harder to boost relations and not to be marginalized. When Kim Jong-un met Putin in Vladivostok, the US was unhappy; it signaled opposition to the cruel US policies and showed that after the failure at Hanoi, Putin was an important card for Kim. It was said that Russia was also playing the “Koran card” in dialogue with Beijing, where Putin headed for a conference on the “New Silk Road,” where Putin needed to show his role on Korean affairs.1
Two years later, after the stalemate in US-North Korean relations and the diplomatic pause due to the pandemic, Russia is preparing to renew its support for North Korea in the face of three likely factors: 1) further deterioration in Russo-US relations; 2) anticipated deepening tensions between North Korea and the US; and 3) worsening Sino-US relations. The term used for the new environment is “confrontational stability.” Russian ideas center on keeping the situation from worsening over 10-15 years before a formula for the coexistence of the two Korean governments emerges.
In the interim, a confrontational balance of interests will ensue. There will be de facto recognition of the nuclear status of the DPRK, but not yet recognition of a “concert of powers” in East Asia since North Korea will insist on autonomy and the US, on its right to interfere on the peninsula. Russia will have to find a way to navigate through a “zone of turbulence.” Nuclear deterrence and the will of Russia and China are likely to prevent a big war, but there could be a growing threat of war and even unexpected clashes. US regime change dreams and South Korean dreams of unification under the South or North Korean ones are unrealizable. No power will achieve its goals, including China, which hopes for fundamental change in the DPRK’s political structure and due concern for China’s interest. Although Russia wants stability near its border, it can raise its involvement in security and find advantage in new economic cooperation, but it does not have the force or the means to renew the role of the USSR. Talks will resume in a situation of “neither peace, nor war.” All will find it convenient, readers are told, to maintain stability in conditions in which the DPRK stops building up its military.2
The Biden administration can expect little cooperation from Russia in pursuing “maximum pressure.” Five-party talks without North Korea are of no avail. Russia will coordinate with China to a degree, but a repeat of deferring to China to boost sanctions is excluded, even if China should decide to do so. Acceptance of North Korea as a de facto nuclear power is anticipated, if not already the policy. Seeing no option of improving Russo-US relations and treating South Korea as incapable of breaking with dependence on the US, Russia values its bilateral relationship with North Korea as the key to its great power standing in the Asia-Pacific region, including as signal to China that Russia is an independent force in regional geopolitics.
Russians blame South Korean conservatives for bad inter-Korean and Russo-South Korean relations. Lee Myung-bak, not Kim Jong-il, was the villain in 2008-10. He damaged ties with his response to Russia’s war with Georgia, his step back from three-way cooperation by putting denuclearization in the forefront, and his supposed role in raising tensions with sanctions on the North and rejection of further Six-Party Talks. Park Geun-hye did not fare much better in Russian assessments despite using the appealing term “Eurasia,” boosting ties with no-visa travel, and winning support for her Northeast Peace and Cooperation Initiative. She resisted Six-Party Talks without preconditions and backed away from three-way projects with the North. If it appeared that Seoul did not join Western sanctions against Russia in 2014 despite intense US pressure, it may have in less overt fashion as contradictions deepened. Seoul was blamed for reducing political ties. Park did not attend the Sochi Winter Olympics, despite the tradition of doing so by the head of the government tasked with subsequent games, nor the 70th anniversary of victory in WWII. Talk of supporting Khasan’s railroad ties to the peninsula proved almost empty.
Moon’s New Northern Policy is similarly vacuous despite his promises at the 2017 Eastern Economic Forum and his call for “nine bridges” in June 2018. Putin was supposed to visit Seoul in 2020 followed by Moon going to the EEF in an anniversary year. Moscow refused Seoul’s appeal in 2020 on North Korea, only calling for restraint from both sides. Although Moon’s position on North Korea is closer to Russia’s, political ties are limited by Seoul viewing Russia as “secondary,” a “regional” power, and a junior partner of China. Seoul only wants to use Moscow to influence Pyongyang. Yet Moscow enjoys more trust from Seoul as well as Pyongyang, enabling it to take the initiative on peninsular issues if Seoul would not just want it to stay passive. Seoul seeks to monopolize the right to deal with Pyongyang or, if that fails, to fully isolate the North. It does not respect Russia, conveying negative images, e.g. of crime. If there is no anti-Russian political force and no anti-Korean tendencies in Russia (the Korean Wave raises South Korea’s status), relations should be much better. The alliance with the US and presence of US troops are seen as what Putin calls a “deficit of sovereignty.” The American factor is the only source of discord. Moscow could help in case of deepening dependence on China or the US.3
The Biden factor
A review of the US position toward North Korea may already be under way. If no provocation alters the timeline, the process awaits confirmation of Biden’s nominees, coordination across agencies, and consultations with allies. Russians are not analyzing the pros and cons of various positions but confident that they already know both the only positive outcome and the only possible choice for an administration that has been prejudged in a negative manner.
Russians anticipate more US pressure on South Korea, worsening North Korean relations with both the US and South Korea, more Chinese support for North Korea, and their country leaning more to the North. Moon Jae-in is not regarded as a leader who, despite his inclinations, would resist the US sufficiently. As tensions mount, however, Moon would keep looking for support in their management. Sino-US tensions could give an opening in the new wave of diplomacy.
Russians breathed a sigh of relief when Moon’s overtures to Kim Jong-un coupled with Trump’s diplomacy failed. If denuclearization had proceeded with tensions lowered, Russia would see itself as marginalized without an economic vertical axis from its Far East or a multilateral plan for Northeast Asian security. While China may emerge as the biggest beneficiary of the impasse, Russia counts on North Korea’s wariness toward China and South Korea’s preference for some other country to keep the North from complete dependence on China. Biden’s moves may drive Kim Jong-un for a time toward more autarchy and also need for China, but Russia is thinking one step ahead. It is not pleased with South Korea’s policies and worries that a conservative in office from 2022 would do more damage, but it counts on Kim Jong-un to rescue its plans for three main outcomes: Russia having a major role in maneuvering over 1) the future of the whole peninsula; 2) a north-south economic axis to prevent Chinese domination; and 3) a multilateral security framework weakening the US alliance system and not leading to Sinocentrism. Authors do not mention the weaknesses in Russia’s position that make its aspirations a very long shot.