Events over the past few weeks have underscored Moscow’s desire to play a major role in resolving the disputes between North Korea and its neighbours. But they’ve also highlighted the limits of Moscow’s influence.
Unlike Russia’s refusal to concur with most international experts that North Korea torpedoed South Korean corvette the Cheonan in March, Russian diplomats explicitly condemned Pyongyang for its November 23 artillery attack on Yeonpyeong Island. Immediately following the artillery barrage, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov censured Pyongyang in a press conference, later explaining that the US-South Korean ‘firing drill is one thing, and shelling a residential area is quite another. People died and that is most important.’
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, called on North Korea to ‘unconditionally abide by’ its denuclearization commitments. He stressed, however, the importance of resuming talks among the parties. Putin said during an interview with US talk show host Larry King that ‘It’s impossible to come to an agreement without dialogue.’
This generally tougher line was in stark contrast with the one adopted by Beijing, which refused to blame North Korea for either incident, and moved Russia closer to the views of South Korea and its allies. Indeed, Lavrov also expressed ‘deep concern’ over North Korea's newly revealed uranium enrichment capabilities, which, like North Korea’s plutonium programme, could also be used to build nuclear weapons.
That said, despite diverging from Beijing in publicly casting blame, the Russian government’s initial response was still to support China’s November 28 call to hold emergency six-party talks on the crisis. Lavrov said his government considered it essential to relaunch the process of six-party talks on the North Korea issue. But perhaps not surprisingly, Japan, South Korea, and the United States objected to a move that they feared would effectively reward North Korea for its bad behavior, as well as divert attention from its need to fulfill its commitment to dismantle its nuclear weapons infrastructure.
Moscow’s next move was to engage in some high-profile shuttle diplomacy, inviting North Korean Foreign Minister Pak Ui Chun and Wi Sung-lac, South Korea’s lead nuclear envoy, to Moscow for separate meetings in the middle of this month to discuss the subject. Russian diplomats also held emergency consultations with Japanese and US diplomats on the crisis.
It wasn’t all about criticizing the North Koreans. Lavrov suggested that the US-South Korean military exercise that occurred before the shelling had also increased regional tensions, a theme that became more prominent after Seoul and Washington announced their intention to hold another joint exercise, again with live artillery firing, from December 18 to 21 in the Yellow Sea near Yeonpyeong Island. North Korea threatened to retaliate vigorously.