July 4 was a bad day for Washington’s North Korea policy and not just because of Pyongyang’s successful launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile. There was also a meeting that day in Moscow between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, at which they jointly declared their support for a deescalation of the Korean dispute that would couple a freeze on North Korean nuclear and missile development with a hold on large-scale U.S. and South Korean military exercises.
Washington continues to insist on a different approach. It has spent the past several months ratcheting up rhetorical pressure on Beijing to help defuse North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. Last week, after the Donald Trump administration began to conclude that China acting on its own couldn’t, or wouldn’t, resolve the nuclear standoff, Washington slapped sanctions on several Chinese individuals and firms alleged to be doing business with the North.
The Trump administration, however, has also made efforts to involve Russia in the search for a solution. After a North Korean missile landed off the coast of Russia’s Pacific port of Vladivostok in May, the administration released a statement declaring: “With the missile impacting so close to Russian soil — in fact, closer to Russia than to Japan — the President cannot imagine that Russia is pleased.”
In fact, Moscow is not very worried about North Korean missiles, though it would prefer to see a denuclearized Korean Peninsula. Russia believes the only solution to the Korean dispute is negotiations with Pyongyang that result in security guarantees for the Kim Jong Un regime. Moscow supports placing limitations on the North’s nuclear program but is wary of sanctions and resolutely opposed to regime change. That puts it at odds with the United States — and acts as a fundamental roadblock to international efforts.