Russia and DPRK Proliferation Issues: Goals and Strategy


2012-11-17 By Richard Weitz

Throughout the past decade, under both presidents Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, the Russia’s government policies towards North and South Korea have remained remarkably consistent.

They have pursued several integrated key goals, strategies, and tactics in both the security and economic realms:

  • Russian policy makers are eager to normalize the security situation on the Korean Peninsula both for its own sake and to realize their economic ambitions there.
  • In the security realm, Russia’s objectives include averting another major war on the Korean Peninsula; preventing DPRK actions from prompting additional countries from obtaining nuclear weapons or ballistic missiles; keeping Moscow a major security actor in the region; and eventually eliminating the DPRK’s nuclear program by peaceful means.
  • Russians are clearly opposed to having another nuclear-armed state on their border, especially one armed with missiles and run by an unpredictable dynastic dictatorship.
  • In addition, Russians fear that the DPRK’s possession of nuclear arms could spark further nuclear proliferation in East Asia and beyond in response.

Common Russian strategies to achieve these security goals include the following:

  1. Inducing North Korea to end its disruptive nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs voluntarily, especially the DPRK’s provocative testing of these weapons, through economic assistance and security assurances;
  2. Ending provocative actions by either the North or by the ROK-U.S. alliance in response;
  3. Promoting dialogue and minimizing use of coercion and punishment by keeping any unavoidable sanctions limited; encouraging all parties to fulfill their previous commitments to prevent the unraveling of earlier agreements;
  4. And maintaining a prominent role for Russian diplomacy regarding the Koreas through joint declarations, senior official trips to the region, and promoting the Six-Party Talks and the United Nations Security Council as the main institutions for Korean diplomacy.

Furthermore, Russian policy makers and entrepreneurs have visions of transforming North Korea into a pivotal player in their vision of reviving the Russian Far East and integrating Russia more deeply into the prosperous Asia Pacific region.

Geography alone would give Russia a prominent role in the Korean Peninsula.

The Russian Federation currently shares a recently demarcated 17-km border along the Tumen-river with the DPRK. The proximity is sufficient to ensure that Russian leaders closely follow events in the Koreas and try to influence developments.

In addition, the histories of the Russian and Korean nations have been intertwined for centuries.

The Russian Federation in Asia. Credit Image: Bigstock

The Soviet Union created North Korea and imparted the new state with its horrific Stalinist political-economic model. The Russian-DPRK relationship has atrophied since the USSR’s demise, but ties between the Russian Federation and the ROK have improved considerably in recent years.

Although Russia’s economic role in South Korea lags behind that of some other countries, its status as a full partner in international efforts to resolve the DPRK nuclear crisis ensures that Moscow enjoys some influence regarding Korean security issues.

But Moscow’s influence in the Koreas is constrained by its generally low diplomatic and economic weight in East Asia.

Russian officials constantly fear being shunted aside in the Korea peace and security dialogue, despite what they see as Moscow’s obvious interest in the results.

Although the Russian Federation is physically a Pacific country, few East Asians perceive it as a major regional player due to Russia’s traditional focus on Europe and the weak political and economic ties between Russia and East Asian countries.

To combat these perceptions, Russian policy-makers strive to maintain a high-profile diplomacy and a central role in the Six-Party Talks, a framework that, like the United Nations, substantiates Moscow’s claims to great power status in negotiating East Asian security issues.

Russian officials generally agree that the world would be better if North Korea no longer had nuclear-armed long-range missiles, but they differ with Western governments on the tactics to pursue to avoid such an adverse outcome as well as on the relative severity of the threat. As a matter of principle, Russian government representatives stress their support for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which legitimizes Russia’s status as one of the few nuclear weapons states.

Russia was clearly angered by Kim Jong-il’s defiance of their warnings against testing a nuclear weapon in October 2006. On February 5, 2007, the Russian Ambassador to South Korea, Gleb Ivashentsov, complained that, “The site of the nuclear test by the DPRK on October 9th, 2006 is situated at the distance of just 177 Kms to our border. We do not like that. We do not need in the proximity of our borders neither nuclear and missile tests nor saber-rattling by anyone.”

The Russian delegation to the Six-Party Talks subsequently demanded that the DPRK dismantle its nuclear facilities at Yongbyon rather than simply suspend operations there in order to promote North Korea’s irreversible nuclear disarmament.

In late May 2007, Putin signed a decree banning Russian government and private institutions from transferring equipment, materials, or knowledge that the DPRK could use to develop weapons. It also forbade Russian citizens or institutions from engaging in financial operations with people or entities designated by the UN as supporting the DPRK’s nuclear weapons program. Yet at the end of the day, Russian strategists consider a nuclear-armed DPRK as posing only an indirect threat, since they do not foresee any reason why the DPRK would attack Russia.

More pragmatically, Russian policy makers want to prevent the DPRK’s actions from encouraging other countries—such as South Korea, Japan, and perhaps other states—either through emulation or for defensive reasons, from pursuing their own offensive and defensive strategic weapons, especially nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, and ballistic missile defenses, since these capabilities might under some contingencies might be used against Russia.

Foreign Minister Lavrov made evident Russian concerns of further strategic weapons proliferation when he visited Seoul in April 2009. Lavrov told the press that, “I hope that no one would … use the situation around North Korea to set up alliances, build missile defense networks or announce an intention to possess nuclear weapons.” Alluding to Japan, he added that, “Unfortunately, we hear these announcements from a neighboring country. We think that it is unacceptable.”

When traveling to Japan a few weeks later, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin likewise warned that,” I think it would be completely wrong if we heightened the emotional intensity of our response to the present events and used it to upset the situation in the region or to start an arms race. I think that would be the greatest possible mistake, which would lead us to a dead end.”

Russian leaders have also sought to constrain North Korea’s testing of long-range ballistic missiles because of their proximity to Russian territory and their inaccuracy.

In July 2006, North Korea launched seven missiles that landed in the Sea of Japan within Russia’s 200-nautical miles (370 km) exclusive economic zone. One missile apparently veered off course and landed near the Russian port of Nakhoda. Russia’s most important Pacific coast city and the main port of the Russia’s Pacific Feet, Vladivostok, is located only 140 kilometers from North Korean territory.

In October 2006, the Russian delegation voted in favor of UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1718, which mandated a moratorium on the DPRK’s testing of ballistic missiles. When the DPRK made evident its preparation to resume missile testing in early 2009, the Russian military announced that it had deployed advanced missile defenses nearby to counter any DPRK missiles heading toward Russian territory.

General Nikolai Makarov, chief of staff of the Russian armed forces, even claimed to have deployed a division of Russia’s most advanced air defense system, the S-400, to the Russian Far East. President Medvedev cited North Korea’s missile launches as well as its nuclear weapons tests as a “concern for us” given that, “We are located in close proximity to this country.”

Yet, Russian officials oppose strong sanctions that could precipitate the DPRK regime’s collapse into a failed state. They seek to change Pyongyang’s behavior, but not its regime. Russia remains more concerned about the DPRK’s collapse than Pyongyang’s intransigence regarding its nuclear and missile development programs.

Disintegration of the North Korean regime could induce widespread economic disruptions in East Asia, generate large refugee flows across Russia’s borders, weaken Russian influence in the Koreas by ending their unique status as interlocutors with Pyongyang, and potentially remove a buffer zone separating Russia from American ground forces based in South Korea.

At worst, North Korea’s demise could precipitate a military conflict on the peninsula—which could spill across into Russian territory.

In addition, the substantial South Korean investment flowing into Russia would be redirected toward North Korea’s rehabilitation in advance of the peninsula’s possible reunification. Hoped-for Chinese investment capital would be less likely to materialize in this case as well. Almost any conceivable armed clash on the Korean Peninsula would worsen Russia’s relations with the parties to the conflict.

Like China, Russia favors a “soft landing” for the North Korean regime—a gradual mellowing of its domestic and foreign policies and the eventual renunciation of nuclear weapons.

Russians believe such a benign approach and outcome would obviate the feared consequences of precipitous regime change—humanitarian emergencies, economic reconstruction, arms races, and military conflicts.

This position is at odds with that of Washington and Tokyo, who would welcome a colored revolution in Pyongyang despite the elevated security and economic problems that it would create during the transition.

Another difference is that Moscow would not welcome Korean reunification.

In part this is because it could result in the deployment of U.S. military forces to the northern half of the newly unified Korean state (and thus close to Russia’s border), as many Koreans could want American forces to remain in their new country to counter-balance their more powerful neighbors, China, Japan — and Russia.

U.S. policy-makers might agree to such an arrangement if the alternative was a Korean decision to retain the North’s stockpile of nuclear weapons. Russia has a clear interest in avoiding this scenario.