Can a Russia-China Axis Help Find a Solution to Problems on the Korean Peninsula?

Russia’s potential role in managing the North Korean nuclear problem is usually dismissed or seen in the United States as echoing that of China. However, Russia is in a position to “tip the scales” in a difficult balancing on Korean affairs even if its direct economic influence is limited. A sober evaluation of this position as well as of Russia’s readiness to support or oppose policies of more influential partners, like the US and China, is thus vital.

The truth is that Russia and China do not see eye to eye on every aspect of the situation on the Korean peninsula, as well as on some other problems in Eurasia. These nuances have recently gained importance as North Korea has become openly negative to China and its meddling in Korean affairs. While relations with China have soured, Pyongyang continues to show friendliness toward Russia as an alternative to its only sponsor.

Russia, of course, has no illusions that the Kim Jong Un regime can be fully trusted, or radically influenced, let alone become a close friend or an ally. Through decades of experience, Moscow also knows Pyongyang easily changes sides and betrays trust. Therefore, Russia clearly sees the limits in trying to change North Korea’s external behavior, especially on existential matters such as nuclear and missile deterrence.

Moreover, for both Russia and China, the Korean issue is important in terms of relations with the United States, but its prioritization in each country’s foreign policy agenda is totally different. China encounters increasing and considerable pressure from the US on the North Korea issue while Russia has been more or less seen as a player of less importance, needing less attention from Washington. The United States, Russia and China all seem to share the vision of a denuclearized Korean peninsula. They also share concerns that North Korea’s provocative behavior is causing the threat of proliferation grow and increased militarization of the regional powers. However, what is less recognized is that the degree of coordination between Moscow and Beijing could play a major role in solving this problem.

Nuances in General Approaches 

For Russia, the Korean problem has simultaneously global (nonproliferation and relations with great powers), regional (economic and security issues in Northeast Asia) and bilateral (relations with the two Koreas) aspects. In each of these dimensions, the degree of tension between Moscow and Beijing varies.

(Photo: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the People’s Republic of China/Xinhua News)

On the global agenda, China and Russia fully agree on the need to achieve denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and to do it in a peaceful manner by political means. This was stated many times recently at the highest levels of government exchanges, including a meeting in Beijing between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping, as well as during a meeting between the two countries’ foreign ministers in Moscow in May.

But the stakes for the capitals are very different. A military conflict in the neighborhood would be a disaster for both countries—but of greatly differing magnitude. These consequences could be catastrophic for China, but less so for Russia. In addition to potential territorial or economic devastation (and even possible environmental contamination if unable to contain the destruction or uncontrolled proliferation of North Korea’s nuclear, chemical or biological objects and weapons in a timely fashion), China would also face a flow of refugees much more numerous than Russia. More importantly, Beijing would encounter the radical change in its strategic regional and global positions regardless of the outcome of this conflict:

  • In case of the dissolution of North Korea as a state, China loses its buffer against the United States. Should South Korea take control over what would remain of the North, and US military presence persists, Beijing would face enormous military and political challenges. Having the US military on its doorstep would force a shift in China’s strategy, with the United States as its chief enemy;
  • In case North Korea survives a military conflict, even with perhaps a change of regime, China would have nothing left to do but to protect this “buffer state” in a more rigorous manner, maybe even taking direct control of it.

For Russia, outside of the fallout from global and region-wide consequences of conflict, both scenarios would simply mean an increased military and political standoff with the United States in the Asia-Pacific (and there was not much collusion to begin with) and a loss of influence on the Korean peninsula—a depressing proposition, but not tragic. Therefore, Moscow would strongly employ political and diplomatic leverage to oppose such a development from coming to fruition, and would be reluctant to be directly involved in hostilities, such as the recent “Syrian scenario.”

However, the existence of the North Korean state is not a matter of the highest vital priority for Russia as it is for China. Accordingly, Moscow sees less urgency in solving the North Korean nuclear problem in comparison with other policy irritants—such as Ukraine, Syria, Middle East, NATO expansion, etc.—it faces elsewhere. In fact, it would prefer the status quo with slow positive dynamics, whereas Beijing would like to reverse the process of nuclear armament. Furthermore, Russia is more concerned not with having a nuclear-armed state at its doorstep (a bad situation, but it does help to prevent major conflict), but with the possible negative consequences for the broader nonproliferation regime and potential domino effect leading other neighboring countries to build up nuclear arms.

For these reasons, Russia seems reluctant to equate too much danger with Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs; it sees no direct threat from North Korean missiles and generally disagrees to the absolute denial of the right of any country to develop such technologies, provided that country carries out these actions in accordance with existing international laws and norms. China is not eager to share such an attitude.

The attitudes of the two countries towards sanctions also have some differences. Russia is well aware that attempts to make North Korean leaders “change their minds” on developing WMD through sanctions and pressure are useless, if not counterproductive (leading only to increased militarization of North Korea). As such, Moscow seems skeptical about unlimited increases in pressure to the extent of a de-facto blockade of North Korea, also wary about the possible humanitarian consequences. Russia is also not very happy about the widening use of sanctions as an instrument of foreign policy (being the object of sanctions itself) and about China’s resort to this instrument. Moscow is reluctant to support new sanctions beyond the proscribed limits, established by the United Nations, fearing that North Korea might become a “training ground” for creating mechanisms to solicit international support on unilateral sanctions against any actor disliked by the United States in the future. Consequently, Chinese concessions this year on increasing sanctions because of US pressure win only limited support in Russia and it is not about to fully follow Beijing’s example.

Practical Aspects 

Regionally and bilaterally Russia has even more differences with China on the issues related to the Korean peninsula. Moscow is concerned that it can be sidelined in a possible diplomatic process should China accept US insistence that Beijing must take responsibility for Pyongyang, “or else…” The idea of the “G-2”making a final solution on the Korean issue is of no particular appeal to Moscow. During the recent meeting with ROK President Moon Jae-in’s new special envoy, President Putin did not deny a possibility of sending an emissary to Pyongyang in an effort to become more involved in the situation. Russia is more insistent than China that the final solution should be found in the six-party format over concerns that it might otherwise be left out of the decision making process.

Russia is also interested in playing a prominent role on future economic and logistical cooperation schemes in Northeast Asia, which otherwise would be totally dominated by China, such as the routing of possible railroads and pipelines via North Korea. Furthermore, China seems to have some jealousy over Russia’s North Korean ties (skillfully nurtured by the North Koreans), which was especially noticeable in 2013-2015 as Moscow-Pyongyang interactions peaked.

As for relations with South Korea, the controversy over the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system is an issue of much greater urgency to China than to Russia. Russia is concerned only in the idea that systems in Korea could become a part of overall US global anti-missile defense system affecting Russia’s strategic capabilities. However, Moscow is not about to sanction Seoul for deploying THAAD, as Beijing did, although it supports Beijing’s stance on the issue. As a whole, Russia would like to see a more multi-vector policy of the new Moon administration in Seoul without excessive leaning on either the United States or China.

Now at the top of Moscow and Beijing’s bilateral foreign policy agenda, the degree of cooperation on Korean issues between the two neighbors will depend greatly on the future course of US policy. Should US President Trump insist on a possible military option, this would meet unanimous opposition from both China and Russia, and bring the two countries even closer—with China at the forefront. Should a course for an eventual bargain with North Korea be taken, despite different possible scenarios, Moscow and Beijing would support them as both see the diplomatic option as the only way to stabilize the situation and move toward a comprehensive solution that takes into account the interests of all the principal shareholders.

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