Nuclear Crisis in North Korea: A Chance for Russia?
In recent days the crisis over North Korea’s nuclear program has captured the attention of the world. On August 7th, in response to continued missile tests the United Nations Security Council passed new sanctions on Pyongyang targeting key exports such as coal, iron ore and financial transactions. Russia showed solidarity with all council members calling for North Korea to refrain from further nuclear and missiles tests.
Since the Cold War, Russia has implicitly supported North Korea as a buffer to American power on the Korean Peninsula. Even though the economic and trading links between Russia and North Korea are not that strong when compared to China’s ties, Russia provides her partner with different opportunities for cooperation. For example, the increasing number of the North Korean economic migrants in the Russian Far East may be taken into account. The workers have found in Russia better working conditions and wages than they would have back home. Russia also regularly helps North Korea with humanitarian aid via the World Food Program and in 2014 wrote off $11 billion in Soviet era debt. Despite all that, through endorsing the UN sanctions, Russia turned her back on its regional partner.
Moreover, just a few days earlier, on August 2nd, President Trump signed the new sanctions bill on Russia. Leaving aside the newfound Russia obsession that has overtaken US national politics recently, the main reason for the new round of sanctions was the ongoing conflicts in Ukraine and Syria. Russia’s initial attempts to mediate in the conflict in the Middle East gave the opposite results: instead of becoming the bird of peace presented by foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, Russia has become stuck in the Middle East supporting Bashar Assad’s authoritarian regime.
In fact, the image of Russia on the international scene is much more damaged than it was even 12 months ago, with Russia at risk of even deeper international isolation the longer the two conflicts continue. In short, recent Russian foreign policy actions and diplomatic moves have been unsuccessful and thus the situation in North Korea offers a much needed opening to Russia.
In order to avoid speculation regarding the reasons behind Russia’s recent approach to foreign policy, we must look at the Foreign Policy Concept published by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in December 2016. Analysis of the Concept will help us to understand and interpret Russia’s foreign policy towards Asia-Pacific.
Despite the well-suited image of Russia as a fearsome and aggressive actor in foreign policy, the Concept offers more measured statements. There is no illusion about Russia’s place in the world. The position of Russia as a major power has been lost since the collapse of the Soviet Union. There is a clear understanding about how to keep and develop relationships with given partners and allies and what should be done to restore good relationships if those are stained or damaged. There are no ambitious plans whether to conquer or shatter the world.
So, what does Russia want and what is the place for North Korea in Russia’s foreign policy? Russia acknowledges the fundamental changes happening in the international system with the centers of economic and political power increasingly shifting towards the Asia-Pacific region. In this regards, Russia intends to strengthen her position regionally and internationally. There is a recognition within Moscow that the emergence of the new power centres in the Asia-Pacific erodes the global economic and political dominance of the traditional Western powers.
Russia’s economic weight is however much reduced, and in-spite of recent attempts to pivot to the Asia-Pacific, Moscow has become increasingly marginalized in East Asia despite its rhetoric and diplomatic activity. The ambition of Vladimir Putin to restore diplomatic and economic relations with the United States under Donald Trump should be viewed partially through the context of Moscow also trying to restore wider Russian influence regionally in East Asia. Maintaining the ability to influence events in the Asia-Pacific region is the overriding goal under which Russian regional policy operates. It serves as an explanation why, in spite of being itself the target of sanctions passed by the U.S., Russia still looks at Washington as a partner in the region and acts accordingly.
On the Korean peninsula, Russia is interested in maintaining traditional friendly relations with both Koreas and in promoting political dialogue between them with an emphasis on the denuclearisation of North Korea. Russia has, and continues to assert, that denuclearisation is the main condition to bring peace and security in Northeast Asia. With close economic ties to Pyongyang as well as being a nuclear and space power in its own right, the crisis over North Korea represents an opportunity for Russia to assert itself as a regional leader and a leader that wants to secure her own position. Having one more nuclear and space power in the neighborhood is not in Moscow’s interest as it would by default decrease Russia’s regional influence.
Russia acknowledges that diplomatic mediation is the key to solving the crisis in Korea even while multilateral negotiations such as the six-party talks gave little result. Russia cannot compete whether economically or financially with the US and China, but the unique diplomatic influence Moscow has in Pyongyang might still be considered. The North Korea nuclear crisis is an opportunity and advantage for Russia to influence the tensions in East Asia. At the very least, decreasing tensions and keeping the status quo would be a real move towards wider diplomatic negotiations both traditional and through public diplomacy. People-to-people interactions might eventually be successful. Russia has a chance to use diplomatic tools in helping to solve the crisis and restoring her own image.
As published at the Asia Dialogue of the University of Nottingham on August 12, 2017.