Russia and North Korea: Time to Move from Tactics to Strategy

April 9, 2003

Russia and North Korea: Time to Move from Tactics to Strategy

 The rapid escalation of tensions on the Korean Peninsula poses a serious threat to the security of countries of Northeast Asia, including Russia.

 The rapid escalation of tensions on the Korean Peninsula poses a serious threat to the security of countries of Northeast Asia, including Russia. The nuclearization of North Korea, which seems inevitable unless a prompt and collective response is undertaken by the major powers, could lead to further proliferation in the region and objectively weaken Russia's military and political influence. Alternatively, a U.S.-led preemptive and punitive strike would endanger Russia's border with Korea and adversely affect Russia's hopes of economically benefiting from any improved situation between the North and the South and a more benign security environment of northeast Asia. Therefore Russia has a major stake in the immediate normalization of the situation and a complete cessation of confrontational exchanges between Pyongyang and Washington.  The current crisis on the peninsula also tests the viability of Russia's closer relations with Pyongyang, which had become possible after Vladimir Putin's energetic personal efforts and his several meetings with Kim Jong-il.  In other words, the Korean challenge is more than a matter of positioning oneself diplomatically in the Washington-Pyongyang standoff. It is more than just balancing between U.S. concerns about North Korea or North Korea's apprehensions about the U.S. It is about ensuring Russia's important security and economic interests in the Far East. Moscow needs to be more assertive. 

For many years, Russian diplomacy has been calling for the establishment of a multilateral forum in northeast Asia to improve mutual trust and address urgent security issues, such as the Korean situation. Moscow has been visibly unhappy about being excluded from the previous formats, such as the Four Party talks, which involve both Korean governments, the United States and China.  Russian skepticism regarding the restricted formats of talks and earlier arrangements regarding Korea, such as the 1994 Agreed Framework, was obvious too. But neither the United States nor China seemed willing to accommodate Russia's interest in being part of the Korean process. The situation has radically changed now. As the Russian saying goes, there is a positive side in any negative process, or every cloud has a silver lining.  Moscow has suddenly become useful for Washington and, perhaps, for China too.     

As a result of America's preoccupation with Iraq, the U.S. has not only altered its earlier objection to a broader multilateral diplomatic process on Korea but is now actively lobbying regional countries, including Russia, to engage more actively in addressing the nuclear challenge on the Korean Peninsula.  While Russia publicly still recognizes the importance of a multilateral format, it insists that the U.S. and North Korea have to sort out the problem between themselves first. But if they do, why would they want a multilateral process? If Russia genuinely believes that multilateralism suits its national interests best and is not just a Soviet-era ploy to undermine the preeminence of American influence on the  Korean Peninsula, it should act more proactively. It should not quietly acquiesce to North Korea' s lukewarm attitude towards a multilateral format.    

In case the United States and North Korea are unable to come to a bilateral understanding, sanctions and retaliation against Pyongyang are likely to follow. The impact on Russia's interests would undoubtedly be negative. If Washington and Pyongyang resume the dialogue, their predictable outcome would be a return to the 1994 deal or something similar. It could stabilize the situation in the short-term but would eventually lead to a new crisis sometime in the future. As long as the North Korean regime is repressive, secretive and isolationist, no illusions should be harbored regarding American security guarantees to Pyongyang.  

What the Korean peninsula really needs is a multilateral process, which would allow Russia and other regional countries to consult with each other on a regular basis and cultivate a culture of mutual acceptance and respect. The United States would have to listen more carefully to the opinions of regional countries about how to deal best with emerging security threats, such as the North Korean nuclear issue. Pyongyang will have fewer chances of playing the major powers against each other, something it is doing very skillfully today.  Additionally, the inclusion of North Korea in the regional process would encourage change in its international and eventually domestic behavior.  


Russia should decide if it really wants to seize a unique opportunity and propose a regional security meeting, perhaps to be convened in Vladivostok. Unlike other northeast Asian powers, it has very limited economic influence on the Korean peninsula.  Proactive and well-calculated diplomacy is Russia's main tool. And it may turn out to be very welcome. 


Rouben Azizian is an Associate Professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu and a former Russian diplomat. The views expressed in this essay are his personal opinions.