Russia should continue doing what it has been doing, that is, rejecting North Korea’s nuclear ambitions as potentially destructive for the security architecture, insisting on a political and diplomatic solution to the conflict, as well as firmly opposing any open or hidden attempt to destabilize the situation, such as a trade embargo or a diplomatic blockade.
Russia cannot remain aloof from the Korean crisis and the possibility of a military solution to it, if only because it borders on North Korea.
However, several factors are limiting Russia’s ability to influence the situation.
First, although Russia needs to keep an eye on the Korean crisis, it is a third-level priority in terms of national interests compared to the CIS and the Middle East.
Second, Russia has a limited number of levers of influence on Pyongyang despite a high level of political contacts and sound trust-based relations. There is only moderate economic cooperation between Russia and North Korea, especially since the restrictions were imposed on the export of North Korean labour. Bilateral cultural ties are not as close as they were under Kim Jong-il, because Kim Jong-un grew up in a different cultural environment. In addition, bilateral political cooperation and North Korea’s positive attitude to Russia is partly based on the fact that Russia, unlike China, has not tried to openly influence Pyongyang or to tell it what to do.
Third, North Korea’s behaviour is not wholly responsible for the nuclear problem and the related crisis. Trying to influence Washington, though, is much more difficult than influencing Pyongyang. The allegations of Russian influence on Trump are nothing more than anti-Trump propaganda, but the current Russian-US confrontation affects cooperation on the Korean issue.
Hwasong-15 Missile: What's Next?
On the night of November 29, 2017, the DPRK tested the Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile. According to Pentagon, the missile flew about 1000 km and fell into the Sea of Japan. The North Korean military emphasizes that the Hwasong-15 is capable to carry an "extremely heavy nuclear warhead" and reach any point in the mainland of the United States. The DPRK leader Kim Jong-un after the successful test of the new Hwasong-15 missile said, that his country had fulfilled "the great historical task ", creating a full-fledged nuclear missile force.
On the other hand, there are at least three ways in which Russia can contribute to alleviating the Korean problem.
First of all, it can lobby the Russian-Chinese double freeze initiative. Although it is a tactical rather than a strategic solution that is not flawless (North Korea’s nuclear missile program has been banned by the UN, while military exercises and freezing them are an internal matter), the double freeze plan is the best way so far of avoiding escalating tensions and stabilizing the situation until a strategic solution to the problem is found.
The second way is to clean up the information space. For a number of reasons, both parties have a significantly distorted view of one another, increasing the risk of catastrophic consequences. If North Korea is persistently represented as a Hollywood-style Resident Evil, people can come to believe that a preventive strike of “decapitation” would result in an almost bloodless victory and regime change in North Korea. More realistic information about each other’s nature and capabilities, plus an end to the demonization of North Korea, would lead to more balanced decisions, based on objective facts, rather than on simulated movie-based reality.
The above does not amount to Russia acting as an intermediary between Pyongyang and Washington. Rather, Moscow can try to expose the vicious rumours and to explain the real state of affairs.
The third method is to form a coalition of regional countries that would not benefit from a conflict on the peninsula, even if such a conflict was limited to the use of conventional weapons. These countries are not Russia and China but South Korea and Japan. They would suffer for strategic reasons, because North Korea would primarily attack US military bases on their territory.
The six-party talks of 2003-2007 were relatively successful because there was a coalition of pragmatically-thinking countries between the “opponents” – North Korea and the United States (Japan then behaved in the same way as the United States). These pragmatic countries wanted the parties to talk rather than to exchange accusations or to present Washington’s view as if it were the opinion of the entire international community. These countries were Russia, China and also South Korea, which at that time was led by the proponents of the Sunshine Policy towards North Korea.
The proponents of this policy have regained power in South Korea in the 2017 presidential election. This, as well as complicated but trust-based relations between Russia and Japan, are sufficient ground for launching formal or informal four-party talks to develop a common strategy of convincing the United States and North Korea to start talking to each other. This interaction can be launched at the level of experts and analysts and will gradually grow into something bigger if decision-makers on both sides join the experts.
In addition, Russia should continue doing what it has been doing anyway, that is, rejecting North Korea’s nuclear ambitions as potentially destructive for the security architecture, insisting on a political and diplomatic solution to the conflict, as well as firmly opposing any open or hidden attempt to destabilize the situation, such as a trade embargo or a diplomatic blockade.These goals are difficult, but they can be achieved through a combination of political will, creative approach and diplomatic behaviour. We can do it.