By Tony Rinna*
Even in situations where diplomatic negotiations over the North Korean nuclear weapons program are handled in a largely bilateral level, there is still often an element of multilateralism, as exemplified by the late Ambassador Bosworth’s briefing to Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov regarding DPRK-US bilateral talks in 2009. Now, once again, Russia has received a challenge and an opportunity not only for its diplomacy on the Korean Peninsula, but for its broader relations with other states in Northeast Asia and, in particular, the United States.
The North Korean nuclear program is a case-in-point of where defense and diplomacy meet, for both are highly important factors in the Korean nuclear crisis. Given the highly multilateral nature of international handling of Pyongyang’s WMD program, the Russian Federation, which has been a somewhat lesser yet significant actor in diplomatic negotiations with the DPRK, may have a chance to play a greater role in this most recent development, and thus mitigate some of its own diplomatic isolation.
To be sure, there is some speculation and uncertainty as to whether North Korea has a truly functioning hydrogen bomb, or if it is a close but yet-incomplete hydrogen explosive device. Nevertheless, there can be little doubt of a new shift in the security landscape of both the Korean Peninsula and the broader Northeast Asia region. Regardless of whether this test means that North Korea currently does possess a functioning hydrogen bomb or is close but not in full possession yet, the Korean security game has been ratcheted up to a new level. Seeing as a hydrogen bomb has even more destructive power than a nuclear weapon, the stakeholders in the Korean nuclear crisis must now contend with an ever higher-stakes situation that will require even more diplomatic finesse.
Among the members of the former Six Party Talks, the Russian Federation was in a rather unique position. After the collapse of the USSR, its relationship with North Korea took a dramatic downturn, especially as post-Soviet Moscow established diplomatic relations with Seoul. Russia’s official policy toward North and South Korea was often described as “equidistance” toward the two Korean states. China, for its part, stepped into the void and became more closely aligned with North Korea.
After ties between China and the DPRK began to worsen once again, Russia has moved in as a partner for North Korea once again. This partnership has been limited largely to economic considerations. The DPRK and Russia have, however, initiated some limited cooperation on security issues, such as the signing of an agreement on preventing dangerous military activities in Northeast Asia. Yet even with these developments, there are certain limits to this revived partnership between Pyongyang and Moscow.
A common perception of the budding DPRK-Russia partnership is that both countries see an opportunity to essentially team up against the West. A crucial point to remember, however, is that while Russia may be willing to cooperate with North Korea on some economic and even security issues, North Korea’s nuclear program remains a source of anguish for Moscow just as it does for other countries in the region.
Shortly after the test, Konstantin Kosachev, the head of the foreign affairs committee of the upper house of Russia’s parliament, declared on his Facebook page that such activities directly affect Russia’s national security interests.
Not only has North Korea’s nuclear test drawn concern from Moscow, but Russian citizens in Primorsky Krai (the Russian federal division that shares a small border with North Korea) have also expressed concern about the potential for nuclear fallout to reach inhabited areas. The Primorsky Weather Center, however, has declared that citizens did not need to worry, as the test was underground, and that radiation will not be carried by the wind into any residential parts of the region.
In response to the test, South Korean president Park Geun-hye has called for the UN Security Council to issue new sanctions against North Korea. The Japanese government has also condemned the test, and has stated that it will be in close contact with other regional governments, including that of the Russian Federation, regarding the incident.
One of the most crucial factors in Russia’s stance toward the North Korean nuclear crisis is that it has been a major proponent of multilateral talks and not just bilateral discussions between Pyongyang and Washington. To be sure, while the Six Party Talks have officially been defunct since North Korea walked out after its second nuclear test in 2009, informal negotiations and interactions between regional stakeholders have continued in earnest. This does not mean, however, that they have in any way been equal. Just as Russia fought hard to earn a place at the Six Party Talks against American wishes, Russia has once again found its interests affronted in the unofficial interstate interactions over the DPRK’s nuclear capabilities. Russia regarded the Sino-American cooperation on UN Resolution 1718 as an unpleasant surprise.
The news surrounding the North Korean test may present an opportunity for Russia to mitigate its diplomatic isolation. The last North Korean nuclear test occurred in 2013, before Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the attendant international condemnation. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, Russia has a chance to present itself as a cooperative and constructive actor on the international stage. As Russia shares concerns with the US, there may be a chance for Russia to mend some of its broken ties with the US.
Yet while Russia has been condemnatory of the DPRK’s nuclear adventurism in the past, it has also been less outspoken than the United States in this regard. Depending on the extent to which Russia considers its revived partnership with North Korea to be important, Moscow’s diplomatic calculations may lead it to either take a harder stance toward Pyongyang, or continue in its role of condemning North Korea’s tests but not in the same way as the US. Regardless of which direction Russian diplomacy takes, the North Korean nuclear test will likely provide Russia yet another major opportunity to exercise some level of influence in inter-Korean and Northeast Asian affairs. In the end, the Kremlin will do what it feels is best for Russia’s own national interests. Yet it may also be a chance for Russia to mend broken bridges, or at least portray itself once again as a responsible member of the global states’ system.
About the author:
*Tony Rinna is a specialist in Russian foreign policy and security affairs in East Asia. He currently resides in South Korea.
This article appeared at Modern Diplomacy