Russia and DPRK Proliferation Issues: Positioning for Influence


2012-12-02 By Richard Weitz

Russian diplomats generally oppose using sanctions to punish countries whose governments misbehave.

In the case of the DPRK, as with Iran, Russian policy makers argue that a non-coercive, incentive-based strategy offers the best means for persuading Pyongyang to denuclearize.

Especially in the case of North Korea, Russian officials worry that using sanctions could antagonizes Pyongyang to the point that it lashes back, unpredictably and destructively, in anger. As one of the five permanent UN Security Council members, Russia can veto all council decisions, and Moscow has wielded this power to block proposed resolutions that would impose severe sanctions on the DPRK or authorize the use of force to enforce DPRK compliance with UNSC resolutions.

But Russian officials will sometimes agree to impose limited sanctions on the DPRK as a “lesser evil” than doing nothing, applying much more severe sanctions, or using force.

In addition, Russia has supported some UN punishment measures to ensure that the UN remains a relevant actor in the international community’s response to the Korea issue.

Russian diplomats fear a repeat of Kosovo (1998) and Iraq (2003), examples when Western governments decided to bypass the UN and employ force on their own initiative through coalitions of the willing after they could not work through the UNSC due to Moscow’s veto. Russian diplomats must balance blocking harsh UN sanctions while sustaining Western interests in working through the UN. The experience of Iraq, Kosovo, and Syria shows how, if Moscow sanctioned all Western-backed measures against the DPRK in the UN, the Western powers would simply pursue collective measures outside the United Nations.

The Chinese and Russians do not spill over effects from the North Korean ballistic missile and nuclear efforts to hurt their interests, which include creating a nuclear South Korea and Japan or the augmentation of allied missile defense in the region. Credit Image: Bigstcok 

After the October 2006 DPRK nuclear test, President Vladimir Putin declared it was important not to back North Korea into a corner and leave it with no option but to raise tensions—the same argument he regularly makes regarding Iran.

Russian policy makers also strived to break the escalating tensions in early 2009 when the DPRK government was preparing to launch a rocket and threatened retaliation if the UN sanctioned it in response.  While seeking to dissuade the DPRK launch, they also argued against sanctioning Pyongyang further on the grounds that it would drive its government into deeper and aggressive alienation, scuttling hopes for early implementation of its denuclearization commitments.

After the DPRK went ahead with the launches, now President Dmitry Medvedev argued that, while Russia has supported international sanctions against Pyongyang for its nuclear tests and missile launches, “that does not mean that we must continually inflame passions. On the contrary, we must seek ways and approaches to convince our North Korean colleagues to talk to us, because I don’t want to be forced to imagine any other course of events,” adding that—in an allusion to the DPRK’s nuclear capabilities—“if something does happen, it will be the worst scenario, the most appalling one we can imagine.” For this reason, he concluded, “there is no alternative to a dialogue with North Korea. We need to use every possible means.”

When North Korea detonated another nuclear weapon on May 25, 2009, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a sharp note of condemnation. The statement called the test a “violation” of previous UN Security Council (UNSC) resolutions and a “serious blow” to the nuclear nonproliferation regime. It also complained that, “The latest DPRK moves are provoking an escalation of tension in Northeast Asia.”

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov advocated the adoption of a strongly condemnatory UNSC resolution, but he opposed adopting further sanctions or other punishment for punishment’s sake, instead endorsing a resumption of the Six-Party Talks. “We should not look to punish for the sake of punishment only… The problem can only be settled through talks.”

To avert a war on the peninsula, Russian policymakers have also sought to mediate Korean security disputes by playing up their country’s good relations with both Koreas.

Russian diplomacy has pursued a similar strategy in the Middle East, justifying their ties with Iran, Hamas, and other controversial actors by citing Moscow’s value for preserving lines of communication and opportunities for mediation among the parties in conflict.

Unfortunately, Russia has not enjoyed sufficient enough influence in either region to broker a settlement. After a decade of neglect during the 1990s under Yeltsin, Putin took it upon himself to significantly improve relations with North Korea, making a personal visit to Pyongyang in July 2000. But Putin suffered an embarrassment a few days later when he announced at the G-8 summit that Kim Jung-Il had told him that North Korea would abandon its ballistic missile programs in return for international assistance in creating a civilian space program. The DPRK government quickly disavowed Putin’s statement, terming it a joke.

Nonetheless, Russia has continued to seek out a mediator role in Korea, emphasizing their stance of benign neutrality regarding the conflict.

On April 23, 2009, Lavrov became the first foreign minister from one of the six parties to visit Pyongyang since the DPRK had resumed testing ballistic missiles and withdrawn from the Six-Party talks. In an effort to restart the Talks, he delivered a private letter from Putin to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, who declined to meet with Lavrov.

The Russian Foreign Minister then went to South Korea, where he told the press that Russia was prepared to launch DPRK satellites on Russian rockets, a service Russia was already providing ROK satellites.  Russian diplomats subsequently stressed that they were in contact with all the other parties in their effort to resume the Talks. Telling the Russian media that “communication channels have not been cut off and it would be strange if this happened,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexei Borodavkin said that Russian diplomats were holding consultations both through the DPRK embassy in Moscow and the Russian embassy in Pyongyang. Adding that he had also talked with senior ROK, U.S., and Japanese officials, Borodavkin added that, “We are thinking of how to find the way out of this deadlock situation and hold consultations with partners and want to discover opportunities to resume the talks.”

Perhaps Russia’s most successful intervention to further the talks came when the Russian government played a decisive role in overcoming a major deadlock in the denuclearization process by helping North Korea recover $25 million deposited in Macao’s Banco Delta Asia.

The bank froze the funds in September 2005 after U.S. authorities designated the money as illegal profits gained from counterfeiting and money laundering and sanctioned the bank. The DPRK conditioned its implementation of the February 2005 denuclearization agreement, which would close its main nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, on its recovering this money, but no Western bank would participate in the transaction for fear of incurring American financial sanctions. After receiving guarantees of immunity from the United States, Russian officials arranged for the funds to reach the DPRK in June 2007 via the Federal Reserve of New York, the Central Bank of Russia, and Russia’s Far Eastern Commercial Bank (Dalkombank), where North Korea had an account.

Another way Russia has affirmed its role in the Korea nuclear talks and bolstered its international status is by referring to the nuclear issue in its joint statements with the other six-party members. By making such joint declarations, Russia’s dialogue partners affirm Moscow’s role as a legitimate player on the Korea issue.

China is a favorite Russian partner in this enterprise given the overlapping perspective in Moscow and Beijing on many Korean security issues.

For example, in their June 2009 joint statement, the Russian and Chinese governments devoted several paragraphs to their “grave concern over the situation on the Korean Peninsula.” The two governments called for a peaceful resolution of the dispute over North Korea’s nuclear weapons within the framework of the Six-Party Talks.

Russian and American leaders have cited their cooperation in managing the North Korean nuclear dispute as evidence that, despite their many bilateral differences, the two governments can continue to work together in solving important international security issues.  In their April 2008 Strategic Framework Declaration, for instance, Presidents Putin and Bush reaffirmed their commitment to the Six-Party Talks, the implementation of UNCSR 1718, and “the ultimate goals of the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

In their joint security statement the following year, Presidents Medvedev and Obama expressed their mutual support for “the continuation of the Six-Party Talks at an early date.” They also “agreed to continue to pursue the verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in accordance with purposes and principles of the September 19, 2005 Joint Statement and subsequent consensus documents.”

Still, while criticizing the DPRK for testing nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles, Russian government representatives have also faulted Western countries for failing to meet their previous commitments to the DPRK, implying that this failure might have precipitated the subsequent North Korean behavior. In September 2008, Lavrov chastised Japan’s government for failing to render its share of economic assistance to the DPRK due to its bilateral dispute regarding the Japanese citizens abducted by North Korean intelligence agents between 1977 and 1983.

Russian officials have also criticized Washington when Moscow considered American negotiating tactics too excessively inflexible. 

When in Pyongyang in April 2009, Lavrov called on all parties to fulfill the existing agreements, arguing that, “If everybody takes such a stand, we will be able to get through the crisis.”

Some Russian analysts have explicitly advocated applying a “Ukrainian model” to the Korean nuclear crisis (there are many others who seem to support this outcome, but without the loaded phrase).

Under this scenario, the DPRK would voluntarily surrender its nuclear weapons in return for economic assistance and security assurances from other great powers.  This outcome would reduce the risk of a military conflict on Russia’s borders and facilitate Russia’s use of DPRK territory to deepen economic ties with the ROK and other countries.

Russian policymakers would definitely prefer this outcome to two other possible scenarios—applying economic, diplomatic, and other non-military pressure against the DPRK to induce it to reverse its proliferation polices (as was done with Libya), or employing armed intervention to seize the suspect WMD assets and replace the regime (as occurred with Iraq in 2003).

In practice, major differences between the Ukrainian and Korean cases might make a straightforward application of the Ukrainian model to the DPRK more difficult.

Ukraine had not been a long-time nuclear aspirant like the DPRK.

Instead, Ukraine became a nuclear weapons state overnight by inheriting nuclear weapons when the Soviet Union collapsed. In addition, Ukraine’s leaders never had reason to fear an imminent external military threat, whereas North Korean leaders have feared a major American military attack for decades.