This report argues that the United States should attempt to engage the Russian Federation as a potential broker of negotiations over Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. Russia’s ascension to a more prominent role in North Korean affairs is long overdue and could add some heft to the international community’s negotiating position vis-à-vis Pyongyang.
The policy of economic sanctions on North Korea, while important in pressuring Pyongyang, has proven insufficient in coercing the country to restrain or relinquish its nuclear and missile programs. The new round of sanctions approved via United Nations Resolution 2371 is unlikely to change North Korea’s economic situation or its political calculus substantially. Pyongyang is skillful at evading sanctions via shell companies and Chinese intermediaries. Equally, not all parties to the sanctions, most notably China, have demonstrated the level of commitment required to implement an airtight sanctions regime.
Though China has backed a nuclear-free Korean peninsula and has signed up for international sanctions, its support for harsh penalties has been halting and unenthusiastic. In contrast to the United States, Japan, and South Korea, Beijing does not feel directly threatened by North Korea’s nuclear program. China is more worried about North Korean weakness than strength, fearing a large migrant influx into northeast China if the Kim regime collapses.
The United States should consider the constructive role Russia could play in defusing the North’s nuclear and missile ambitions. Russia’s close ties with North Korea date back half a century. Its economic ties are less significant than those between North Korea and China, but Russia believes it would reap diplomatic and economic benefits if it helped resolve the Korean dispute. Indeed, Russian President Vladimir Putin has significantly increased his visibility in Korean diplomacy over the past two months, striking a position between that of Pyongyang and Washington. Moscow clearly wants to play a role in defusing the crisis, not only because it opposes Trump’s threat of military action against North Korea, but also because brokering a deal would boost Russia’s international status. Washington could use Russia’s interest in deal making to help set the foundations for the long-term resolution of the North Korean crisis.
Russia could coordinate its sources of influence and leverage with those of other regional players, especially China and (somewhere down the line) the United States. Though Russia and China have somewhat different interests in the Korean peninsula, they might be able to agree on both a common set of principles and a common strategy for managing the North Korean nuclear issue. Faced with such a “united front” and unable to play the two countries against each other or to count on Moscow’s continued friendship, Pyongyang might begin to rethink its nuclear weapons policy. The United States has historically placed too much hope on China’s ability or willingness to restrain North Korea, while ignoring Russia’s influence. Engaging Russia over North Korea could help bring Pyongyang to the negotiating table.