Once a possible holdout of Russia-U.S. international cooperation, North Korea has since evolved into the latest area of diplomatic disagreement between Moscow and Washington.
Unlike other areas of geopolitical discord between Moscow and Washington, such as Syria and Ukraine, the source of the latest diplomatic standoff between the two powers is not of a traditionally geopolitical nature. Rather, it has recently from a fundamental disagreement over the most recent advances in North Korea’s missile technology.
In the past, the only American targets against which North Korea was presumably capable of carrying out a direct strike were U.S. military installations in Japan and South Korea.
Fears are mounting that the U.S. homeland, however, may be within North Korea’s strike range. On July 4, North Korea launched what was alleged to be an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Pyongyang followed up around three weeks later with yet another test of an alleged ICBM.
Almost immediately following the first North Korean missile launch, disagreement arose at the United Nations between Russia and the United States as to whether or not the missile was, indeed, an ICBM. In order for the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to issue an official position on the issue, its members, including the five permanent member states, must agree to the wording of any UN resolution.
The disparate visions between Russia and the United States regarding the best policy course over resolving Korea-related security issues is nothing new. Russia has long insisted on a so-called “diplomatic” solution, accusing the U.S. of belligerence and acting as an irritant to regional security.
GREAT POWER POLITICS
The most common explanation behind Russia’s behavior in the international arena is that Russia is striving to re-assert itself as a major global power. In order to do so, it fundamentally comes into conflict with the U.S.
Given Russia’s relative lack of military and economic clout, as the thinking sometimes goes, Russia must occasionally act as a spoiler, using every opportunity to challenge Washington.
The United States has provided compelling evidence – supported by scholars not affiliated with the U.S. government – that the missiles North Korea has launched were, in fact, capable of reaching across continents.
It may appear, therefore, that even as Russian officials at the UN receive empirical data that attest to the type of missile the DPRK has most recently tested, that Moscow is using its diplomatic prowess to irritate the United States for the sake of challenging American power.
While Russia very much wants to stem Washington’s global influence, in the case of North Korea, Russia is not acting only based on its desire to challenge U.S. global primacy and establish itself as a world power. Moscow is also gravely concerned about how regional security dynamics play out: any development that allows for the U.S. to increase its posture in Northeast Asia is anathema for it.
Anything that gives the U.S. a reason to ratchet up the pressure on North Korea is most unwelcome
But it is difficult to say that Russia opposes the designation of the most recently-tested missiles as ICBMs solely for the inherent sake of contradicting the United States. U.S. ally South Korea has also been reluctant to declare the Hwasong-14 as an ICBM. Doubts from other parties regarding the North’s missile potential, however, are of little comfort to the average American.
For them, the prospect of North Korea being able to directly hit the U.S. has long been a distant and even remote possibility. As top U.S. military officials and average citizens alike grow increasingly wary of the North Korean threat, Washington will likely face growing clamors for increased pressure against the Kim regime.
Anything that gives the U.S. a reason to ratchet up the pressure on North Korea, however, is most unwelcome from a Russian Federation intent on keeping the status quo in Northeast Asia.
Coinciding with the most recent missile launches is a step-up in the pace of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system’s operability in South Korea. While THAAD, as a defense system against medium-range projectiles, does not directly pertain to the issue of North Korea’s ostensible ICBM possession, the coincidence does underscore fears that Russia has over advancing U.S. power in Northeast Asia.
PROTECTING RUSSIAN INTERESTS
Russia has been a leading voice in opposition to U.S. policies toward North Korea, including THAAD and an increase in sanctions against Pyongyang.
If, therefore, Russia concedes that the North Korean regime does in fact have the capability to attack the U.S. homeland, Washington will have all the more reason to take actions that are contrary to Russian interests. This could be in the form of even harsher sanctions against the DPRK, or even an increase in U.S. military activities in the region.
The increased sense of urgency that Washington will possibly find itself confronting, buttressed by the need to assure the American public that officials are doing everything they can to keep U.S. citizens safe, therefore, will likely propel Washington toward further action.
Russia, of course, is relatively powerless to stop the United States from acting at the unilateral level, whether through increased military posturing in and around the Korean peninsula, or through the imposition of an even tighter sanctions regime against the DPRK. Nevertheless, Russia’s permanent membership on the UNSC does give Russia the ability to stop the U.S. from taking more stringent actions at the multilateral level.
If Russia concedes that the North Korean regime does in fact have the capability to attack the U.S. homeland, Washington will have all the more reason to take action
As far as the regional-level reasons for Russia’s opposition to what Moscow considers to be the U.S.’s assertiveness in Korea, Russia is primarily concerned with preventing the outbreak of armed conflict in Korea, as well as stemming North Korea’s economic isolation.
The U.S., of course, makes use of diplomatic means, but also supports its policy with a decades-long military presence on the Korean peninsula and in neighboring Japan.
North Korean state media has lauded the country’s successful test-launching of the Hwasong-14 ICBM
Violent conflict in Korea, as well as the denial of valuable economic opportunities for Russia in North Korea directly counteract Russia’s interests for developing its Far Eastern regions, in which North Korea (and Korea more generally) has an important role to play.
The fractious geopolitical relations that Russia and the U.S. have been experiencing in areas such as Eastern Europe and the Middle East have now extended into Northeast Asia.
There are even warnings of a possible “new Cold War” emerging around the Korean Peninsula. That Russia and the U.S. could disagree over something as basic as whether or not North Korea has an ICBM does not bode well for Russia-U.S. relations in the Northeast Asian context.
Instead, it is possibly an indicator of greater complications to come, as North Korea continues to ratchet up U.S. concerns over regional security, as well as the security of the homeland.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Kremlin.ru
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