Russia’s Gambit in the Korean Nuclear Crisis
Since the late 19th century Russia has been a major stakeholder in Korean affairs, at times capable of exercising critical influence on them. The current crisis over Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs may once again be raising Russia’s profile on the Korean Peninsula, ending a period when, only a few years ago, Moscow was labeled “the forgotten player.”1 Apart from its UN Security Council veto, why is Russia a consequential player in the ongoing North Korea drama?
For one, Moscow has long-standing political, humanitarian, and commercial links with its neighbor across the Tumangan/Tumen/Tumannaya River.2 While Russia’s economic leverage with the North is not as substantial as China’s, it is significant enough to make a difference, especially as the sanctions noose on the DPRK tightens. Among the major actors on the peninsula, Russia currently enjoys the best relations with the North, even as the DPRK’s ties with its only formal ally, China, have deteriorated in recent years. Moscow has emerged as Pyongyang’s most prominent advocate, of sorts. The Russian ambassador to the North recently remarked that Russia-DPRK relations are “very frank,” “friendly,” and possibly “even better than they used to be under the Soviet Union.”3 While officially denouncing the regime’s nuclear and missile endeavors, the Kremlin, including President Vladimir Putin himself, has repeatedly stated that North Korea’s motives to pursue atomic weapons are understandable, as they are driven by the natural instinct to guarantee security from external aggression that has become too possible under the unchecked US hegemony.4 At the UN Security Council, Russia has worked to soften the sanctions punishing Pyongyang for its nuclear and missile tests. Moscow clearly aims to win Pyongyang’s goodwill and trust in order to become a diplomatic broker on the peninsula.
Moscow’s interests on the peninsula are backed by its military assets. Russia is an armed force to be reckoned with in Northeast Asia. In case of a North Korea contingency, Moscow has the capacity to intervene militarily, aiding or derailing moves by other players.
Russian interests in the North Korea crisis
In the North Korea conundrum, Russia’s behavior is determined by a complex mix of motives and interests:
Denuclearization. Moscow is loath to accept a nuclear North Korea. It does not feel directly threatened by Kim’s nukes. However, the North’s continued nuclearization—and the chain reaction of horizontal proliferation this may trigger in Northeast Asia and beyond—would inevitably devalue Russia’s own nuclear arsenal, which the Russians see as an essential attribute of their nation’s great power status and the ultimate guarantee of national security. Incidentally, with the North’s imminent acquisition of ICBM capability, Russia (and China) will lose another strategic privilege—the exclusive ability to threaten the US mainland with a devastating nuclear strike. That said, Russia’s commitment to non-proliferation, while a major factor in its North Korea policy, is not the absolute imperative and needs to be balanced against Moscow’s other interests such as its reluctance to undermine the Pyongyang regime.
Averting war on the Korean Peninsula. Given Russia’s proximity to the peninsula, preventing a major armed conflict there is its obvious interest. There are relatively low risks that Russia will directly suffer from potential hostilities, such as being hit by a stray missile or contaminated by the nuclear fallout. Russia, unlike China, would hardly face a massive refugee exodus from the North, as the two countries are separated by a river, and the short border is well guarded. The most important risks for Russia may be economic. The Russian Far East’s economy is critically dependent on links with China, Japan, and South Korea and would sustain a heavy blow in case of a serious disruption of economic activities in Northeast Asia. Furthermore, Russia’s entire economy could suffer if Northeast Asia, one of the main engines of the world economy, is devastated by a major war that would possibly result in a global recession and crumbling commodity markets.
Exploiting the North Korea crisis as a bargaining chip vis-à-vis the US. If Moscow can insert itself as an important player on North Korea, it could use this as a bargaining chip in other areas. The Kremlin has never explicitly linked its potential assistance with North Korea to US concessions on issues important to Moscow, such as the settlement in eastern Ukraine or removal of anti-Russia sanctions. However, there is an understanding that Washington can hardly expect enthusiastic cooperation from Moscow in putting pressure on the North as long as US-Russia relations remain hostile, having fallen to their lowest point since the early 1980s.
The politics of the quasi-alliance with China. In pursuing its North Korea diplomacy, Russia has closely collaborated with China. Even though Russia’s interests regarding North Korea are not identical to China’s, there is enough overlap between them to establish effective cooperation. At the July 4, 2017 Putin-Xi summit, the two sides formulated a unified approach to the peninsula crisis. The Sino-Russian statement put forward a joint initiative, which combined the two previous Chinese proposals of the “double freeze” (the halt of nuclear and missile programs by the North in exchange for suspension of massive US-ROK military drills) and “parallel advancement” (simultaneous talks on denuclearization and the creation of a peace mechanism on the peninsula) with the Russian-proposed stage-by-stage Korean settlement plan (the “roadmap”).5
The Russia-China collaboration in Northeast Asia is just one element of their “comprehensive strategic partnership” which, under Trump, has only grown tighter. As Gilbert Rozman points out, North Korea has been the primary test of the US-China-Russia strategic triangle in Asia, and Russia has sided with China.6 Moscow is unlikely to do anything on the peninsula that would run against Beijing’s basic security interests. The Kremlin is well aware that Korea is vital for China’s security and recognizes that Beijing’s stakes in the Korean Peninsula are significantly higher than Moscow’s. What is expected in return is Beijing’s acknowledgement of Russia’s interests in the areas of paramount concern to Moscow such as Ukraine and the Middle East.
International prestige and great-power posturing. Russian behavior in the North Korea crisis is also animated by considerations of prestige and great power status. As Alexander Gabuev notes, “the search for international recognition and prestige has become a key driver of Russian foreign policy during Putin’s tenure. Any major international problem is seen by the Kremlin as an opportunity to sit at the table with other key players on the global stage, which shows Russia’s international status as one of the leaders of the international community.”7 Apart from great power pride, Russia earnestly wants to be seen by the international community as a constructive and responsible player whose involvement contributes to the resolution of one of the most dangerous international crises of the modern era.
Pursuit of economic benefits. As already mentioned, a war in Korea would deal a blow to Russia’s economy. Conversely, the settlement of the festering problem on the peninsula could potentially bring Russia sizable economic payoffs. For one, sanctions on North Korea would be removed, allowing Russia to conduct full-scale commerce with its neighbor. Even more importantly, the easing of tensions would make possible realization of the “trilateral” mega projects that Moscow has long promoted, above all the connection of the Trans-Korean railway with Russia’s Trans-Siberian rail and the construction of a Trans-Korean pipeline supplying Russian natural gas to the South and North.
Adherence to the principle of sovereignty and opposition to regime change. Russia’s aversion to any moves that might undermine the regime in Pyongyang is not only explained by the desire to keep North Korea as a counterbalance to US hegemony in Northeast Asia, but also stems from Moscow’s normative predispositions. Russia, like China, regards the sovereign state as the primary foundation of international order and, as a matter of principle, rejects interference in the internal affairs of states aimed at regime change. The Russians feel little sympathy for the totalitarianism and brutality of the Kim dynastic state, but the principle of sovereignty and external non-interference is all-important.
Promotion of a new regional order in Northeast Asia. Russia’s stance on North Korea and the future of the Northeast Asian geopolitical order may seem identical to China’s in that it does not accept continuation of US hegemony. However, there is one cardinal difference. China’s ultimate goal is to replace the US strategic dominance of East Asia with one of its own. For Russia, Beijing’s primacy in the region would be no more acceptable than Washington’s. What Moscow wants is a concert-like, multipolar balance-of-power system, with Russia as one of its key stakeholders. Russia continues to favor resumption of the Six-Party Talks, remaining perhaps their most ardent enthusiast and viewing them as the most relevant mechanism to achieve a comprehensive and lasting solution to the North Korea nuclear problem. Furthermore, Moscow sees the Six-Party Talks as a prelude to the establishment of a concert-of-powers type institution in charge of Northeast Asian security.
The future of Korea. Russia does not see a swift unification of Korea as desirable or even possible. Yet, in the long term, Russia would welcome the emergence of a united Korean state, provided the unified nation is fully independent and not subordinate to any of the great powers. In Moscow’s strategic thinking, a single and fully sovereign Korea would contribute to a multipolar balance of power in Northeast Asia. The preference for Korean unification, albeit as a long-term prospect, sets Russia apart from China and Japan, who have little interest in the emergence of a strong unified state on their borders. For Beijing, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to absorb a united Korea into its sphere of influence. For Tokyo, a single and powerful Korea could mean a new rivalry exacerbated by the negative historical memories. The United States would prefer a unified Korea that allied with Washington. However, in the long run, it is not inconceivable that it would value a non-aligned Korea, especially if America shifts to an offshore balancing grand strategy. This, incidentally, leads to potential convergence of Russian and US interests on the future of Korea.
It should be noted that, for Russia, the order of priority of the above interests is dynamic rather than constant. In particular, pre-2014, before the Ukraine crisis, using North Korea as a bargaining chip vis-à-vis the United States was hardly on the Kremlin’s agenda. Now, it may be a top motivation.
Moscow’s diplomatic offensive
Since around the spring of 2017, Russia has visibly stepped up its diplomatic involvement in the North Korean issue. Moscow promotes its “roadmap” proposal that calls for urgent de-escalation of military tensions on the peninsula to be followed by bilateral and multilateral talks. One indication of Moscow’s new-found diplomatic activism has been the increased tempo of publicly visible contacts with Pyongyang. In July 2017, the Foreign Ministry’s special envoy Oleg Burmistrov was dispatched to Pyongyang.8 Choe Son-hui, Director-General of the North American department of the DPRK’s Foreign Ministry and one of Pyongyang’s top negotiators, went to Moscow twice, in September and October 2017. In December 2017, Pyongyang was visited by a high-ranking military delegation led by the first deputy chief of the Russian General Staff. In early February 2018, two senior North Korean diplomats traveled to Moscow “for consultations.” Apart from official diplomatic exchanges, there has been a flurry of Russian quasi-official delegations to Pyongyang, consisting of Russian lawmakers, public figures, journalists, and even media celebrities.
Russia hopes to become an indispensible player by maintaining amity with Pyongyang, closely collaborating with Beijing, and playing diplomatic games with Washington, while also talking to Seoul and Tokyo. The Kremlin does not hide its desire to play a major role in the North Korea diplomacy. Vladimir Putin himself said as much when he stated that Russia “can act as an intermediary” in resolving the crisis on the Korean Peninsula.9
Among the sitting world leaders, Putin is probably the one who can legitimately claim to be the best expert on the Korean problem. He has been dealing with North Korea ever since he became Russian president in 2000. One of Putin’s first presidential foreign visits was to Pyongyang in July 2000. He met Kim Jong-il several times, even though he has yet to have a personal encounter with Kim Jong- un. And, of course, Putin has met with every South Korean president from Kim Dae-jung onward.
There are some indications that Putin might be positioning himself for the role of the key broker in the Korean nuclear crisis. This may explain his recent flattering remarks about Kim Jong-un, in which he called the North Korean supreme leader a “shrewd and mature politician.” According to Putin, Kim “has obviously won this round” and, by acquiring a “nuclear warhead” and a “global-range missile,” “has achieved his strategic goal.”10 Putin and his senior diplomats maintain that Pyongyang may be willing to negotiate, but the United States needs to de-escalate military pressure on the North. Moscow has expressed cautious optimism with regard to the Winter Olympics truce, pointing out that the lull on the peninsula de facto represents realization of the Sino-Russian “double freeze” proposal.11
What is the likelihood that, inspired by what many consider as its major diplomatic victory in Syria, Moscow might attempt to pull off the same trick on the peninsula? Putin cannot fail to see that the Korean and Middle Eastern crises are vastly different. In the Syrian case, the presence of multiple players and their partly overlapping interests created a flexible and dynamic situation amenable to diplomacy, while Russia was willing to take a military gamble to back up its diplomatic efforts. In Korea, the antagonism is much more entrenched, to the point of ossification, apparently leaving little space for adroit diplomacy. And, in contrast to the Middle East, where Russia felt free to take the lead, it has to pay deference to China’s interests on the peninsula and be careful not to do anything that might antagonize Beijing.
It remains to be seen whether the Russians, and Putin personally, will display the same level of commitment and boldness in the Korean crisis as they have been demonstrating in the Syrian mess. What is clear is that 2018 is shaping up to be the year in which the Korean nuclear crisis is likely to reach its culmination. Russia, one way or another, will make sure it is not forgotten in this dramatic act.
1. Victor Cha. The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future (New York: Harper Collins, 2012), p. 347.
2. For detailed analysis of Russia-DPRK ties, see Artyom Lukin, Georgy Toloraya, et al. “Nuclear Weapons and Russian-North Korean Relations,” Foreign Policy Research Institute, November 2017, https://www.fpri.org/article/2017/11/nuclear-weapons-russian-north-korean-relations/
5. “Joint statement by the Russian and Chinese foreign ministries on the Korean Peninsula’s problems. July 4, 2017,” http://www.mid.ru/en/web/guest/maps/kr/-/asset_publisher/PR7UbfssNImL/content/id/2807662
6. Gilbert Rozman. “Giving a New Jolt to Strategic Triangle Analysis.” The Asan Forum, August 30, 2017, https://asanforum.shoplic.site/giving-a-new-jolt-to-strategic-triangle-analysis/
7. Alexander Gabuev. “A Russian perspective on the impact of sanctions,” Korea Economic Institute of America, August 2017, http://www.keia.org/publication/russian-perspective-impact-sanctions.