On July 7, 2017, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced that Washington would increase diplomatic pressure on Russia, to ensure that Moscow helps the United States contain North Korea’s belligerence toward Japan and South Korea. Ahead of the much-anticipated G20 summit meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, Tillerson argued that diplomatic dialogue could help ease the growing chasm between Washington and Moscow on North Korea.
Despite this optimistic rhetoric from Tillerson, Russia’s refutation of U.S. claims that North Korea launched an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on July 4 and opposition to expanded international sanctions against North Korea suggests that diplomacy has done little to assuage Washington-Moscow tensions over North Korea.
The recent intensification of tensions between Russia and the United States over North Korea can be explained by two factors. First, Russia’s preferred strategy to combat the North Korean threat contrasts markedly with Washington’s use of coercive diplomacy. Moscow has emphasized the importance of promoting inter-Korean diplomacy and has urged South Korea to desist from participation in U.S.-led security measures on the Korean peninsula, which antagonize North Korea. Second, Russia is expanding its stake in the North Korean crisis to strengthen its increasingly important strategic partnership with China.
Russia’s Strategy to Resolve the North Korean Crisis
Since North Korea accelerated the pace of its nuclear and ballistic missile tests in early 2016, Russia has emerged as the leading international advocate of a political solution to the Korean Peninsula crisis. In contrast to Washington’s focus on denuclearizing North Korea by any means necessary, Russia’s strategy has focused on containing North Korean aggression through targeted diplomacy.
The first prong of Moscow’s containment strategy is the promotion of direct diplomacy between Pyongyang and Seoul. To achieve this end, Putin has worked concertedly to strengthen Moscow’s relationship with South Korea. On May 29, new South Korean President Moon Jae-in emphasized the importance of cooperation with Russia and expressed optimism that Moscow could facilitate an improvement in Seoul-Pyongyang relations.
The Kremlin has responded to Moon’s statement and expressed willingness to diplomatically engage with North Korea by laying out a blueprint for revived inter-Korean diplomacy. On May 25, Putin offered to send an emissary to Pyongyang to ascertain North Korea’s intentions, and relay North Korea’s conditions for diplomacy back to Seoul.
In addition to deepening its engagement with Seoul, Russia has used diplomacy to press North Korea to desist from further aggression towards Japan and South Korea. During his April 30 meeting with North Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Han Song Ryol, Russian Ambassador to North Korea Alexander Matsegora called on Pyongyang to show restraint and to avoid provocative actions that increase tensions on the Korean peninsula.
While Moscow’s leverage over North Korea remains limited, Russia’s attempts to extract compromises from both Pyongyang and Seoul underscore the strength of the Kremlin’s commitment to inter-Korean diplomacy. As Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has called for the revival of Six Party Talks on the North Korean crisis since April 2016, tangible progress towards inter-Korean diplomatic dialogue will represent the fulfillment of a long-standing Russian goal.
The second prong of Russia’s containment strategy has focused on convincing South Korea to withdraw from U.S.-led security measures that provoke Pyongyang. In a recent joint statement with its Chinese counterparts, the Russian Foreign Ministry announced its opposition to large-scale military exercises conducted by the United States and South Korea on the Korean peninsula.
Even though South Korea has continued to participate in U.S.-led military drills, a recent statement from Moon Chung-in, a major adviser to the South Korean presidential administration, calling for downsized military exercises has captured the attention of Russian policymakers. Putin has also taken advantage of frictions between South Korea and the Trump administration over payments for the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system to reiterate his opposition to the missile defense system.
On June 1, Putin argued that THAAD threatens Russia’s security. Russia has tried to convey its anti-THAAD opinions to South Korea by highlighting its limited defensive capacity against North Korean artillery. While South Korea is unlikely to turn its back on THAAD, Russia believes it can exploit periodic frictions between Seoul and Washington, and eventually help convince South Korea to embrace a more dovish foreign policy towards its increasingly belligerent northern neighbor.
Russia’s North Korea Strategy and the Moscow-Beijing Relationship
In addition to demonstrating that Moscow can advance constructive solutions to international crises, Russia has expressed strident opposition to Washington’s North Korea strategy to strengthen its relationship with China. Cooperation between Russia and China on the North Korean crisis has strengthened, as both countries strongly oppose a preemptive U.S. military strike against Pyongyang.
While China remains the leading international supporter of the North Korean regime, Russia has deepened its relationship with Pyongyang, hoping to be perceived as an equal arbitration partner alongside China, rather than a junior partner following the Chinese official line. Chinese and Russian displays of solidarity, which have taken the form of synchronized condemnations of U.S. and consultation meetings, reinforce the message that China and Russia form a united front on the Korean Peninsula issue.
Gaining China’s respect as an equal arbitration partner could have far-reaching positive implications for Russia’s Asia-Pacific strategy. By demonstrating that it can project diplomatic influence in the Asia-Pacific region and act independently from China, Russia increases its credibility as a strategic partner for Southeast Asia countries seeking to hedge their alignments with Washington, like Vietnam, the Philippines, and Thailand.
If Russia asserts its great power status in the Asia-Pacific through involvement in inter-Korean diplomacy, Kremlin policymakers believe that China is likely to approve. China has strongly supported Russia’s expanded involvement in the Korean peninsula, as many Chinese policymakers are increasingly frustrated with the burdens of supporting a North Korean regime that has publicly criticized Beijing’s intentions.
China’s positive view of Russia’s North Korea strategy could remain unchanged even if Moscow flexes its military muscles on the Korean peninsula’s borders. As U.S. Naval War College expert Lyle Goldstein recently noted, Chinese policymakers believe that a Russian Pacific fleet deployment in the Sea of Japan will counter American and Japanese military maneuvers, benefiting China’s regional military strategy. These positive assessments of Russian involvement by Chinese officials suggest that Russia’s expanded involvement in the Korean Peninsula could help transform its partnership with Beijing from an axis of convenience into a genuine alliance.
While the scale of Russia’s commitment to countering Washington’s use of coercive diplomacy against North Korea remains unclear, official rhetoric from the Kremlin suggests that Russia’s strategy toward North Korea has become increasingly coherent. Russia’s expanded involvement in the Korean Peninsula means that Moscow’s clash with Washington over North Korea is unlikely to abate in the near future.
Samuel Ramani is a DPhil candidate in International Relations at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford. He is also a journalist who contributes regularly to the Washington Post and Huffington Post. He can be followed on Twitter at samramani2 and on Facebook at Samuel Ramani.