At the present moment, both North Korea and Russia are, understandably, focused primarily on domestic issues. North Korea has seen the death of Kim Jong-Il, and Kim Jong-Un is undoubtedly focused on consolidating his position and influence internally. In Russia, the President elect Vladimir Putin is currently riding out the negative press that accompanied the recent Duma elections, and is aiming to ensure a smooth return to the Presidency in March.
With that in mind, it was interesting to see a small news item this week which suggested that Russia hopes to reconvene the Six-Party Talks this summer and get negotiations going again. This might have been seen in some quarters merely as safe words from Sergei Lavrov on Japanese television while he conducts visits to a number of Asian-Pacific countries, but a further news story showed a meeting between U.S and Russian officials scheduled in Moscow this week, at which both sides’ representatives to the Six-Party Talks will be in attendance.
While these two incidents do not alone guarantee that talks will go ahead, it does suggest that once again, Russia is eager to get involved. The question then is not about whether they will happen, but rather why Russia is keen to push the issue so quickly and what it hopes to achieve.
The Russian record of influence within the Six-Party Talks has been mixed at best. While not involved in discussions during the first multi-lateral talks on denuclearization of North Korea, Moscow was eventually invited to participate in 2003. For Russia, this was a massive opportunity. Having long lost its presence in the Asia-Pacific, the rise of Putin and the re-emergence of Russian self-belief saw Russia determined to try and use the opportunity as a gateway to further regional influence. Unfortunately though, this didn’t work out. Although negotiations were generally at an impasse regardless of input, Russian contributions to the talks were gradually ignored as time went on. This could be seen as a reflection of Moscow’s overall relations with North Korea, which waned quickly after Putin and Kim Jong-il’s 2002 Moscow meeting.
In addition to this, it was also clear that China, South Korea and Japan put little emphasis on the role of Russia within the Six Party framework. It was said that Russia had even reduced itself to leaking details from talks to try and maintain a visage of influence, to serve as a reminder of its diplomatic existence in the talks. While this might have been seen as inevitable, it was perhaps unfair on Russia. Widely regarded at the beginning by North Korea as the most balanced in talks, the suggestions put forward by Moscow were often achievable and aimed at not just progress on denuclearization, but at stability and the reduction of tensions on the peninsula. It can be assumed from this that for Russia, the talks were not about denuclearization, but instead over which side would be able to exert the most concessions from the other. Russian suggestions were therefore often too pragmatic and too focused on solutions, rather than diplomatic victory.
Arguments can be made historically that Russia was never going to achieve its objectives through these talks, and that they were of little value to its leadership – if not even politically damaging. Having looked at this history, observers could be forgiven for then questioning why Russia would be so eager to resume talks, particularly from a position now lacking influence and leverage. Has Moscow since come up with new plans and suggestions? Have there been other developments behind the scenes?
The answer to these two points is likely negative. It is unlikely that Russia has anything pragmatic to suggest that has not already been proposed. It is also unlikely that, with the rapid turn of events internally, North Korea has approached members of the talks to offer a deal. One conclusion may well be that Russia finds itself in exactly the same position as a decade ago, hoping to use the talks as a platform to increase its influence. The only difference now is that presumably they feel the other participants in the talks are not in as strong or as unified a position as they were previously, and as such there is more prestige and influence to be gained. It can be suggested that this is simply one part of an overall push towards increasing the status of Russia in the Far East, and at drawing further attention to the Far Eastern region of the country. We have seen in recent days that Russia hopes to lease farmland to a number of APEC countries in order to increase revenues, and of course the 2012 APEC summit will be held in Vladivostok. This is in addition to the well-documented energy and transport links Russia hopes to establish through North Korea. An aura of progress and stability, as well as the projection of regional leadership and the brokering of talks, may be useful in enhancing the overall regional position of Russia, and to a small extent appeal to floating voters in the Far East for the forthcoming Russian Presidential elections.
Overall North Korea continues to prove vital to Russian interests in the region, and the current diplomatic movements indicate this will prove to be the case for some time to come.
At the present moment, both North Korea and Russia are, understandably, focused primarily on domestic issues. North Korea has seen the death of Kim Jong-Il, and Kim Jong-Un is undoubtedly focused on consolidating his position and influence internally. In Russia, the President elect Vladimir Putin is currently riding out the negative press that accompanied the recent Duma elections, and is aiming
Gerard Clare is a research student at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, specialising in issues of regionalism and centre-periphery relations in the Russian Far East, including how citizens on the periphery can identify with central representations of what it means to be Russian, and in what ways these representations may conflict with regional identities. His knowledge extends through to Russia-DPRK relations in the post-Soviet era, with particular focus on engagement, expectations and wider themes around energy and security. He has previously completed both his undergraduate degree in Central and East European Studies in 2011, and his MSc in Russian, Central and East European studies in 2012, at the University of Glasgow. He has contributed a number of articles to NKNews since 2011, looking at Russia-DPRK relations, Six-Party Talks and even football within the DPRK.