How Russia Should Approach the Dawn of Détente in Korea

The "historic meeting" between Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in in Panmunjom on April 27 was theatrically effective and filled with symbols that are important for Asia. The PR effect of the summit was enormous for the two leaders, who showed the desire of the two Koreas to put an end to the military threat. There were many touching gestures of goodwill exchanged by the two leaders, who are so different in terms of age and experience but who are both responsible for matters of war and peace. 

But there is more to the story than the first face-to-face meeting between the leaders, who have a fair amount of time ahead (by the standards of Asian politics) which they can use to strengthen the nascent friendship and to peaceably resolve the problems of the past. The clear expression of the unanimous desire to put an end to the enmity and to begin talks on normalizing the countries’ coexistence is far more important. The leaders and the people of the two countries demonstrated impressive unanimity in this matter (even though a certain portion of conservative public opinion in South Korea continues to refuse to recognize the "criminal Pyongyang regime" as a partner and dreams of taking over, that is, conquering the North. Probably, there are quite a few likeminded people in North Korea as well. However, it appears that no one is seriously thinking about unification yet, since the DPRK is recognized as a full-fledged subject of international politics. 

However, to what extent can the declared principles be implemented, including the ones outlined in the bilateral declaration? The main components include the cessation of the state of war, mutual hostilities, the continuation of exchanges of visits at the top level and talks on different subjects, the establishment of humanitarian exchanges and dialogue, and the implementation of joint cooperation projects. 

However, all of this can come to pass only if the planned DPRK-US summit is a success, and the main purpose of the Korean summit is to pave the way to this outcome. North and South have done their best, but the shadow of the US looms over all their plans.

The agreement on stopping the war and concluding peace can be carried out only if the United States plays along. After all, it is the key actor in the war in Korea. Does Washington really want to see an end to this "controlled conflict" which allows it to keep a large military force near China and to deter its main geostrategic enemy? How are the two Koreas, which do not recognize each other as legitimate states, supposed to conclude such a treaty? To do so, it is first imperative to amend their respective constitutions.

The South and the North agreed only to vague words about seeking the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, as was stated more than once (beginning with the 1991 Joint Denuclearization Declaration). However, it remains unclear when and how this will happen, and to what extent the DPRK is ready to backtrack in the nuclear missile race. The bilateral declaration includes a phased approach to this process, which is at odds with the current US approaches, and there’s not a single word about the missiles which cause concern with the Americans. Will it be possible to make Washington abandon its entirely unconstructive positions? Kim Jong-un did his utmost to demonstrate his willingness to do what it takes, including proposals on verifying his country’s nuclear test site. However, will the United States and its allies agree in principle on a compromise to achieve a comprehensive settlement, which must include the DPRK maintaining a limited and monitored nuclear capability? 

Without this, any talk of peace is just wishful thinking. The provision about creating new peace arrangements with the participation of three to four states (that is, two Koreas, the United States and China) only replicates the formula adopted at past summits. It can only work if the United States changes its current position of rejecting the DPRK. 

This is not the first time the countries have discussed formally ending hostilities and beginning large-scale cooperation. It happened in 1991, 2000 and 2007. However, each time the unresolved basic issue of recognizing the DPRK and ensuring peaceful conditions for development eventually torpedoed the implementation of these agreements. 

The beginning of talks at various levels, the restoration of exchanges in an area such as visits of divided families are very commendable, but they do not guarantee by themselves that the situation will not once again descend into military and political confrontation.

The economic sanctions against the DPRK (which the United States insists on keeping in place until complete denuclearization) mean that there is no opportunity to resume trade and economic cooperation with the North. It is no accident that only the reunification of railways, which was already carried out in the first decade of this century, was mentioned as a joint project of the North and the South. However, we should note that when the predecessors of the current leaders met at the last summit, they confirmed their intention to turn the Yellow Sea into a zone of peace and cooperation, since the territorial conflict between the North and the South has not been settled there.

Meanwhile, in the wake of recent developments in Korea, Russia is drifting farther from the center of events. Of course, we can take pride in the fact that they are unfolding according to the road map proposed by us (together with China in July 2017), but so far we have no say in the process. The fact that the North or the South never mentioned the Russia-backed six-party (with its participation) settlement format, and the four-party format idea, serve as another reminder of that fact. Our economic interests are thwarted by sanctions. The only positive development is the agreement of the two Koreas to resume work on the Trans-Korean railway, which can give a new lease of life to our project to connect it with the Trans-Siberian Railway. However, to do so, we need to make some effort and step up the Rajin-Hasan pilot project, which is currently comatose, and elevate the importance of this subject in our contacts with our partners, primarily Seoul. 

Russian diplomacy should focus on several areas. 

First, improve coordination between Russia and China on the Korean issue, including with respect to relations with third countries and international organizations, especially the UN.

Second, step up contacts with Pyongyang in order to develop a common approach with other actors, with Russia’s direct involvement in shaping ideas (for this, the "second track" is also important).

Third, intensify contacts with Washington (including the "second track") to convince it to abandon its aggressive plans and to make it clear that their implementation conflicts with our material national interests and may provoke a response, and to encourage the White House to seek out compromises. Among other things, this could help prevent further deterioration of Russia-US relations.

Fourth, continue to work and cooperate with the leaders of the Republic of Korea in order to encourage the thaw between the Koreas and to avoid excessive concessions to the US which would halt it. 

Fifth, finalize (including steps and phases) the proposals of the Russia-China road map and actively promote them in contacts with all their partners and international organizations (including clarification of the need for six-party talks). 

Perhaps, it would be possible to add more specifics to the "third stage" of our map (multilateral talks on parallel reduction of the nuclear threat and development of an integrated peacekeeping system) with proposals for several "phases." 

A combination of bilateral negotiations with multilateral development of a security arrangement on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia with the participation of the main actors is planned. 

During the first phase, real steps should be taken to get the United States to refrain from tightening sanctions, launch a political dialogue and open communication missions to the DPRK in exchange for its decision to stay away from any new steps in the nuclear missile program (based on the already announced moratorium on testing). All this can happen as early as this year. 

The second phase involves declaring and initially verifying the components of the DPRK nuclear program in exchange for lifting unilateral sanctions and relaxing sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council, and preparing for complete normalization of the DPRK-US relations (and with other partners, too) based on legally binding treaties that will be concluded. 

As a result, the participants in the multilateral process will sign a multilateral declaration and agreements with each other to guarantee that they will meet their commitments. The gradual lifting of international sanctions imposed by the UN and its members will go forward.

A multilateral mechanism for monitoring the implementation of these agreements will be created, and could eventually morph into the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Northeast Asia.

During the third phase, it is imperative to begin the process of limiting and reducing the number of nuclear weapons possessed by the DPRK in exchange for resuming normal relations with the DPRK in an international format. 

There are also plans to implement, on a bilateral basis, programs to promote the economic development of the DPRK and to implement mutually beneficial economic projects. 

It is perhaps too early to specify further phases. As a result, military capabilities should be reduced to a reasonably sufficient level, and the DPRK should establish full cooperation with the outside world and participate in regional economic integration processes. Also, the two Koreas should achieve national reconciliation, in addition to seeking neighborly relations and, ultimately, long-term integration. Russia has a direct stake in achieving such an outcome.


Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.