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A nation must think before it acts.
Ilya Dyachkov, Andrey Gubin, Leonid Kozlov, Andrei Lankov, Georgy Toloraya, Tamara Troyakova, Igor Tolstokulakov, and Liudmila Zakharova also contributed to the report, with a Foreword by Paul Bracken.
Since the late 19th century Russia has been a major stakeholder in Korean affairs, at times exercising critical influence on the peninsula. The unfolding crisis over Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs may significantly raise Russia’s profile on the peninsula.
Apart from its UN Security Council veto, what makes Russia a consequential player in the North Korea drama? The Soviet Union helped create the DPRK. Common genesis and long-standing political ties explain some of the affinity that still exists between the two countries. While Russia’s economic leverage with the North is not as substantial as China’s, it still can make a difference, especially as the sanctions noose on the DPRK tightens. Of special note are Russian energy exports to the North, Russia’s importation of North Korean labor, and Russia’s use of the North Korean port of Rajin. Russia remains the only country besides China that provides the DPRK with permanent transport and telecommunications links—via rail, air, sea, and the internet—connecting the isolated nation to the outside world. Taken together, such commercial exchanges and infrastructure links constitute significant leverage that Moscow could exercise over North Korea. Among the major players on the peninsula, Russia currently enjoys the best relations with the North, even as the DPRK’s ties with its only formal ally, China, have deteriorated in recent years. Finally, Russia is a military force in Northeast Asia, which means that, in case of a North Korea contingency, Moscow has the capacity to intervene militarily, aiding or derailing moves by other players.
Russia’s behavior toward North Korea is defined by a complex mix of motives and interests. Moscow sees Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs as a serious—and growing—menace to regional and global security. Moscow does not feel directly threatened by Kim’s nukes, yet the North’s continued nuclear development—and the chain reaction of proliferation this may trigger in Northeast Asia and beyond—will devalue Russia’s own nuclear arsenal which Moscow sees as an essential attribute of its great power status and the ultimate guarantee of national security. That said, the desire to denuclearize North Korea should be put in the context of Moscow’s other strategic objectives and interests.
On North Korea, Russia has closely collaborated with China. Even though Russia’s interests regarding the DPRK are not identical to China’s, there is significant overlap between them. Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping feel little sympathy for Kim Jong-un who openly defies not only Washington, but also Beijing and Moscow. However, Russian and Chinese aversion to Kim Jong-un and his nukes is eclipsed by their shared animosity to what they perceive as the U.S. pretensions to hegemony. The Russia-China collaboration in Northeast Asia is just one element of their “comprehensive strategic partnership” which, under Trump, has only grown tighter. Moscow is unlikely to do anything on the peninsula that would run against Beijing’s basic security interests. The Kremlin is well aware that Korea is vital for China’s security and recognizes that Beijing’s stakes in the Korean peninsula are significantly higher than Moscow’s. What is expected in return is Beijing’s acknowledgement of Russia’s interests in the areas of paramount concern to Moscow, such as the Middle East.
Moscow could be tempted to use its leverage in the North Korea crisis as a bargaining chip vis-à-vis Washington. The Kremlin has never explicitly linked its potential assistance with North Korea to U.S. concessions on issues important to Moscow, such as Ukraine or anti-Russia sanctions. Yet, Washington can hardly expect Moscow’s enthusiastic cooperation on North Korea as long as U.S.-Russia relations remain hostile, having fallen to their lowest point since the early 1980s.
Russian behavior in the North Korea crisis is also driven by the considerations of prestige and great power status. Apart from great power pride, Russia earnestly wants to be seen by the international community as a constructive and responsible player whose involvement contributes to the resolution of one of the most dangerous international crises of the modern era.
Economically, the settlement of the festering peninsula problem can potentially bring Russia sizable payoffs. If sanctions on North Korea are removed, Russia will be able to conduct full-scale commerce with its neighbor. The easing of tensions on the peninsula will also make possible the realization of the trilateral (Russia-North-South) projects that Moscow has long promoted, above all the connection of the Trans-Korean railway with Russia’s Trans-Siberian rail and the construction of a Trans-Korean pipeline supplying Russian natural gas to the peninsula.
Russia’s aversion to any moves that might undermine the regime in Pyongyang is explained not only by the desire to keep North Korea as a counterbalance to U.S. hegemony in Northeast Asia, but also by Moscow’s normative predispositions. Russia regards the sovereign state as the primary foundation of international order and, as a matter of principle, rejects interference into internal affairs of states aimed at regime change.
Moscow seeks a multipolar balance-of-power system in Northeast Asia, with Russia as one of its key stakeholders. Russia continues to favor resumption of the Six-Party Talks, seeing them as a prelude to the establishment of a concert-of-powers type institution in charge of Northeast Asian security.
Russia does not see a swift unification of Korea as desirable or possible. Yet, in the long term, Russia would welcome the emergence of a united Korean state, provided the unified nation is not subordinate to the United States or China. In Moscow’s strategic thinking, a single and fully sovereign Korea would contribute to a multi-polar balance of power in Northeast Asia.
The relatively small role that Russia plays on the peninsula—particularly when compared to China and the U.S.—has advantages for dealing with the North. The lack of preponderant influence is a major reason why Russia can be seen as a potential “honest broker” by North Korean leaders who are suspicious of any foreign country that has pronounced interests on the peninsula. Russia is powerful enough to be taken seriously, but it doesn’t have massive vested interests there. Given the gravity of the current situation on the peninsula, the moment for Russia’s involvement as an honest broker may have arrived. The potency of Russian diplomacy on North Korea will, to a large extent, hinge upon the level of personal commitment from Putin. Would he exhibit the same level of devotion to dealing with the peninsula as he has shown in the Middle East? Probably yes, but this remains to be seen.
In case of North Korea, Russia and the U.S. are parties to the most dangerous crisis since the end of the Cold War. In this standoff, Moscow and Washington are not direct opponents, but neither are they true partners. They can choose to closely cooperate in resolving the situation, or they can obstruct each other’s efforts. In the latter case, the risks of miscalculation will rapidly grow, potentially leading to the danger of an armed collision of U.S. and Russian forces on the peninsula. Such a scenario must be avoided.
Both the Russians and Americans share one fundamental interest: non-proliferation of nuclear weapons. As the most basic common denominator, Moscow and Washington should collaborate to prevent possible horizontal proliferation of North Korean nuclear technologies and materials, such as attempts by the North Korean regime or by its rogue individual representatives to sell nuclear components to other states or non-state actors. A mechanism of permanent U.S.-Russian consultations and exchanges on the Korean peninsula security problems needs to be established to address non-proliferation and other concerns.