Setting the tone for a potential shift in the US's policy of multilateral cooperation over North Korea, Joseph Yun, the US Special Representative for North Korea, visited Moscow from April 4-6. There he met with Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov, where both parties expressed mutual concerns over North Korea's developing missile program.
Traditionally, the United States has worked more closely with China over North Korean security issues, given China's large volume of trade with North Korea and the Beijing's access to high-level North Korean officials. Russia, on the other hand, has often taken a back seat in regional negotiations. The US State Department's reasons for sending Yun to Russia, rather than China at the outset of the current administration are open to speculation.
Yun's visit to Moscow occurred just before Chinese Premier Xi Jinping visited the US. It's possible that the Trump administration, before the the apparent success of Xi's visit to Mar-a-Lago and the tensions between Russia and the US following the latter's strike on Syria, felt more comfortable working with Russia rather than China over Korean security.
On the other hand, as North Korea's relations with China decline while the DPRK's ties to Russia deepen, the US may have calculated that Washington can achieve better results in its multilateral North Korea policy by working more closely with Moscow rather than Beijing.
Indeed, cooperation over Korean security has been one of the areas in which lawmakers and officials in both Moscow and Washington have called for continued action.
The prospects of increased Russia-US cooperation over Korean security have already been damaged by the US's decision to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system, which the US has begun installing in South Korea in response to continued North Korean provocations. During his visit to Moscow, Joseph Yun insisted that missile defense was necessary to deter further North Korean aggression.
THAAD will likely not make US cooperation with Russia on Korean security any easier, and may even damage existing frameworks for Russia-US cooperation on arms control. Viktor Ozerov, a top Russian lawmaker for defense, has stated that THAAD could be an impetus for Russia to withdraw from the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START).
Nevertheless, beyond the immediate strategic tension between the Russia and the United Sates over THAAD, a major hindrance to closer Russia-US policy coordination over North Korea is a lack of clarity in the US's security policy toward Northeast Asia.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has not ruled out allowing Japan and South Korea to develop nuclear weapons as a way of deterring North Korea. Russian officials, however swiftly condemned the idea of a nuclear Japan or South Korea. Vladimir Dzhabarov, a lawmaker on the international affairs committee of the Russian parliament's upper house, indicated that according to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the international community could subject Japan and South Korea to economic sanctions should they develop nuclear capabilities.
Given the current US administration's numerous changes in policy positions, it is difficult to judge the sincerity behind the insinuation that the US would encourage its East Asian allies to develop a nuclear deterrent. That the US calls for North Korean disarmament while simultaneously hinting at allowing further nuclear proliferation is contradictory at best, and at worst shows a lack of commitment to the very non-proliferation principles for which the US has so long stood.
Arms control and non-proliferation have been a major cornerstone of Russia-US relations. In the past, the United States has considered Russian involvement in regional negotiations over North Korea to be less important compared with Chinese participation. Joseph Yun's visit to Moscow, however indicates a sincere attempt by the US to include Russia in multilateral negotiations over Korean disarmament.
If Russia, however, cannot be sure that the US stands firmly committed to maintaining an across-the-board policy of nuclear non-proliferation, then there is little use for the United States in attempting to build further rapport with Russia over North Korean denuclearization. The US, therefore, must commit to a clear policy on regional nuclear non-proliferation. Only then can Russia and the United States hope to have a basis for mutual understanding from which the two countries can cooperate over Korean security.