Current circumstances offer a “perfect chance to start a peace-building process” with North Korea, Professor Georgy Toloraya told NK News on Tuesday, pointing to a potential short-term window of diplomatic opportunity.
Toloraya, who served in USSR and Russian Federation embassies in Pyongyang and Seoul multiple times, said the combination of North Korea’s declared completion of its “state nuclear force” and a rumored delay in scheduled U.S.–South Korean military drills due to the upcoming Pyeongchang Winter Olympics could, together, “give room for dialogue.”
“It is a fortunate situation that the North Koreans have stopped their exercises or provocations – or whatever you call it – and at the same time, South Korea is very much interested in the absence of such provocations before and the during the Olympics,” he said, speaking to NK News in Seoul.
“I believe that this is the perfect chance to start a peace-building process and if it would start from the Olympics, then that would still be highly symbolic…”
Toloraya also said during the interview that recent developments mean it would be important to reconsider the over-arching goals for any potential negotiations, that Russian support for extra UN Security Council sanctions on Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs may just be symbolic, and that longer term, it may be worth international lawyers considering new ways – outside of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) – to recognize the emerging nuclear weapons capability of the DPRK.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and readability
NK News: Since the Hwasong-15 missile launch, North Korea has said multiple times that it has “completed its state nuclear force.” What do you read that as meaning?
Georgy Toloraya: I think it is very straightforward. They have been saying both officially and unofficially that now they only need routine tests to keep the military men trained and maybe satellite (launches), which are sort of peaceful, that’s what I suppose. They don’t plan to have any (more) nuclear tests so far, so this is a clear message for some kind of negotiations or looking for a compromise.
And as far as I understand, they send those messages through different channels to different partners and that means that they are really saying “we are prepared to talk, on the provision that we are in a state of strategic parity with the United States.”
NK News: So what is the point of talks from a North Korean perspective now that they have reached their goal, technically?
Georgy Toloraya: There is a set of objectives which is long known – both on the U.S. side and the North Koran side – which cannot really be matched. North Koreans need the peace treaty, lifting of sanctions, diplomatic relations and maybe some assistance, especially energy assistance, like Light Water Reactors which they have been talking about for decades. The U.S. wants to talk about CVID, but that will never happen.
So when we say we should drag North Koreans to the table, if it means we should drag them to talk about denuclearization, that’s not going to happen. If they go to talk about something else, I think it is possible.
NK News: What other things do you think that the international community, or specifically the U.S., can talk about?
Georgy Toloraya: My personal view is that denuclearization is off the table at the moment: it is a sacred goal – it is in the Constitution and it is the chief achievement of the three generations of the Kim’s rule, so you cannot put it as the agenda of the talks. But they can talk about other things; for example, the missile program, which is not as sacred – they have different types of missiles.
I understand that the thing that was a game changer and which really changed the situation was the ICBM. Because before the more or less functional ICBM, countries like South Korea, Japan, Russia, China, we all lived under the threat of a North Korean nuclear strike for more than ten years. Although (North Korea) might not have had the missiles which could deliver the weapons, theoretically, they could have delivered them in a ship or a plane or, in South Korea’s case, by lorry, for example. So we all lived under this threat and nothing happened.
“Denuclearization is off the table at the moment: it is a sacred goal”
The situation became tense only when the U.S. felt the danger of being hit by a North Korea ICBM. So obviously to remove this obstacle, it is logical to start with negotiations about the ICBM. For example, it looks like the Hwasong-15 is the final stage, final model missile, that had this successful launch, so they might declare that this is enough for them.
So maybe we should start talking about Hwasong-15 limitations or even destruction (of the missile) in future. Under certain terms, they can agree that North Korea wouldn’t produce ICBMs and they will destroy or limit or put under control the existing ones and in exchange get some concessions.
Well, most of these are freeze-for-freeze in that particular area – freezing production of ICBMs and tests and of course nuclear tests, in exchange for a reduction in the size of military exercises. And from this point on, new areas of compromise can be searched for, but we do need to start with something.
NK News: Looking forward, maybe five or ten years down the line if we are still in the same situation, at what stage do you think specifically Russia might think about recognizing North Korea as a nuclear weapons state?
Georgy Toloraya: I think that will never happen because what we mean by ‘nuclear state’ is a state possessing nuclear weapons inside the NPT. There are only five of them, meaning no others can be recognized as nuclear powers. So there is no talk about legitimizing the North Korean state as a nuclear power.
However, it may (in future) be seen as a state possessing a nuclear capacity or something like that. I think it is up to the lawyers to invent some kind of a new term which would determine how we call the parties/countries which are outside the NPT but possess nuclear weapons – India, Pakistan or Israel for that matter. But North Korea is unique, it has walked out of the NPT, so maybe some special term should, therefore, be invented for it.
This is something we should think about, maybe the international lawyers should think about how these rogue countries are related to the global NPT system, to keep intact and not undermine it.
NK News: And correspondingly, how much further do you think Russia is going to go on with UNSC sanctions measures at this time?
Georgy Toloraya: Well, my personal desire – which doesn’t necessarily translate into government policy – is that we should stop here.
Actually, Russia has only a few types of ties which can be cut – oil products supplies, expelling workers and closing the Rajin-Khasan project.
Already the amount of oil products we supply to North Korea has drastically fallen over the last couple of months. Last month in fact, our oil products supply was maybe 25-30 times less than that from China.
And the proposed oil embargo will have a very negative effect on the North Korean population, not the military sector. I think it is just not needed. It could be used only for political purposes, just to support China in its endeavors, but I don’t think it will change the real on-the-ground situation.
And as for my beloved Rajin-Khasan project, it simply is not related in any way to North Korean government revenues or any kind of military programs because the North Korean side doesn’t get anything from this project, apart from the taxes from the salaries of 200 North Koreans who work on this project. So it is just irrelevant and it is not justified to close this project just to show our displeasure to North Korea.
And so far, as far as I know, there is not much of a constructive discussion in the UNSC concerning another round of sanctions, so I hope it is going to stop here. Though maybe there could be some symbolic sanctions, not really touching these crucial issues of oil, workers, and transit approaches.
NK News: Regardless of the UNSC, it seems, however, that the U.S. may now be looking at maritime interdiction measures. And it could even do those in coordination with the UN-Sending states, the sixteen countries that supported South Korea predominantly during the Korean War. What would be the reaction to doing something like that?
Georgy Toloraya: I have to check but I understand that according to international law, a naval blockade is an act of war.
So if war is declared on North Korea, it means that we should reconsider our policies and find out what our reaction will be. I’m not sure what the reaction might be to such a hypothetical scenario, but we still have to protect our interests as well – just national interests, not those of North Korea.
“The proposed oil embargo will have a very negative effect on the North Korean population, not the military sector”
For example, if there is some military force moving into the Sea of Japan, north of the 38th parallel, it is quite close to our borders and if the same happens in the Yellow Sea, it is quite close to China.
So, I wouldn’t think it unimaginable that some sort of joint Russia-Chinese naval force could watch in anticipation, send troops there, maybe not blocking the exit military troops, but at least doing something to prevent such a development.
NK News: Do issues like U.S. unilateral sanctions on Russia, U.S. opposition to the annexation of Crimea, and now the ban of Russian sportspersons from the Olympics; do these affect how Russia responds to Washington’s push for new sanctions?
Georgy Toloraya: Well, it was said actually by President Putin that it is funny first to put us, Russia, Iran and North Korea in a sort of axis of evil which should be punished by sanctions, then to demand from us that we should join the sanctioning of North Korea.
This is a very wise observation, but it hasn’t translated into policy because we support the sanctions, we voted for the latest round of sanctions and this was a gesture of goodwill and our purpose to show the North Koreans that we are very much disappointed by that kind of behavior and we would like it to stop.
But I think enough is enough. We have shown goodwill, not once, and I don’t think it would be worth doing that again without any reciprocity.
“It is a fortunate situation that the North Koreans have stopped their exercises or provocations”
NK News: You’ve just attended a conference where Colin Powell was a speaker – who helped pave the logic at the UN Security Council for military intervention in the Iraq War. Looking at the situation today, do you see any similarities between what the U.S. was saying back then and what they are saying now?
Georgy Toloraya: At this conference I had a chat with Colin Powell and during his presentation he mentioned that there are some good examples of countries renouncing their nuclear weapons, for example Gaddafi, who chose to be a member of the international society rather than be isolated.
I asked him ‘General, you remember how he ended?’ and he said ‘that’s another thing … the people revolted against him’.
This is not serious talk and I don’t think that Kim Jong Un would agree to that kind of proof.
But unlike in other such cases, North Korea actually has a deterrent, whatever it is, so I don’t think that anybody has the guts to fight North Korea just to ‘prevent’ another war.
NK News: Any final thoughts on the current situation?
Georgy Toloraya: I think that we now have a window of opportunity before the Olympics.
It is a fortunate situation that the North Koreans have stopped their exercises or provocations or whatever you call it, and at the same time, South Korea is very much interested in the absence of such provocations before and the during the Olympics. Also, South Koreans have asked the U.S., as far as I know, to postpone the exercises until at least after the Olympics.
I’m not a military planner but I understand that if the exercises are to be held, the preparations should start sometimes early January, but if they are postponed, and maybe downsized and moved to southerly locations, I think that also this deadline can be moved.
So I think it’s now very important that North Korea-U.S., with the participation of South Korea, maybe in some kind of secret communication channel, would agree to a sort of Olympics truce, until the end of the Olympics, not to conduct exercises, not to do any tests, not to do anything that could prevent having successful games.
And hopefully such a truce will give room for more dialogue which could start with, for example, the ICBM issue, which I suggested, and develop into further dialogue.
I believe that this is the perfect chance to start a peacebuilding process and if it would start from the Olympics, then that would still be highly symbolic, although Russia doesn’t officially participate in it.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured Image: DPRK Today, edited by NK News
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