Russia doesn’t play a decisive role in the situation on the Korean peninsula, but its behaviour does affect general developments in the region, writes Alexander Gabuev, as Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un meet in Vladivostok.
The summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in the Russian city of Vladivostok brings Moscow back into the diplomatic game focused on the Korean peninsula. This symbolic breakthrough aside, however, Russia doesn’t have a very strong hand among all the global and regional powers involved in the crisis resolution.
The tools Russia has at its disposal are too limited to have an impact on the calculations and behaviour of North Korea or the US. As asymmetry in the Sino-Russian entente gradually grows in China’s favour, Moscow is increasingly receptive to Beijing’s agenda and prepared to play bad cop in an unofficial division of labour on the Korean peninsula. Russia could, however, be an indispensable partner in a broader conversation on security mechanisms in Northeast Asia, including offensive missiles and missile defence systems. The current lack of this broader conversation makes a solution to the North Korean nuclear issue less likely, if not impossible.
Russia doesn’t play a decisive role in the situation on the Korean peninsula, but its behaviour does affect general developments in the region. For a long time, Moscow tried to be an independent player on the peninsula, using its limited resources skilfully. Russia’s historical connections with North Korea, its ties to the country’s senior officials, and – most importantly – its status as a permanent member of the UN Security Council allowed it to play its own game. The stakes in that game are fairly high for the Kremlin, which has its own outlook on the situation on the peninsula, as well as clear red lines.
The stated goal of Russian policy and diplomatic efforts on the Korean peninsula is denuclearization. Indeed, Moscow included the denuclearization of the peninsula in the latest version of its Foreign Policy Concept: a key strategic document outlining the Kremlin’s approach to foreign policy and international issues, signed by Mr Putin on November 30, 2016.
“Russia has always championed a non-nuclear status for the Korean peninsula and will support its denuclearization in every possible way, believing that this objective can be attained through the Six-Party Talks,” paragraph 89 of the document states. Moscow has signed off on all the UN Security Council resolutions on this issue, and repeats this goal in the statements of all senior officials, including Mr Putin himself. Decision makers in Russia, however, do not consider this official goal to be realistic.
Moscow believes that nuclear weapons are the last thing Pyongyang will give up, since they are the only guarantee of the Kim regime’s survival. This view is deeply informed by the Kremlin’s cynical zero-sum game worldview and its understanding of American foreign policy. The Russian leadership is convinced that Washington is pursuing a strategy of colour revolutions and economic pressure to depose regimes that it does not like.
In Moscow’s thinking, Kim Jong Un has learned from the fates of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi that for an authoritarian regime, the only safeguard against US military intervention is the possession of nuclear weapons capable of hitting the American mainland. In that regard, the Kremlin views Mr Kim as a rational actor who is guided by his own definition of his country’s national interests and considerations of regime survival. Ultimately, although they never admit it in public, the Russians do not believe that the “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization” of North Korea that US President Donald Trump’s administration is trying to accomplish is achievable.
That does not mean that Russia is pleased about North Korea’s nuclear status.
Russia plays a very mixed role on the Korean peninsula. It tries to be an honest mediator and bring the parties to the table, but can’t be efficient because it doesn’t have leverage over North Korea. Another important reason is that its relationship with the US is severely damaged, even though North Korea is one of the few topics that Moscow and Washington still try to discuss at a working level, and where the dialogue is constructive amid the overall increasingly toxic picture of US–Russia relations.
Despite Russia’s limited toolkit, growing alignment with China, and its broken relationship with the US, Moscow will not be written off by Washington and its allies when it comes to the diplomatic process on North Korea. First and foremost, if any solution is to be achieved and blessed by the UN Security Council, the international community will need Russia’s support, and so the diplomatic framework will have to accommodate the Kremlin’s interests.
Alexander Gabuev is senior fellow and chair, Russia in the Asia-Pacific Program, Carnegie Moscow Centre. The longer version of this commentary first appeared in Carnegie Commentary and it can be found at https://carnegie.ru/commentary/78976