Russia’s Take on the North Korean Crisis

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The current crisis on the Korean Peninsula was unexpected for Russia and raised serious concerns that both North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump could recklessly push the situation over the brink.

However, the probability of an open military conflict is still low and the pressure to solve the North Korean problem is not effective in the sense of being acceptable to the US. Moreover, controlled tension on the Korean Peninsula is more beneficial strategically to the US, in order to pressure China, making it inevitable that sooner or later the only remaining option of dialogue will be sought.

The main new factor in the situation is a constructive role by the new South Korean government that can “take the driver’s seat” in this process. It would be wise for Russia to increase its cooperation with Seoul regarding practical options to promote a diplomatic solution.

The sudden crisis caught Russian policymakers off guard. It made the Kremlin once again consider the possibilities for Russia to influence the situation close to its borders. The situation was for decades considered more or less stable and not prone to an open military clash. Despite being accustomed to a recurrence of hostilities in Korea, this latest saber-rattling served as more proof of turbulence and the unpredictability of political currents in the era of "global disorder" and transition in which we live. The sudden shift of the Trump administration to resorting to the possibility of a military solution seems to be spontaneous and does not take into consideration the possible consequences.

This also seems to defy North Korea’s possible expectations. In the initial days of the Trump administration, North Korea exercised relative restraint compared to similar periods in previous years where a springtime increase in tensions was a familiar pattern for the Peninsula because of military exercises in the South.

In the early months of this year, despite the political crisis in South Korea, which presented a tempting opportunity for some kind of mischief by Pyongyang, nothing extraordinary happened (I do not think that routine missile tests can be counted as provocations threatening world peace). The increase in the number and quality of the missile tests happened, in fact, after the demonstration of force by the US and the elections in South Korea. Pyongyang seems to have decided to “teach them a lesson” and raise the stakes, which is a familiar game. Now, even a nuclear test cannot be excluded if dialogue is not restarted in the near future.

Trump’s choice of the notoriously insolvable Korean problem as a test of his foreign policy is also inexplicable. This is not a Gordian knot that can be cut with a single stroke. Nor is there a need for urgency. Despite all the rhetoric, sober analysts agree that North Korea is not going to start a war against the US (unlike the Islamic State) and is highly unlikely even to attack South Korea, even if Pyongyang were to succeed in acquiring "second strike" capability against the US – a possibility that is some years away.

It is emotionally understandable that South Koreans, whose memories of the 1950 North Korean invasion have not faded, may suspect that North Koreans might resort to such an adventure, assuming the newly acquired nuclear deterrent would make US interference too risky for Washington. However, North Koreans are not madmen; they perfectly well understand that even without US interference it would be virtually impossible to occupy the South, not to mention to govern it and manage what would be a devastated country with all outside links cut.

For that reason, is a real concern for US territorial security a reason to act swiftly? This is something Russia may see as a good reason for some kind of action. Trump’s emotional “discovery” of the North Korean nuclear problem is understandable (one blogger described the US reaction to what is perceived as the emergence of nuclear-armed North Korea to that of a man waking up in the middle of the night to see a venomous spider crawling onto him).

However, it has been long considered that a “kinetic action” against North Korean nuclear and missile armaments (or even against the North Korean leadership) would be ineffective, because the chances of success would be slim. The location of all of the North’s armaments are not known with certainty and Pyongyang has for decades prepared for such a development. Besides that, risking a full-scale military conflict with the possibility of millions of victims in Northeast Asia is irresponsible at the very least.

Besides, if the US is really afraid that North Korea might become a third enemy state, after Russia and China, that could hit the US with a nuclear attack, there is a more pragmatic way to block such a development - a verifiable compromise. The quarter-century long approach of "strategic patience" (in fact, containment of North Korea in the anticipation of an "inevitable collapse" of the regime) means that compromise has never been seriously explored.

However, even common sense would suggest that a military solution is too high a price to pay for settling an issue with which the world has been living for years.

Therefore, many in Russia believe the April-May crisis, during which the North Korean problem was blown out of all proportion, is not even a calculated bluff, but simply a whimsical attempt to remind the world of the ability of the US to untie global knots using merely its will and military potential. It also may be read as an attempt to strengthen future negotiating positions to derive maximum concessions from the opposing party.

And possibly, the main goal is to "show China" its "real" place in world politics and confirm US leadership. This did bring some results with respect to China, because Chinese President Xi Jinping is said to have promised Trump at their bilateral meeting in Florida to “do something” about North Korea “within 100 days,” and reluctantly increased pressure on North Korea.

However, it looks like this is being done by Beijing more to gain time and avert an immediate crisis than to solve the problem, because the Chinese are perfectly aware that even a cut-off in vital supplies, such as oil, would not make the North Korean leadership “change their mind” about the missile and nuclear issue, but could in fact lead to instability in this “buffer state,” something that would be against Chinese interests.

This period could be used to suggest some other choices for China regarding its partnerships with other countries (for example, the Korean issue has been prominently present on the agenda of every Putin-Xi meeting in recent months).

Could this attempt at coercive diplomacy succeed? On the one hand, it is not a bad thing that the situation regarding the Korean problem has moved out of a stalemate and acquired some dynamism that in the long run might prove conducive to finding a solution. However, Russia strongly believes that such a solution should be a negotiated one and that any use of military force would lead to a catastrophe.

It might be reassuring that precisely because, as the US keeps reiterating, "all options are on the table," an eventual resort to the option of dialogue and compromise could take place. This would be strongly supported by Russia, which would be prepared to join efforts with anyone to pursue such a course of action.

Russia’s geopolitical and strategic involvement

Russia has long advocated that although North Korea is a country with many particularities that are not acceptable in terms of universally accepted norms of the global order, this country is still a given reality, an established state, a member of UN, whose legitimate national interests, such as its sovereignty and right to exist, should be respected.

Decades of Russia's interaction with North Korea have proven that simple rejection of this reality and negativism do not work. Moreover, every time Moscow has become frustrated over not reaching a compromise and distanced itself from Pyongyang, it has lost its influence over the course of events, and not only Russia's own interests suffered, but also regional security.

Isolation, sanctions, pressure won’t work

North Korea should be critiqued and called to order; but isolation, sanctions and pressure alone will be not only useless for the announced goal of demilitarization, but will also impede reforms and "conventionalization" of the country. And only an evolution towards normality - marketization and the decrease of coercion in society that is slowly drifting from totalitarianism to autocracy - can eventually bring North Korea on equal terms with the world.

This is a reason to provide for its security. Only by having such security guarantees can North Korea be expected to renounce its "nuclear deterrence," with this being not a prerequisite but the end goal of a lengthy process.

So, any appeals for "prior denuclearization" are at best naive, or just a cover to buy time to strangle the regime with sanctions and subversion to radically solve the North Korean problem by eliminating it.

For Russia, while the Korean issue might be among the top 10 that need to be addressed in diplomatic discussions with other global players, it is probably not one considered to be an acute threat to Russian national interests requiring immediate action. Since the end of the Korean War, Russia has not concentrated much military, diplomatic or economic resources in order to change the situation on the Korean Peninsula. In fact, the current equilibrium is the lesser evil in a conflict involving powerful players that might change for the worse the geopolitical situation on Russia's eastern frontier.

Any turbulence in Korea is detrimental to Russia's strategy to acquire a stronger foothold in Asia and to develop its Far Eastern regions in cooperation with other regional economies. A conflict in Korea would not only bring devastation to the whole of the neighboring area, but also completely change the strategic equation in Asia and have severe repercussions for the global economy.

Even a peaceful absorption of the North by the South would mean a revision of the regional order established as a result of WWII, and would completely change the strategic situation (for example, creating a situation where China and Russia would directly border a unified Korea that also remains a US military ally).

So, while the nuclear program in North Korea constitutes a challenge to the non-proliferation regime, the cornerstone of global strategic stability and a basic factor for Russia's national security, it does not mean this issue should be solved by simply any means.

Russia’s strategic role and initiatives

Russia sincerely wishes that the current hostilities could become a prelude for a meaningful diplomatic process leading to a negotiated compromise. Now that Trump has proved his point – that the North Korean missile and nuclear problem is a threat to US national interests, that it will not be tolerated, and having succeeded in preempting, at least for now, further development of North Korea's nuclear and missile potential - it is time to address the problem squarely. That means to talk and to engage, despite the fact that this might be unpopular in some quarters in Washington.

But even "almighty" Washington needs support from other actors not only to find a solution but also to uphold any arrangements made. All the relevant countries, including Russia, universally want the elimination of North Korean nuclear weapons and provision of security and stability in Northeast Asia by peaceful means (not excluding military deterrence, of course - an early solution to the North Korean nuclear program would prevent an increase in militarization and an arms race in the region, including remilitarization of Japan, which could cause a snowball effect).

Is this at all possible given the nature of the North Korean regime? I believe that Kim Jong Un, who might possibly finally be accepted not as paranoid but as a "smart cookie," has amply shown through his reign that he is ready both for war and for cooperation, the only caveat being that he wants relations on an equal footing and to not be treated as subservient. In fact, he is on record suggesting several initiatives to drastically change relations with the South – only to be rejected by the former government of Park Geun-hye, which was absorbed in delusions of the "imminent collapse" of the Pyongyang regime and "jackpot unification." Kim also made some peaceful gestures to the US, including the idea of a "peace treaty" and a "moratorium for moratorium" formula.[/nextpage]

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It is fortunate that the new South Korean government seems to be much more realistic and seems to understand that simply isolating and pressuring North Korea is not enough to achieve any meaningful progress. Seoul seems to be prepared both for dialogue with North Korea and to solicit support from other international players. It is important that President Moon Jae-in’s special envoy to Moscow, Song Young-gil, discussed these issues with Russian leaders, including President Vladimir Putin, in May, and even discussed the idea of Russia more directly engaging North Korea by sending a special envoy to Pyongyang.

A message from President Moon was also delivered to President Putin. It seems that the current South Korean approach aimed at direct dialogue, multiparty talks, and the eventual creation of a collective security system in Northeast Asia is in sync with Russian proposals on political-diplomatic means of solving the Korean issue. Russia and South Korea can work hand in hand to realize such concepts.

Practical implications

How can the diplomatic process be started? I purposefully do not write "re-started," because it should not be a continuation of the 2003-2008 exercises, but rather a brand new effort with a broad mandate: the principle difference is that the agenda should not be limited to discussing the nuclear problem only, but should encompass a wide range of issues related to achieving comprehensive security on the Korean Peninsula.

I believe this process should start with direct US-North Korea talks on these new modalities. The crucial issue is that some realistic initial goals should be set. The most obvious one seems to be the concept of “moratorium for moratorium,” suggested first by the North Koreans and later elaborated on by China. The first-stage goal could be a freeze on North Korean missile and nuclear development in response to a US moratorium on “hostile actions” and the start of meaningful dialogue.

However, it should be well understood that discussing complete denuclearization (complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement, or CVID) at this stage would lead nowhere and would only ruin the dialogue. That may become a distant final goal, but not a practical agenda item. The possibility of North Korea retaining its existing nuclear arsenal while ending production of new weaponry might be considered in the future.

However, at this stage, it is vital to start the talks with a freeze as a first step. Moreover, North Korea at this very moment might be reluctant to discuss even that. They may be hurrying to finalize the development of ICBMs and a reliable second-strike capability and may be ready for talks “from a position of force” only after achieving “strategic parity” with the US (in their understanding).

But lack of progress on the US-North Korea track should not preclude North-South dialogue on restoring cooperation and healing the wounds of the previous decade, dismantling the pitiful heritage of the conservative era. Hopefully, this will be initiated by the new South Korean government. However, in order to avoid rejection, any such initiative from Seoul should not mention the nuclear issue: this is an agenda for multi-party discussion, because South Korea is not in a position to provide any security guarantees for the North. It remains to be seen how soon North Korea will be ready to respond, because it would first like to determine the Moon government’s degree of independence from US pressure.

Also, a general discussion on the possible mechanism for the talks and principles of peace and cooperation in Northeast Asia should be conducted in the relevant working group of the former Six-Party talks (headed by Russia). This could be reestablished as an organizing bureau or secretariat for future multi-party talks.

If such preliminary steps prove successful, the formal process may be jump-started by a symbolic meeting of the foreign ministers of the six countries plus plenipotentiary representatives of the UN and the IAEA on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September, perhaps in the presence of the national leaders. The first issue on the agenda of the talks should be the voluntary freeze of the North Korean nuclear program for the duration of the talks in exchange for easing sanctions.

Of course, such daydreams are hard to realize. However, the political and diplomatic solution advocated by Russia is not impossible. The single condition for it is that the adversaries should face reality and rely on hard facts. The US and South Korea should come to terms with the existence of North Korea and pursue a policy of coexistence rather than seeking to undermine the "dreadful" regime. South Korea should abandon its dreams of unification by absorption and learn to live with a difficult neighbor, projecting the attitude of a mature and developed country.

North Korea should admit the fact that there will never be peace and prosperity in North Korea unless it abandons its nuclear weapons program (provided a new security regime is first established). Then, other regional players such as China, Russia and Japan could play constructive roles in bridging the gaps and misunderstandings, based on the simple fact that a war in Korea would benefit no one.

Finally, I do believe a new South Korean government at this stage could play a significant role in working out and implementing such concepts and thus take the "driver's seat" in the settlement of the Korean problem.

Georgy Toloraya is a former diplomat with decades-long experience in Asian affairs and a scholar on Asian and global issues. He served two postings in North Korea (1977-1980 and 1984-1987. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect any official position of the East Asia Foundation, which give permission for reprinting. [/nextpage]