Changing Lanes: The Russian Alternative

After a considerable cooling of relations with Pyongyang in the wake of North Korean missile and nuclear tests and provocations in 2009-2010, Russia is back in the game. Kim Jong Il’s visit to Russia after a 9-year hiatus was a manifestation of this, although at first, it may have seemed for many observers to have strange timing and doubtful purposes. Was North Korea expecting new aid? Was Kim soliciting Russian support in his confrontation with South Korea and the West? Did Kim want to find an alternative to China’s tightening embrace? The diplomatic process on Korea is at a delicate crossroads now with the under-the-carpet struggle mainly between China and the US-ROK alliance. Whether or not the talks on denuclearization will start before the end of Obama’s first term in office will, I believe, largely determine their agenda. If negotiations do not resume now, future talks will likely have as a starting point North Korea’s full-fledged uranium enrichment program, its half-constructed new light water reactors, and whatever next stage of missile development can be achieved before the 2012 US and ROK presidential elections. In the absence of talks, we may well expect new nuclear and missile tests, production of highly enriched uranium, and maybe even new border conflicts. 

Given the deadlock in the denuclearization talks and in North-South relations, it seemed Russia had limited influence on the Korean situation, at least before the change of government in Seoul. It should also be remembered that President Medvedev has a reputation for being a liberal and has sharply criticized Kim Jong Il over the nuclear test in 2009 and the Cheonan incident in 2010 (although when the experts sent by Medvedev at President Lee Myung Bak’s request as a gesture of support did not share South Korean version of events Russian criticism subsided). During President Medvedev’s term in office, especially in 2009-2010, marred by North Korean nuclear adventurism and inter-Korean conflicts, a noticeable cooling of Russia-DPRK relations took place. President Medvedev’s term also ends next year, so the North Koreans might be wondering how good any agreements that are reached now will be in the future.

However, the background is more complicated than this simple logic would suggest. Russia’s approach to relations with the DPRK should be taken in the context of its overall Asia policy: some Russian strategists argue that the Asia-Pacific region is the most dynamic area of the world and Russia, as a Euro-Pacific country, should turn to the East for national survival. In July 2010, President Medvedev convened a State Council meeting in Khabarovsk for a discussion of the measures Russia should take to strengthen its position in the Asia-Pacific region and a special program to this effect was adopted later. Obviously China is the number one target of Russia’s political-military and economic activity. However, it certainly is not the only one. Russia’s relationship with Japan is a “difficult case” and will remain so for years to come. ASEAN countries are important for the creation of a regional security architecture, but so far the prospects for economic cooperation are dim. On the contrary, the bordering Northeast Asia region is the area where Russia still matters and where it has real economic interests. The Korean peninsula is the key to opening the door to the Pacific, and relations with Pyongyang are the leverage that allows Moscow to make a difference.

It is not surprising that Russia has no choice but to woo North Korean leaders. Therefore Moscow has taken active measures to restore its position in North Korea in recent months. Political contacts were swiftly made, including consultations on the denuclearization agenda. A number of economic issues, including debt rescheduling as well as bilateral and trilateral projects were discussed at working level talks and showed some progress. Russia provided food aid to Pyongyang in 2011—both bilaterally and through international organizations. This aid donation was the largest for Russia in decades and was conspicuous against the backdrop of US and ROK refusal to provide the North with any assistance.

The culmination of these policies was the August 2011 Ulan-Ude Summit. Why would Kim Jong Il bother to take a train this far? It should be noted that Russia, a noncommunist influential country and a member of both the G-8 and the UN Security Council, remains for North Korea a sort of “window to the West.” On a more personal note, Kim Jong Il (who incidentally was born in the Russian Far East) seems to harbor nostalgic feelings for this Northern country and has always expressed his desire to travel across it more often. The search for a balancer of paramount Chinese influence is another obvious cause, much discussed in the media, as well as a desire to get more support in Pyongyang’s relations vis-à-vis the United States, South Korea, and Japan.

For North Koreans, the security issues on the peninsula (North-South confrontations and the nuclear issue) appeared the predominant discussion with Russian leaders: if we look at the composition of Kim’s entourage, it included mostly foreign policy and military cadres. Russia’s demand to resume the diplomatic process on denuclearization of the Korean peninsula was met with a positive response from the North in March during Russian Vice Foreign Minister Alexey Borodavkin’s visit. Pyongyang publicly declared its readiness to adhere to the Six Party Talks basic agreement reached in 2005, to discuss its uranium enrichment program, to consider a moratorium on nuclear and missile activities, and to accept international inspections.[i] However, at that time, this signal was dismissed by South Korea and the United States as “inadequate.”

This time it was the leader himself who declared North Korea ready to resume Six Party Talks without any conditions and prepared for a moratorium on nuclear tests and the production of nuclear materials—something the international community has requested for so long. He later repeated this in China. This is as much as you can expect from North Korea—the unannounced moratorium is actually already in place, and the uranium enrichment discussion can start from scratch. Nevertheless, both United States and South Korea have thus far demonstrated a lukewarm reaction, pointing out “that was not enough” (as their position is that talks can only take place after North Korea meets these conditions and demonstrates “sincerity”). 

Of course, if the theory of the “forthcoming collapse” of North Korea (hence pressure and isolation on the ROK’s part and “benign neglect” on the part of the US) still dominates, this pretext is as good as any to reject talking to Pyongyang. However, the North Korean regime shows no sign of collapsing. Kim’s health proved to be good enough for a lengthy journey with many friendly meetings, while his son’s position has become strong enough for Kim to leave the country’s management in his hands for a week. Thus, waiting for regime change is a dead-end strategy.

If, however, such a US-ROK position is just a bargaining chip to extract as much as possible from North Korea before resuming talks, a positive outcome may follow and a compromise might be found. Goodwill should be shown on both sides and North Korea has already made its move. Hopefully some bilateral contacts with United States and South Korea are to follow, which, in accordance with Chinese efforts, could lead to the resumption of the Six Party Talks. Russia now holds a more tangible stake in this and, together with China, should persuade both Seoul and Washington to resume the diplomatic process, however far in the future achieving its end goal—denuclearization—might seem.

I believe the Six Party Talks, if resumed, should have a broader agenda then before: if they concentrate only on North Korean “denuclearization” (whatever this means), they will be fruitless. The issues of North Korean security guarantees as well as a peace and security regime should be addressed to make possible first the freezing of missile and nuclear activities and then reduction of WMD potential. “Prior denuclearization,” especially taking into account Gaddafi’s fate that Kim surely does not want to repeat, is a fantasy.  

Other very concrete measures that Russia has proposed to ease tensions on the Korean peninsula and to improve the North’s economic situation are trilateral economic projects (Russia-North Korea-South Korea), including the gas pipeline project and the trans-Korean railroad. The most widely discussed item on the summit agenda was the gas pipeline to supply Russian natural gas from Sakhalin to South Korea through DPRK territory. I personally doubt any ROK government—present or future—would decide to entrust the North with gas supply to its country unless inter-Korean relations improve considerably regardless of a firm commitment demonstrated by North Koreans. It is true, however, that the initial reaction by the South Korean government was unexpectedly enthusiastic. We should carefully watch how this enthusiasm will translate into practical actions on both sides of the 38th parallel.

There is a wide-spread suspicion in the South that the North might be tempted to use a future pipeline as an instrument of blackmailing both South Korea and Russia. However, North Korea is not Ukraine (of which, the refusal to allow gas transit to Europe and the use of gas without paying caused a major crisis). First, should Kim give to Moscow a guarantee of uninterrupted supply, it would probably be carried out. Second, since the pipeline would bring profit and much-needed energy for North Korea, “turning off the valve” would be shooting itself in the foot. Regardless of what politicians might think, the North Koreans are pretty pragmatic (e.g. the Kaesong industrial zone continues to operate regardless of frozen North-South relations). Third, the gas supply through the pipeline cannot become a political weapon against the South as it probably will not account for more than 10 percent of the market; should supply stop, South Korea could easily get the fuel from other suppliers and consumers would probably not even notice.

However, the gas pipeline issue could become a bone of contention between Russia and the DPRK. A Ukrainian-style situation would be more of a problem for the supplier (Russia): should North Koreans use more gas than the quota or stop the supply to the South, Russia would have to compensate the end-user for non-delivered gas and/or get payment for the gas North Korea consumed. So acquiring iron-clad guarantees and a mechanism to control deliveries is important mostly for Russia before the project starts. One key issue will revolve around what form North Koreans would prefer to get their transit fees (probably by gas deliveries, which are difficult technical and financial problems). Who shoulders the burden of that investment is another problem that will need resolution before any project can move forward, and will not be solved overnight.

Given the lack of enthusiasm to bring about economic stabilization in the North, I believe neither US nor ROK conservatives, both warily watching Russian advances in this sensitive area, would be unhappy if nothing happened with the gas pipeline. Nor would China, which might be jealous of a lessening of Pyongyang’s economic dependence. Additionally, for Beijing, the appearance of an alternative pipeline for gas consumers, breaking China’s monopoly, is not welcome news.

As a result of the summit, the parties have called for a trilateral Russia-DPRK-ROK joint commission for gas pipeline feasibility studies. The outcome of the Russian gas monopoly Gazprom’s dealings with South Korean KOGAS should be an indicator of the potential for progress. Should President Lee Myung Bak wish to leave at least some positive legacy on inter-Korean relations, I believe he should agree to start the trilateral feasibility studies at the earliest possible opportunity—maybe a summit with President Medvedev—as they will last long beyond his term in office.

At the same time, the trans-Korean railroad connection seems to be a more realistic project (and the pilot part from Khasan to Rajin undertaken by Russian state-owned company is nearing completion), so it should not be overshadowed by gas “pipe dreams.” In more concrete details, these and other projects were discussed in Pyongyang after Kim’s visit at a meeting of the Intergovernmental Commission on Economic and Technical Cooperation, headed by cabinet ministers.

Russia is trying to play an “honest broker” role (unlike the United States or China, who each have only one client) striving to improve North-South relations by concrete economic cooperation, among other things, and to facilitate a diplomatic solution to the security crisis.


[i] A March 15, 2011 KCNA statement said: “The Russian side expressed its stand that the six-party talks should be resumed at an early date to settle the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula in a political and diplomatic manner. It pointed out that it is important to take constructive measures such as DPRK’s moratorium on nuclear test and ballistic missile launch, access of IAEA experts to uranium enrichment facilities in the Yongbyon area and discussion of the issue of uranium enrichment at the six-party talks.

The DPRK side expressed its stand that it can go out to the six-party talks without any precondition, it is not opposed to the discussion of the above-said issue at the six-party talks and if the talks are resumed, other issues raised by the Russian side can be also discussed and settled in the course of implementing the September 19 Joint Statement calling for the denuclearization of the whole Korean Peninsula on the principle of simultaneous action.” Source: http://www.kcna.co.jp/item/2011/201103/news15/20110315-21ee.html.

An earlier version of this article, “Russia’s Stake in a Denuclearized Korean Peninsula,” was published by the Nautilus Institute on September 1, 2011.

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