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View more articles by Anthony V. Rinna
Anthony V. Rinna
Anthony V. Rinna is an analyst on Russian foreign policy in East Asia for the Sino-NK research group. He currently resides in South Korea.
Nuclear security wonks the world over set their gaze to the Russian capital toward the end of last week for the Moscow Nonproliferation Conference. Representing the United States was Special Representative for North Korean affairs Mark Lambert, who held a brief chat with Jo Chol Su, the recently-appointed head of the DPRK foreign ministry’s North America department.
In his speech to the conference, Jo warned the U.S. that time was running out on its deadline for progress in diplomacy, set for the end of the year.
“We have given considerably much time to the U.S., and we will wait for some results until the end of this year,” Jo said. “Though we expect everything to go into a positive direction, I want to say that the window for opportunity is closing bit by bit every day.”
The conference not only provided the Russian Federation a chance to serve as a forum for the DPRK and the United States to express their stances on Korean security affairs, it also allowed Moscow an opportunity to emphasize some of its own positions on what is perhaps one of the most hot-button issues in disarmament and non-proliferation.
In addition to reiterations of Russian concern regarding the humanitarian effects of sanctions laid against Pyongyang, Igor Morgulov, one of Russia’s deputy foreign ministers and a point man on North Korea for the Kremlin, claimed that punitive economic measures against the North had reached a point where they could not get much more severe.
Morgulov also once again called for gradual sanctions relief.
Likewise, Sergei Ryabkov, who also serves as one of Russia’s deputy foreign ministers, stated that Moscow hoped for the resumption of direct dialogue between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump.
Russia’s special envoy for nuclear affairs Oleg Burmistrov, however, claimed that Russian officials had not received any clear statements from Washington on the possibility of a third Kim-Trump summit.
The lack of clear prospects for direct talks between the North Korean and U.S. top leadership undoubtedly comes as a disappointment to Moscow.
Continuous dialogue between the two enemies is a sure-fire hedge against one of the Russian Federation’s worst fears for the Korean peninsula, namely the outbreak of armed conflict.
Furthermore, the Kremlin also considers direct North Korea-U.S. dialogue to be a critical step in implementing of one of Russia’s major policy proposals, the 2017 Sino-Russian roadmap for Korean peace.
Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov noted at the Moscow Nonproliferation Conference that direct talks between North Korea and the U.S. were in line with the spirit of the Sino-Russian roadmap, although Lavrov also lamented the continuation of joint ROK-U.S. military exercises.
During the summit on non-proliferation in Moscow, Sergei Lavrov stated that China and Russia were proposing to build off of their joint 2017 roadmap for Korean peace with an action plan via the so-called P5+1: the grouping of five recognized nuclear states plus Germany, which was instrumental in the implementation of the Iran nuclear deal.
The Kremlin’s proposal for employing the P5+1 format for fostering peace on the Korean Peninsula underscores Russia’s unique position on DPRK denuclearization.
Moscow has been an advocate of multilateralism since the outbreak of the first North Korean nuclear crisis in the 1990’s. The original four-party negotiations that eventually became the Six Party Talks initially excluded Russia, due in part to both North Korean and American skepticism of the Russian Federation’s ability to play a positive role in security negotiations at the outset of the DPRK’s nuclear breakout.
Excluding Russia from multilateral talks left an imprint on Moscow’s diplomatic psyche. The Kremlin has been bound and determined ever since to ensure it is always a participant in multilateral talks on North Korean security.
Yet the proposal to use the P5+1, rather than push for a renewal of the Six Party Talks is notable, particularly since the revival of the Six Party Talks has frequently been a talking point raised in Russian policy discourse over Korean security, albeit without any concrete proposals from the Kremlin to that end.
Moscow has been an advocate of multilateralism since the outbreak of the first North Korean nuclear crisis in the 1990’s
The Russian Federation’s dual status as both a global power and a Eurasian power may offer some insights into why Moscow has proposed to work toward implementing its vision for Korean security via the P5+1.
The Six Party Talks were (with the exception of the U.S.) limited to Northeast Asian states, and Russia’s inclusion in the talks helped Moscow regain some of its clout in East Asia that it had lost in the first decade of the post-Cold War era.
For the Russian Federation however, the issue of North Korea’s possession of WMDs has always had a double nature, insofar as Korean security is an issue for the security of Russia’s Asia-Pacific territories as well as Russia’s role as a global power.
Indeed, while Russia remains a great power on the world stage, in no small part due to its possession of its own considerable nuclear arsenal, Moscow does not yet enjoy the recognition as a veritable Asian power that it ultimately hopes to hold.
Russia shares with the United States a desire to stem the proliferation of nuclear weapons as a key facet of its foreign policy. Mark Lambert, for his part indicated that Washington hopes to continue close coordination with Moscow over Korean security.
The prospects of cooperation between the Russian Federation and the United States, even as the world’s foremost nuclear powers with a decades-long history of strategic relations, nevertheless remains remote.
As far as Russia’s global non-proliferation policies are concerned, the Russian Federation, while hardly considering North Korean disarmament to be a back-burner issue, has in general tended to place less emphasis on North Korean denuclearization than the U.S.
This can be understood both in terms of Russia’s tendency to focus more on Iran than in North Korea (prior to the 2015 nuclear deal at least) in its non-proliferation policies, as well as the generally pessimistic view of the prospects of North Korean denuclearization prevalent in Moscow’s Korea policy circles.
Moscow likely hopes that it can be taken more seriously as an indispensable force, rather than as a second-rate player in Korean security
Nevertheless, even as Russia has generally considered North Korea’s possession of WMD to be less of a threat than Washington has, Moscow’s viewing of North Korean denuclearization with less of a sense of urgency than Washington should not be mistaken for apathy.
Russia wants to see the DPRK return to the NPT, and is unwilling to recognize North Korea as a legitimate nuclear state. Although Russia is not concerned about a direct North Korean threat to its national security, Moscow does consider the proliferation of nuclear weapons to be a potential risk to Russia’s own strategic interests.
By pursuing its interests in North Korean denuclearization from more of a global — as opposed to sub-regional — vantage point, Moscow likely hopes that it can be taken more seriously as an indispensable force, rather than as a second-rate player in Korean security.
Indeed, a desire to be perceived as a constructive actor, rather than a spoiler, has shaped the Kremlin’s position on UN sanctions toward the DPRK, as the Kremlin has approved punitive economic measures against Pyongyang in the name of its own non-proliferation policies, even at the expense of Russian interests in the Asia-Pacific, to which solid relations with North Korea are crucial.
Regardless of the format through which Moscow hopes to pursue its interests in Korean security, the onus will be on the Kremlin to reach an understanding with with its great power peer, the U.S., on Korean security, while taking pains not to jeopardize its continuous efforts to fortify its friendly ties with the DPRK.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Russian foreign ministry