Moscow’s Views on the Korean Peninsula

The Korean peninsula quite often reminds one of a pendulum swinging back and forth from crisis to negotiation. Now it looks as if the situation is beginning to move toward a new phase of talks. Observers often view this process as a vicious cycle. Nevertheless, from Russia’s perspective, negotiations are definitely better then confrontation.

Last year, inter-Korean relations were aggravated to a point of dangerous escalation. There were many reasons why this happened. One reason was that throughout 2010, the U.S.-ROK alliance exerted unprecedented pressure on both North Korea (in order to facilitate regime collapse) and China to show Beijing that the price of supporting North Korea was becoming excessively burdensome, hoping thus to break the Chinese away from Pyongyang.

What has been the result? These goals have gone unfulfilled. North Korea’s domestic political environment not only remains quite stable, but the political system has become increasingly consolidated and friendly relations between China and North Korea have continued to deepen across the board. At the same time, North Korea’s nuclear programs have remained largely unchecked. Pyongyang’s behavior has not improved, but instead has become more decisive and dangerous. For instance, North Korea’s November 23 artillery shelling of South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island was, in part, to send a signal that the North is ready to fight for its survival at any price. As Victor Cha so soundly stressed in his recent Congressional testimony, “even a hawk must acknowledge that a long-term policy of sanctions and military exercises, in the end, may lead to war before they lead to a collapse of the regime.”[1]

So, what are the reasons for Pyongyang’s defiant behavior? Although many have characterized North Korea as being unpredictable, inadequate, or hostile, or as the sole source of problems on the peninsula, in Russia, we believe that the North Korean leadership usually acts in a very pragmatic and prudent manner, demonstrating a long-term perspective on possible ways a situation may evolve, which often helps it to outplay its opponents.

To illustrate this, let us examine several factors that influenced North Korea’s actions in 2010.

a) The crises on the Korean peninsula in 2010, especially the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island on November 23, were generally inconsistent with the DPRK’s broader interests and behavior over recent months, which had been aimed at building bridges with its main opponents—the United States and South Korea. In late summer and early fall, some experts even began using the term “Pyongyang’s peace offensive” or “charm offensive” to reflect specific steps taken by North Korean leaders. These included an agreement to return to the Six Party Talks; an unprecedented invitation extended to a large group of leading Western media companies (CNN and others) to attend the 65th anniversary celebrations of the founding of the Workers’ Party of Korea on October 15; and a series of proposals for renewing dialogue with Seoul on various issues, including a reunion for members of separated families. In short, the North proposed ideas and the South studied them “closely,” but was in no hurry to respond.

b) There is reason to believe that Pyongyang’s perceptions (however accurate or appropriate they may have been is a separate issue) of the goals and actions of its opponents were roughly as follows.

With the full support of the United States, the administration of South Korean President Lee Myung Bak initiated efforts to implement a regime change policy in Pyongyang. One method used to increase pressure was to try to exploit (or provoke) crisis situations with the goal of representing North Korea as the guilty party, sparking international condemnation of it and securing additional sanctions meant to further isolate Pyongyang and thus accelerate its collapse. This method was tested with the sinking of the South Korean frigate Cheonan last March. Despite Seoul’s best efforts, however, it was unable to achieve its goals in the UN Security Council, partly because proof of the South Korean version of events was not sufficiently persuasive. However, by accusing Pyongyang of destroying the South Korean warship, President Lee burned his bridges with the North, leaving him unable to back down from his hard line stance. This affected his domestic policy as well, drastically narrowing his room to maneuver in either realm and forcing him to continue with his chosen course of action. Therefore, the North was not surprised when, immediately after the incident, President Lee announced that he believed normalization of inter-Korean relations was impossible before the expiration of his term in office. There was another crisis on the border with North Korea in November, and attempts were again made to represent the North as the aggressor, particularly with international organizations.

Russia strongly condemned the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island.[2] At the same time, North Korea had expressed in advance both protest and warning against the joint U.S.-ROK “Hoguk” military exercises that involved missile and artillery firing on its border. When these exercises were carried out, the North perceived this as a provocative act. Therefore, its reaction was entirely predictable under these circumstances and experts in Seoul should have been able to foresee it.

c) Pyongyang, in all likelihood, realized that it was dealing with a revived long-term U.S.-ROK strategy aimed at “squeezing” the North in practice and applying increased military pressure. Pyongyang may have drawn roughly the following conclusion: Washington and Seoul have already made the decision to change North Korea’s regime in the near future through a full-blown military operation, if necessary. Therefore, both the recent incidents and inevitable future military border incidents are a part of that strategy.

Based on that assumption and knowledge of Pyongyang’s traditional operational logic (“meet force with more force”), it is not difficult to imagine how North Korean leaders would react in an evolving situation. They would most likely decide to stop the enemy and repel the threat at long range. That is, they would not hesitate to use armed resistance. In any event, North Korea’s political elites would be acutely aware that this is a matter of life and death for North Korea and for them personally, and prepared to use all means available in a struggle for survival.

Given this type of threat perception, Jong Seok Lee, one of the most experienced analysts on North Korea, has suggested that the North’s recent actions are aimed at giving the United States two clear alternatives—either bilateral talks or further development of its nuclear programs. By the same token, South Korea is under pressure to choose between dialogue and conflict.[3]

This alarming situation requires a fresh approach in order to find a way out of deadlock. The January 2011 Washington-Beijing summit looks to have been a turning point, reorienting the negative trend in a more positive direction that could have a more constructive effect on the East Asian region as a whole. The same factor will facilitate a lessening of North-South tensions and a gradual move toward reopening dialogue (of course after the Key Resolve/Foal Eagle maneuvers are completed).

Although we are inclined to consider this summit as a starting point for the “pendulum” to swing back toward negotiations, the question of how the situation can be rectified still remains.

In recent months, President Lee Myung Bak has repeated statements made by U.S. President George W. Bush in 2002-3 almost word for word: “I will never again sit down at the negotiating table with the North Koreans because that would mean rewarding their bad behavior.”

Can deadlock be resolved while holding positions like that? We do not think so.

Many negotiations have been held between the DPRK and its opponents, with the nuclear problem being one of the issues discussed. Many of them ended in fiasco. But perhaps that justifies to some extent President Lee’s emotional statements immediately after the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in which he indicated that negotiations with Pyongyang are useless in principle: nothing we do has any effect.

However, history has shown us otherwise. Indeed, there have been cases of successful negotiations. For instance, in contrast to the Northern Limit Line in the Yellow Sea, the establishment of the DMZ was mutually discussed; it was agreed to by both parties and its legitimacy is still recognized by the North. The highly disputed maritime border, however, has been the source of many problems.

On the nuclear issue, which is of greater concern to Russia, the most successful period of strict international monitoring of North Korea’s nuclear programs was the seven years that the U.S.-DPRK Agreed Framework (signed in 1994) was in effect. The Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO), with all of its difficulties over the operation of the consortium and its final demise, gave the world its first successful and rich experience of collaboration between the “irrational, maniacal, and untrustworthy North Koreans” and a broad range of Western partners.

Yes, North Korean representatives frequently walked out of negotiations without fulfilling their obligations. However, an impartial analyst would be forced to admit that their Western partners just as often broke, failed to meet, or tried to repackage or reinterpret their own obligations. That claim is an objective, demonstrable fact.

Historical evidence shows that in terms of North Korea’s nuclear program, the DPRK was successfully subjected to international monitoring, frozen and sometimes reversed only when Pyongyang was in negotiations with interested partners and under obligations that it had voluntarily accepted. That was the case until very recently, during periods when the terms of the Six Party negotiations in Beijing were being successfully implemented.

Of course, those were temporary and partial successes. But they did actually happen and were both better than nothing and better than the unlimited development of North Korea’s nuclear capability that exists now.

Pyongyang now considers itself free of all legal obligations. It immediately rejected UN Security Council resolutions, whose validity some Western political figures are apparently counting on, and considers them unjust. It is clear that international sanctions are not stopping the North from moving forward in the nuclear arena.

In Russia, we are convinced that the plans to force Pyongyang to give up its nuclear programs by squeezing it with sanctions, pressure, and increased isolation are ill-founded and simply will not work. It is when North Korean leaders are feeling increased military and other threats from outside that they speed up the strengthening of their “nuclear shield.” They are also prepared to sacrifice much for its sake, including limiting their own economic freedom and reforms (in the North Korean understanding of those concepts, of course).

We have concluded that the only real, workable method to first halt, then gradually limit, and in the long run eliminate North Korea’s nuclear capability, is for the main players to enter into substantive negotiations on the issues as soon as possible. And while closely monitoring Pyongyang’s fulfillment of its obligations, we should not fail to meet our own.

The Six Party Talks mechanism in Beijing is a perfectly workable tool that has provided a store of useful experience. Therefore, it would be extremely desirable to restart the talks as soon as possible. However, it should also be noted that it would be imprudent to exclude other international institutions to deal with similar problems in the future.

As a final conclusion, it is worth recalling a truth that is well known in the nonproliferation community: work on nonproliferation and regime change policies are absolutely incompatible. Anywhere attempts at regime change begin, successful nonproliferation efforts come to an immediate halt.  

In sum, Russia, like the other members of the Six Party Talks, is truly interested in the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. It is also very much alarmed by the continuing unmonitored development of North Korea’s nuclear programs in recent years.

Recently, Moscow achieved an important success in addressing to Pyongyang the international community’s concerns. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexei Borodavkin visited Pyongyang on March 11-14, 2011 and directly called on North Korea to come back into Six Party Talks without preconditions, to declare moratoria on new nuclear and long range missile tests, to include the uranium enrichment issue on the Six Party Talks agenda, and to provide IAEA inspectors access to the nuclear facilities, including those working on uranium enrichment.  

The most significant outcome of this visit was that the DPRK leadership accepted Russia’s proposal, agreeing to return to the Six Party Talks and include its uranium enrichment program on the agenda. They indicated as well, a readiness to consider all other issues in the course of negotiations on the principle of “action for action.”[4] Thus Pyongyang via Moscow sent a clear signal to the international community that it is ready to demonstrate a much more flexible and constructive approach to engaging in substantive dialogue.

This is a testament to our hope that the Korean peninsula’s “pendulum swing” is now moving back toward negotiation.


[1] Victor D. Cha, “Testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Foreign Affairs,” March 10, 2011, http://www.csis.org/program/korea-chair.

[2] “On the meeting between Russian Deputy Foreign Minister A. N. Borodavkin and Korean Ambassador to Moscow Lee Youn-ho, November 29, 2010, http://www.mid.ru/brp_4.nsf/0/222C81A42396E648C3257715002953F9. See also, statement by the Information and Press Department of Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs regarding the artillery shelling that took place on November 23 between the DPRK and the Republic of Korea, November 23, 2010.

[3] Jong Seok Lee, “The Next Kim: Prospects for Peace in Korea,” Global Asia, vol. 5, no. 4, Winter 2010, p. 81.

[4] DPRK Foreign Ministry Representative Comment, the DPRK Embassy in Moscow Press Release, March 15, 2011.

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