What Russia can do on North Korea

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What Russia can do on North Korea

Keen to boost its profile in East Asia, Russia is pressing to play a bigger role in tackling tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

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.

Indeed, the Russian Foreign Ministry summoned the South Korean and US ambassadors to express ‘extreme concern’ over the planned live-firing drill, with Deputy Foreign Minister Alexei Borodavkin, who met with the envoys, reportedly ‘insistently’ urging South Korea and the United States to refrain from conducting the planned firing. The Russian military, for its part, raised the alert status of its units near the Koreas. 

Failing to avert the drill, Russian diplomats called an emergency session of the UN Security Council to try to find a way to avoid a possible military exchange. Russia’s draft resolution wanted UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to send a special envoy to Seoul and Pyongyang to ‘consult on urgent measures to settle peacefully the current crisis situation in the Korean Peninsula.’ (Until then, the Council had been reluctant to involve Ban much in the crisis due to his previous position as South Korean foreign minister).

But the feared North Korean retaliation to the drills never took place. In fact, the North Korean government not only decided not to respond to the US-South Korean exercise, but even offered to allow IAEA inspectors to re-enter their country.

So, did the Russian pressure pay off? Actually, it was former US Ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson, acting as an unofficial envoy, who helped defuse the crisis by proposing that North and South Korean forces establish a military hotline to avert future incidents. He also proposed creating a joint military commission to monitor disputes in the Yellow Sea region. 

Yet although in this case it was Richardson’s diplomacy that seems to have been decisive, Moscow is still in some ways well-situated to serve as a key mediator in international efforts to resolve the ongoing disputes between North Korea and South Korea, Japan, and the United States.

Most obviously, Russia borders the Korean Peninsula, sharing a 17-kilometre common frontier along the Tumen-river with North Korea. This proximity guarantees substantial Russian official interest in developments in the Koreas as well as a desire to have influence in any international negotiations regarding the Peninsula. This closeness has also contributed to the development of substantial historical and ethnic ties between Russians and Koreans. Meanwhile, Russians have outgrown some of their previous unhelpful historical proclivities, such as viewing North Korea as a fellow communist ally under threat from the capitalist South Koreans and their American allies.

The fact is that the Russian Federation is now arguably one of the most disinterested potential mediators in the Koreas. Russian economic and security interests would be strongly served by an enduring period of peace and prosperity in the Koreas, while Moscow’s policy makers would likely resist only the extreme outcomes of regime change or reunification.

The recent moves come against the backdrop of a broader Russian desire to deepen integration with the prosperous East Asian region, something that would enhance the health of the Russian economy in general and the economic recovery of the Russian Far East (RFE) in particular. Russia’s trade with the major East Asian countries of China, Japan, and South Korea lags far behind these three states’ economic exchanges with one another. Similarly, the RFE lags western Russia and is becoming a security liability with its diminishing ethnic Russian population, which creates a troublesome demographic imbalance along the Russia-China border. Securing greater Chinese, Japanese, and South Korean trade and investment would therefore help stimulate growth and modernization for Russia, especially in the RFE.

In addition, while a commercial surge would help integrate Russia into lucrative East Asian economic processes generally, developing economic ties with South Korea specifically would help prevent Russia from becoming overly dependent on China for its energy exports and other commercial deals. Closer links with South Korea would also improve Russian leverage with Beijing as Chinese negotiators would likely worry that if they bargain too hard, then Russia will be in a position to seek better deals with South Korea and other Asian countries.

Russian Korea diplomacy is in part ultimately aimed at highlighting Moscow’s status as an important player in East Asia by emphasizing Russia’s ability to communicate with all parties thanks to good relations with every player. It’s a strategy Russia has already been pursuing in the Middle East, and is how it justifies ties with Iran, Hamas, and other controversial actors in the name of preserving communication lines for mediation. (This was almost certainly one motivation for convening the Valdai conference on the Middle East earlier this month, which was also covered by The Diplomat).

Unfortunately, Russia hasn’t enjoyed sufficient influence in either region to broker a settlement. After a decade of neglect during the 1990s under Yeltsin, Putin took it upon himself to significantly improve relations with North Korea, making a personal visit to Pyongyang in July 2000. But he suffered embarrassment just a few days later, when he announced at the G-8 summit that Kim Jong-il had told him that North Korea would abandon its ballistic missile programmes in return for international assistance in creating a civilian space programme, only for the North Koreans to dismiss Putin’s statement as a joke. 

More recently, Russia and China last year both sent high-level delegations to Pyongyang. But while North Korean leader Kim Jong-il chose to meet with both Premier Wen Jiabao and Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie, he didn’t bother to even greet Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov or the Chairman of the Upper Chamber of the Russian Parliament, Sergey Mironov.

The fact is that Moscow’s problem with the Korea situation is that its diplomatic and economic weight in the Asia-Pacific region is still too limited. This problem is compounded by the fact that Russia’s relations with Japan are strained over the South Kuriles, while China has much greater economic clout in both South and North Korea. So, while US diplomats seek to engage their Russian counterparts regarding Korean issues, their main interlocutors are still in Tokyo, Seoul, and Beijing.

If Russian officials want to enhance their influence in the region, they’ll need to become more generous towards Japan, and less focused on (and beholden to) China, whose diplomats and experts generally ignore Russia when it comes to the Koreas anyway.