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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.
In response to the breakdown in North Korea-U.S. dialogue, which DPRK vice foreign minister Ri Thae Song has blamed on Washington’s unwillingness to grant concessions due in part to the American election cycle of DPRK-U.S. dialogue, the Russian government has been scrambling to leverage its diplomatic clout to push for a revival in Pyongyang-Washington dialogue.
On December 10, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov traveled to Washington for talks with his American counterpart, Mike Pompeo. During Lavrov’s visit to Washington, Donald Trump reportedly asked for Moscow’s assistance in dealing with nuclear issues in both Iran and North Korea.
In Washington, Sergei Lavrov expressed hope that direct dialogue between North Korea and the U.S. would be renewed. Lavrov asserted that the burden to reach a settlement conducive toward denuclearization should not rest exclusively on the North’s shoulders, and that the DPRK deserved both security assurances as well as respect for its economic and humanitarian needs.
DPRK-Russia ties have been on an overall positive trajectory lately, as exemplified by Choe Son Hui’s recent visit to Moscow for strategic dialogue with the Russian government last month. Nevertheless, in addition to Moscow’s refusal to offer the North a legal quota on fishing in Russian territorial waters (due to outstanding issues over poaching), the Russian government has shown some mild exasperation toward Pyongyang in light of the breakdown of DPRK-U.S. dialogue.
In response to the much-touted “Christmas present” Pyongyang said it would give the U.S., Russian envoy to the UN Vasily Nebenzya called for restraint on Pyongyang’s part, warning the North not to engage in provocations. Such calls from the Russian government directed toward the North are a relative rarity, given that Moscow reserves most of the public blame over the security standoff over North Korea to the U.S.
The Russian government’s heed for restraint of course went unheeded when the DPRK conducted a test last week that was apparently aimed at enhancing the North’s strategic deterrent.
In light of the breakdown in North Korea-U.S. relations, Russia has been keen to assert its common cause with the United States over North Korean denuclearization despite its long-standing differences with Washington over how best to achieve that goal.
From the outset of the first North Korean nuclear crisis in 1993-1994, the Kremlin has been consistently willing to cooperate with the United States, although the U.S. has always been less than enthusiastic about Russia’s role in North Korean denuclearization.
Indeed, behind the essential agreement between Moscow and Washington over the need for the DPRK to denuclearize is both a contrast in the type of threat that a nuclear North Korea poses to Russia and the U.S., respectively, as well as how to achieve denuclearization.
The Kremlin does not consider the DPRK’s nuclear capabilities to be a direct threat to Russian national security. Nevertheless, North Korea’s possession of nuclear capabilities even for defensive purposes are contrary to Russian interests.
As Russia’s own nuclear weapons program constitutes one of the few claims it has to being a great power, Moscow considers other countries’ possession of nuclear weapons as undermining this particular aspect of Russian power.
Having a nuclear-capable state on the Russian periphery is particularly worrisome for Russia. As Russia’s ambassador to the DPRK Alexander Matsegora recently stated: “We do not want to have a nuclear neighbor”.
Indeed, although Sergei Lavrov and Mike Pompeo asserted at a press conference following their December 10 summit that they held common views on the question of North Korean denuclearization, the difference in how they expressed it was notable.
No amount of asserting common cause with the U.S. can paper over the seemingly intractable differences Moscow and Washington have over the methods and best practices employed to achieve denuclearization, particularly sanctions, most recently underlined by a recent Russian proposal for sanctions relief at the UN.
Earlier this month Vasily Nebenzya stated that denuclearization cannot be achieved through sanctions, but must be based on confidence-building measures between Pyongyang and Washington.
Alexander Matsegora, for his part, recently criticized U.S. policies toward Pyongyang, which he likened to “an elephant in a china shop”.
The Ambassador declared that he couldn’t rule out the possibility of the U.S. implementing a full-scale blockade of the DPRK, asserting that Russian businesspersons have grown increasingly cautious about undertaking trade activities in the North.
The DPRK needs Russia to both mitigate its isolation as well as to lessen its dependence on China for diplomatic support
Matsegora contrasted this with the continuous trade between China and North Korea, which he pointed out amounted to hundreds of millions of dollars.
Sanctions, in fact have become a major issue in Moscow’s relationship with Pyongyang as less than a week remains before the deadline by which all North Korean guest workers abroad are supposed to return to the DPRK.
UN Security Council resolution 2397 stipulates that North Korean guest workers return to their homeland by December 22, 2019.
Prior to the implementation of UNSCR 2397, anywhere from 20,000-40,000 North Korean guest workers lived in Russia. Russian officials have consistently asserted that Moscow is taking steps to be in full compliance with the resolution.
Indeed, Moscow has often contrasted its obligation to abide by UN Security Council resolutions with its supposed ability to ignore US secondary sanctions against Pyongyang, which in many ways have affected Russia.
Supporting Russian claims that it has been complying with obligations imposed by the UN is the demonstrable large-scale outflow of North Korean laborers from Russia.
This however comes with a major caveat — corresponding to the reduction of North Koreans in Russia on work permits is a large influx of DPRK citizens entering Russia on other types of visas, particularly tourist and student visas.
Mike Pompeo himself was reluctant to insinuate Russian malfeasance in sanctions compliance in response to a question posed at the press conference following his meeting with Sergei Lavrov last week. On the contrary, Pompeo stated the U.S. appreciates the extent to which Russia has enforced sanctions, saying that Russia has done “good work”.
Moscow’s top envoy to Pyongyang, however has lamented the negative effects for Russia that the North Korean laborers’ expulsion causes. In addition to touting the comparatively high financial earnings DPRK citizens working abroad earn, Alexander Matsegora noted that the departure of such a high number of North Koreans from Russian soil diminished Russia’s political as well as soft power influence over the DPRK.
Ultimately, the breakdown in DPRK-U.S. dialogue poses serious issues to the intersection of American, North Korean, and Russian interests.
Continued North Korean provocations in response to the current deadlock with Washington may place a strain on Pyongyang’s relationship with Moscow.
The DPRK needs Russia to both mitigate its isolation as well as to lessen its dependence on China for diplomatic support. It can ill-afford to frustrate Moscow, although North Korea’s importance for Russian interests may cause the Kremlin to tolerate North Korean saber-rattling to an extent.
Russia, meanwhile, will continue to be caught between continued promotion of North Korean denuclearization and its opposition to the U.S.’s track of applying pressure on Pyongyang through sanctions. Moscow must strike a balance between maintaining decent ties with Pyongyang and continuing to be a constructive player in Korean security, lest the amount of consideration it has received from Washington over Korean security issues – which is at an all-time high – diminish.
The Russian Federation’s own difficult position will, in turn, negatively affect the U.S.’s ability to cooperate with Moscow. Indeed, Washington has engaged in more dialogue with Moscow over Korean security recently than it has over much of the past 25 years. This is likely based on the recognition that, like it or not, the U.S. cannot ignore the Kremlin’s presence on the issue of Korean security.
Moscow, Pyongyang, and Washington, therefore, are all caught simultaneously in difficult positions. Unfortunately for Moscow, the state of relations between the DPRK and the U.S. at the bilateral level will exert the greatest effect on Russia’s ability to pursue its interests vis-à-vis Korean security.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Kremlin