The Russia Factor in US Policy Toward North Korea

North Korea’s fifth nuclear test indicates that the country has not relented in its march toward greater nuclear capabilities. Citing the ostensible ineffectiveness of current American policy, several figures in Washington are calling for changes in the US’s handling of the North Korean nuclear crisis. When NPR’s Elise Hu asked President Barack Obama about the possibility of changes in US policy toward North Korea at a press conference in Laos, the president indicated that a shift in US policy was possible if the situation called for it. President Obama included Russia in a catalogue of countries the US will continue to work with in resolving the nuclear crisis.

The parties attempting to manage the North Korean security threat comprise a tangled web of opposing positions and interests. It goes without saying that China-US coordination is the most crucial in the so-called “Korean knot”. Russia’s influence North Korea’s over behaviour may be weak, but it has some enduring and even strengthening relationships, a common border, and of course membership on the UN Security Council. Furthermore, closer policy coordination with China over the DPRK helps to congeal Russia’s status as an important country in multilateral negotiations.

The Brookings Institution’s Robert Einhorn has labeled Russia an unhelpful yet necessary partner in global non-proliferation. Einhorn, despite his misgivings, calls for increased Russia-US cooperation on North Korea. During talks between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the two sides agreed to refer the fifth North Korean crisis to the UN Security Council.

Russia’s Security Stance Toward North Korea

A common perception is that Russian policy supports multilateralism while taking a softer line than Washington on Pyongyang’s behaviour. The Korean Peninsula, which former Russian diplomat and Northeast Asia security scholar Georgy Toloraya refers to as Russia’s Far Eastern “underbelly”, is a sensitive area for Russia. North Korea, from Moscow’s vantage point, is entitled to the same security guarantees as other countries.

Russia is not opposed to a normalization of relations between Pyongyang and Washington; indeed Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has criticized the US’s unwillingness to negotiate directly with North Korea as “counterproductive”. Russia is also protective of North Korean consultations before any externally sponsored action or position. In its view, the “Korean knot” should insofar as possible be solved by the Koreans themselves.

The idea that the Moscow-Washington divergence over the DPRK nuclear program is one of tough American unilateralism versus softer, more diplomatic Russian multilateralism fails to consider Russia’s economic relationship with the DPRK.

The US has long relied on economic pressure as a way to prevent nuclear proliferation on the Korean Peninsula, yet it has no formal diplomatic nor economic relations with North Korea. Russia, however, has continued to pursue deeper commercial ties to the DPRK, through measures such as the creation of a North Korea-Russia business council, and an agreement to conduct bilateral trade in rubles. This has had the effect of partially blunting the effects of sanctions (although Russia’s economic influence on North Korea remains minimal compared to that of China).

American Policy Shifts and Their Effects on Bilateral Cooperation

While it is the perceptions within the US of failure of current sanctions policy that has sparked calls for policy shifts, the possibility of unilateral or multilateral military intervention has even less appeal. So further unilateral sanctions against the North seem the only option. Yet Russia will most likely oppose tougher punitive economic measures. Proposals put forward by Heritage Foundation scholar Bruce Klingner such as reducing the use of North Korean labour would undermine Russian economic goals of developing its Far Eastern regions.

The US will need, in part, to account for Russian economic interests. Failure in Washington to consider Russian interests will ultimately hinder a coherent response from the two countries toward North Korean provocations. But the onus is also on Russia to support more severe economic pressure against the Kim Jong-un regime (while not exacerbating the suffering of ordinary North Koreans). Russia’s Foreign Ministry has called for a “creative” solution to the current situation, although it has not as of yet made specific proposals public.

The US does not have the luxury of acting unilaterally in Northeast Asia. Therefore, as the North Korean nuclear crisis worsens, give and take, compromise and flexibility will be required of all parties involved.

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