Citing the “dynamic development of the current situation” on the Korean Peninsula, the Russian foreign ministry took the opportunity to remind Washington of Moscow’s hopes for continued dialogue with the United States over the ongoing Korea crisis. No matter what the state of Russia-U.S. relations, the Kremlin appears to be insistent on continuous dialogue with the United States over Korea.
Tenacity has been Russia’s greatest asset in its Korea policy, particularly where it lacks in influence regarding inter-Korean affairs compared with China and the United States. Among the greatest successes in Moscow’s Korea policy is Russia’s ability to pursue, even throughout the tumultuous politics of Northeast Asia, relatively equal ties with Pyongyang and Seoul.
Before 1988, the then-Soviet Union’s Korea policy was lopsided in favor of the North, while Moscow and Seoul had no official relations. After 1988, however, the USSR and the Republic of Korea pursued a course of rapprochement, accelerated by the fall of the Soviet Union three years later. Currently Russia’s diplomacy toward the two Koreas is described as being based on a policy of “equidistance.”
The Kremlin’s striving for equitable relations with both the North Korean and South Korean governments contrasts with the Korea policies of Russia’s two great power peers, China and the United States. China continues to be an veritable patron of the North. Beijing-Seoul ties, though now on the up-and-up, suffered throughout 2017 over the United State’s deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea. Russia, which has vowed to cooperate with China over THAAD, did not let the installation of the U.S. missile defense system in South Korea derail ROK-Russia economic cooperation. The U.S., meanwhile, remains a committed ally of the South, with no real relations with Pyongyang to speak of.
Recent diplomatic meetings in Moscow underscore the vitality of Russia’s attempts at striking a balance in its relations with the Koreas. At the beginning of February, South Korea’s nuclear envoy Lee Do-hoon met with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov for talks. At around the same time, a senior figure of the North Korean foreign ministry’s European affairs department led a delegation to Moscow for discussions, which according to the embassy’s Facebook page would consider among other things plans to mark the celebration of 70 years of Moscow-Pyongyang diplomatic relations.
Underscoring the carefully-calibrated nature of Moscow’s policy of equidistance, the Russian ambassador to North Korea, Alexander Matsegora, downplayed the idea that Kim Jong-un may visit Russia to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Moscow-Pyongyang diplomatic ties. Mategora asserted that now was not the appropriate time to make such overtures to the North.
The Russian Federation has patiently pursued its interests and strived to carve out a place for itself at the discussion table over the North Korea crisis. Russia’s status as practically the only major player in Northeast Asia with consistently balanced relations between the DPRK and the ROK may prime Moscow to serve in a constructive role in the Korea crisis. Particularly over the past year, the Kremlin has iterated its willingness to serve as a venue for direct talks between North and South Korea.
To say with certainty that Russia could serve as an effective intermediary, however, would be premature, at best. As historic precedent demonstrates, Russia’s services as an intermediary in Northeast Asia are only as effective as other parties’ willingness to convene at the negotiating table in the first place.
On the eve of the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895), the Russian Empire offered to mediate between the Chinese and the Japanese Empires. Russia’ primary interest was in maintaining the status quo in Northeast Asia. At that time, Russian Czar Nicholas II had embarked on a program of economically developing the Russian Far East. Critical to the Russian Empire’s economic interests was the possession of a year-round warm water port, which Russia had been leasing from China at Port Arthur (present-day Lüshun). The threat of war between China and Japan, however, threatened to disrupt Russia’s economic interests. Neither party, however, took up St. Petersburg’s offer to host discussions.
Moscow’s relative success in maintaining a balance between the North and the South serves its own national Korea policy, which, in addition to the resolution of the Korea crisis, is particularly heavily oriented toward Russia’s economic interests. From a wider regional perspective, however, Russia’s potential to serve as an intermediary remains doubtful. This reality does not necessarily reflect poorly on Moscow’s policy of equidistance. Rather, no amount of Russian efforts aimed at fostering a mutually acceptable resolution to the perpetual standoff between the Koreas can work if Pyongyang and Seoul themselves cannot find the means to cooperate.
Anthony V. Rinna is a Senior Editor at Sino-NK, specializing in Russian foreign policy in East Asia. He currently resides in South Korea.