Russia is an influential strategic player in northeast Asia and a major stakeholder in Korea since the late 19th century. The Soviet Union was responsible for the establishment of the DPRK some 70 years ago, and since that time, Russia amassed a wealth of experience and contacts in its relations with the Kim dynasty and provides support — from energy exports to protection against the more extreme sanctions policies sought by Washington — that are vital to the political well-being of the regime. Based on this long-term relationship, Russia is well-positioned to contribute to efforts to restrain Pyongyang’s weapons programs.
The United States and China have monopolized dealings with Pyongyang and Russia hasn’t figured importantly in U.S. strategic calculations on the Korean nuclear issue. China is a powerful economic actor that effectively controls the North’s external trade sector, but the PRC has been reluctant to use the full weight of its leverage to pressure Pyongyang fearing the destabilizing consequences of the regime’s collapse.
Russia and the United States, on the other hand are seriously at odds on the international stage — which doubtless inhibits cooperation — but Russia’s close and long-standing ties to the North represent an important diplomatic asset that Russia could leverage to nudge the DPRK toward constructive talks.
As a Euro-Pacific power sharing a short border with North Korea, Russia is naturally concerned about the possibility of a major armed conflict on the Korean peninsula. Russia’s interest in a diplomatic solution to the nuclear crisis include a complex mix of motives, but their overriding concerns tend to overlap with America’s.
While Russia does not feel directly threatened by the North’s nuclear weapons, there is reason to fear that the North’s nuclear program could lead to proliferation of nuclear weapons to other countries in Northeast Asia and beyond. This would not only devalue Russia’s own nuclear arsenal but could result in Russia being confronted by an ever-increasing number of nuclear armed adversaries.
The main U.S. non-proliferation approaches to the North, international economic sanctions and leaning on China to push the North toward denuclearization, haven’t worked and have allowed the North more time to advance its WMD programs. In September, the North crossed another weapons threshold with the detonation of what is generally agreed to be a thermonuclear device and in November test-fired a missile with a theoretical range sufficient to reach targets almost anywhere in the continental United States.
Washington continues to tighten the economic screws on Kim, but aware of these failures, and miscalculations, the U.S. appears to be considering a shift from exclusive reliance on economic pressure tactics. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said during a meeting at the Atlantic Council on December 12 that “We’re ready to talk anytime North Korea would like to talk,” and “We’re ready to have our first meeting without precondition.”
Even though this statement was caveated by the stipulation that North Korea would have to suspend nuclear and missile testing for a specific time before such talks could take place, this represents a significant opportunity.
Should the U.S. take the diplomatic track, the most difficult obstacle to overcome would likely be the lack of trust between the United States and North Korea. Here, the United States should consider engaging Russia to broker negotiations. Russia could provide a general framework and guidelines for proceeding with Pyongyang and even conducting exploratory discussions with the North to sound out its negotiating position.
Alternatively, Russia could mediate talks between North Korea and the U.S, where Pyongyang feels uncomfortable talking directly.
There are reasons to believe that the North would accept Russia as an “honest broker.” The circumstances of the DPRK’s founding represent a historical tie that defines the affinity between the two nations, and stabilizes their relations. Secondly, Moscow provides crucial diplomatic and economic support to Pyongyang on the most vocal international critic of western sanctions policies (which Vladimir Putin calls misguided and a dead-end road.)
Finally, China not Russia is perceived as America’s chosen partner in a diplomatic effort, which certainly strengthens Moscow’s appeal as an “honest broker.
In a briefing on December 13, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov stated that “North Korea is our neighbor, we must develop relations with this country Political dialogue is extremely important.”
During meetings in Vienna of OSCE Foreign Ministers on December 7, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov briefed Mr. Tillerson on North Korea noting that “We know that above all, North Korea wants to talk to the U.S. about its own security assurances Russia is ready to take part in facilitating such talks.”
Now is the time to seek Russia’s support as an “honest broker” and begin efforts to come to a negotiated settlement of the nuclear issue on the Korean peninsula. A more central role for Russia in managing the current nuclear crisis could yield important progress in defusing Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile ambitions, an argument not often heard in Washington policy circles.
• Rensselaer Lee is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute working on Northeast Asian Affairs. William Severe is a retired State Department officer who worked on nuclear proliferation and weapons development.