The North Korean nuclear problem has been one of the most critical modern-day international security issues: the risk of a nuclear war is high and real. Historically, Moscow has played an important role in mediation efforts on the issue, yet some of the contemporary drivers of the Russian position, in part, have to do with realities that emerged over recent years.
The Soviet Union was the first to recognize the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) on October 12th, 1948. Following the Korean war (1950-1953) where the Soviets had been supporting North Korea, in 1961 the two states signed a bilateral agreement on “friendship, cooperation and mutual assistance.” The USSR was instrumental in the development of the DPRK’s nuclear weapons program in the 1970s. Then-leader of the DPRK Kim Il Sung visited the USSR twice – in 1984 and 1986 – to sign additional treaties on cooperation and trade. The Soviet Union has been North Korea’s biggest trade partner with a trade turnover of $2.2 billion.
The break-up of the USSR changed attitudes vis-a-vis Pyongyang in Moscow. The new Russian leadership had been re-examining the country’s international strategic priorities, and the DPRK file was placed on a distant shelf. In 1995, the trade turnover fell down to $83 million.
The political mood in Moscow swung back after President Putin came to power. Putin's visit to Pyongyang in 2000 revitalized the bilateral relationship and re-created a number of promising opportunities for Russia on the Korean peninsula.
In the last four years, following the takeover of Crimea and Russia’s "divorce" from the West, the bilateral cooperation between the two countries has been rising on different levels. Although total trade turnover never recovered completely, amounting to $81 billion in 2012, Russia provides an annual quota of 35 thousand jobs for North Korean workers and educates dozens of DPRK’s future leaders. In May 2014, Moscow wrote off North Korean debt to Russia and the two countries signed an agreement hinting at a departure from the US dollar as an accounting currency. All transactions between Russia and the DPRK would now be in Russian rubles. Besides, in 2017 Russian company TransTeleCom laid an alternative fiber-optic Internet cable to North Korea. Increasing cooperation with all states in the region is in the framework of what is deemed as Russia’s “strategic pivot to Asia” and constitutes one of the reasons for Moscow’s interest in engaging North Korea.
Some in Russia are sceptical of this goal. Even if there is a fair amount of truth to this criticism, none of the political, geopolitical, or economic goals that Russia may pursue towards “the Koreas” can be achieved without stability on the Korean peninsula. It is thus inextricably connected with Russian concerns over the security of the region and the large American military presence there.
Unlike in Europe, where the US presence has been long perceived by Moscow as a means to deter and threaten Russia’s own interests, the American presence in the Asia Pacific isn’t seen as targeting Russia but rather perceived through the lens of Washington’s tag-of-war with China. Yet, Moscow believes that a military-coalition building, coupled with mounting pressure over Pyongyang and the bellicose American rhetoric, might destabilise the region, thus spinning out of control the North Korean issue.
Being a part of the negotiation format on the DPRK nuclear issue since 2003 along with the US, China, Japan, South Korea, and the DPRK itself, Moscow has repeatedly condemned missile launches and nuclear tests by Pyongyang. At the same time, it has been equally critical of harsh actions, including extraordinary sanctions on North Korea, fearing that pressures over the regime might further push it to be uncooperative.
The Russian narrative on the issue pins a large portion of the blame for the current confrontation around North Korea on the Bush administration. Senior retired Russian diplomats who, back then, worked on the DPRK file, point to the American inclination to solve the issue with force as a trigger to Pyongyang’s subsequent unconstructive behaviour. Therefore, when President Trump unleashed tough talk on Kim Jong Un, it revived old-day concerns in Moscow over the situation coming to the brink of the doom. A top Russian official in Moscow remarked in a private conversation in December 2016: "Before we had one unpredictability – Kim Jong Un – with Trump we have two."
Russia firmly believes there’s no other way to settle the North Korean issue but through diplomacy. Moscow also believes that the other participants on the DPRK negotiation format – except for some American hawks – share the same attitude. Yet, even if the parties indeed share the understanding that a military solution is harmful, there’s little progress in kick-starting the negotiations and shifting to a steady political dialogue.
Moscow acknowledges the current North Korean leader is anything but an easy negotiator, but neither were his father and grandfather. For all of them, the survival of the regime was key. No wonder Russia is frequently bringing up the toppling of Ghaddafi in Libya to illustrate why Pyongyang would now want to cling to its nukes even more. If further provoked, the desperation may push North Korea to the point where millions of people may get hurt.
Another motivation for the DPRK to preserve and develop its nuclear program, as seen in Moscow, has to do with the program serving as a leverage to create conditions for economic growth. Although some progress has been made in recent years, the economic situation in the country remains difficult, and the population is dependent on foreign humanitarian aid. In order to create a stable socio-economic environment in the country and conduct adequate reforms, foreign investments and sustainable energy policy are needed. All of these issues had been addressed in the past but rolled back once the escalations began. Moscow’s view is that such discussions should be resumed as a part of dealing with the problem of the nuclear program.
Russia cannot be excited about North Korea becoming a case study for the violation of the non-proliferation regime more than it already is. But this may arguably be the case with other nuclear-armed states outside “the nuclear club of five”. For this reason, Russian negotiators refer to the experience of the Iranian nuclear deal, as well as previous fruitful attempts to negotiate with the DPRK in the early 2000s. All to demonstrate that even with the most difficult counter-partners dialogue is possible and should come before coercion. There need to be a genuine attempt to identify and collectively address the very interests and motives that shape Pyongyang’s position.
Today, after years of numerous attempts by South Korea to reach out to and negotiate with the DPRK leadership, the DPRK feels less threatened by the South, while the threat perception coming from the US remains vividly present. The recent talks between Kim Jong Un and a South Korean delegation create a fragile hope for the better which should be fostered and endorsed, not discouraged by external parties. Even if there’s enough ground to be sceptical about the final outcome of these talks, these efforts are worth investing in. There’s no elevator for this problem – everyone has to take the stairs.