Russia has expressed “strongest possible condemnation” of North Korean fifth nuclear test naming it, in a Foreign Ministry statement, “a serious threat to peace and security on the Korean Peninsula and in the Asia-Pacific Region”. The statement also urged North Korea to “end its dangerous and reckless misadventures”.
The timing is awkward for the Kremlin. The test comes right after the Eastern Economic forum in Vladivostok – a signature event in the promotion of Russia’s “Eastern pivot” policy. President Putin held a rare meeting with South Korean President Park Geun-hye, promising to help “tame” North Korea using the channels of communication that exist between Moscow and Pyongyang. Russian officials should be happy the test didn’t come while the conference was going on.
Answering President Park’s uninvited criticism of North Korea during the plenary session of the Forum, Putin expressed displeasure with the efforts to provoke and isolate the DPRK, urging the sides to return to negotiation table and warning against any actions that could aggravate the situation: an obvious reference to US and South Korean military exercises and the military buildup of US in the region, including THAAD.
This theme was obvious in the Kremlin’s response to the nuclear test. Putin’s press-secretary called for “caution” and “de-escalation” as well as a political and diplomatic settlement – even stronger wording than the Foreign Ministry’s appeal to all the parties “to refrain from steps that could lead to the further escalation of tension”.
Russia’s objectives are clear: the priority is not punishing North Korea in a vain hope it will stop its nuclear and missile program, but preserving the strategic balance.
North Koreans are clearly on a dangerous path towards creating a missile and nuclear potential that, they might think, can provide them immunity from retaliation for comparatively minor provocations (such as in the area of the Northern limitation lime in the Yellow sea).
The country stated they had tested a “standardized” nuclear weapon to be mounted on ballistic rockets” such as “strategic ballistic rockets of the Hwasong artillery pieces units of the Strategic Force of the Korean People’s Army”. Thus, Russia’s military experts say, North Korea acquires the capability of strike not only against “military values” in the region, but also against “core values” (i.e. mainland USA) – which changes the equation.
Russian politicians and experts are troubled that the probable U.S. response will be to increase its containment potential in the region, a move with a strong anti-Chinese (and anti-Russian) elements. China’s reaction is predictable – it will have to increase its military muscle and Japan will follow suit.
This will force Russia to respond in terms of additional military measures in the Far East, straining its limited budget even more, and the chain of events could lead to a full-scale arms race in the region – making the military and political situation less predictable and stable.
What can be done about it? This year’s numerous missile launches and two nuclear tests and an unprecedented increase in North Korean missile and nuclear capabilities have amply demonstrated the total failure of sanctions and isolation, which for a quarter-century has not prevented North Korea from a massive increase in its military potential.
Russian experts also think that the purpose of these latest demonstrative actions – months before an election in the U.S. – is to demonstrate the futility of attempts to pressure North Korea into changing its policy and the need to change the strategy, particularly by Washington and Seoul.
This can be interpreted as a message to a new American president to finally recognize the reality and agree to make a deal with Pyongyang as “an equal partner”, shifting to a mode of coexistence with North Korea. North Koreans can now take a pause and exercise “strategic patience”, waiting for the U.S. and a new South Korean leader to take the action they want.
For Russia, which has always stressed the need to use political and diplomatic leverage, it would be unwise to support more substantive sanctions. But given the current attempts of Moscow to reach out to the West in the international security, Russia should probably be prudent enough to leave the job of “defending” Pyongyang during the forthcoming fierce debates in the UNSC to China.
Featured image: Kremlin.ru
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