#18 - JRL 7016
January 13, 2003
North Korea: Russia talks a good game
By Stephen Blank
As the Chinese repeatedly tell us, the symbol for crisis represents both danger and opportunity. Undoubtedly the crisis triggered by Pyongyang's decision to publicize its nuclear-weapons program, withdraw from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and attempt to blackmail all of its other interlocutors offers both dangers and opportunities to all concerned. Russia certainly sees both risk and an opportunity to make gains because of this crisis. Yet its behavior suggests that the gains it has in mind have little to do with its partnership with the United States. Instead, they are more directed to exploiting this crisis for Russia's own narrow short-term benefits and at Washington's expense.
Russian elites and analysts frequently argue that partnership with Washington does not and should not imply Russia's subordination of its own interests to those of the United States. Their point is well taken. But what are Russia's true interests here?
It remains unclear whether Moscow's assertion of its prerogative to play in the Korean game goes beyond the mantra of the earlier and endless invocations of Russia's right to participate in a solution to Korean issues coupled with equally endless complaints that it was being marginalized. And while all those complaints were being made, it should be noted that Russia brought nothing tangible to the solution of any of the then outstanding issues on the Korean Peninsula.
From what has been reported it seems clear that there is a fundamental gulf between what Russia says it is doing and its actual policies, especially as seen from Washington or elsewhere. Certainly if Russia is trying to put pressure on Pyongyang, there is no no sign of it or of its success - quite the opposite.
Let us consider Moscow's moves here. At first, Russia remained skeptical that North Korea was developing nuclear weapons. Indeed, last April and again in October, and more recently early this month, its Foreign Ministry and minister of atomic energy publicly professed unconcern about reports of such programs and North Korea's proliferation of missiles and other destabilizing systems abroad. They remain publicly skeptical that North Korea either has usable nuclear weapons or can make them soon.
It should be noted that these same officials regularly make similar statements about Iran's nuclear program, statements that can lead to only one of two possible conclusions. Either Russian intelligence has fallen completely apart and is utterly incompetent in reporting on these issues, or it is willfully hiding the truth. Not surprisingly, and not without reason, US officials repeatedly and publicly complain about the fact that Russian officials remain in denial about North Korea's activities.
Once the crisis intensified, Moscow stated and reiterated its concern that Pyongyang might be concealing the truth and urged it to forgo nuclear weapons. Then, early last month, it claimed to be jointly placing pressure with China on Pyongyang to abide by its agreements and treaties and more recently that it has its own plans for resolving the crisis though as yet to no visible result. Yet its Foreign Ministry simultaneously openly opposes pressure on Pyongyang. And all this has occurred despite widespread suspicions concerning Russian proliferation to North Korea. Certainly key governmental constituencies are eager to sell North Korea weapons if they can discover a profitable way to do so. But more important, the evidence trail points to Russian complicity in this proliferation.
While the gains made from proliferation and from improved ties to Pyongyang are considerable and tangible, do they justify looking the other way on North Korea's proliferation? Does Russia really benefit if North Korea's reckless provocations create irresistible pressures to scale back and even terminate South Korea's Sunshine Policy, which is clearly in Moscow's interest and offers potentially lucrative economic gains? Does North Korea's recklessness and expanding proliferation of weapons abroad not constitute a challenge to vital and important Russian security interests in Asia and beyond? Similarly, will Moscow benefit if North Korean proliferation forces Japan to commit actively to America's missile defense project or, worse, threaten to go nuclear itself as Russian analysts have long feared? Surely Moscow cannot view with equanimity the possibility of a war breaking out on the Korean Peninsula.
Yet its actions and refusal to put genuine pressure on Pyongyang suggest that Russian officials believe they gain from this proliferation and that somehow their status on the Korea issue is enhanced due to this crisis even when they continue to shirk any responsibility for ending or resolving it. Even when urging Pyongyang to retreat, high-ranking Foreign Ministry officials either blame the United States for the crisis or claim that North Korea is not developing or cannot develop nuclear weapons.
This posture strongly suggests that the psychological benefits of attacking the US still outweigh a rational appreciation of the dangers to Russia from this proliferation challenge. When a state with which Moscow wants to have good relations acts provocatively to threaten US interests and then critical regional or global interests, evidently the bureaucracy in Moscow cannot resist the temptation to contribute to Washington's discomfiture even if Russian interests such as partnership with the United States are subsequently damaged thereby.
Russia therefore will not, for all its public rhetoric, bring meaningful pressure to bear upon Pyongyang or take significant action to influence North Korea. For a power that covets a major role in Asia, this is worse than a crime - it is a major blunder.
The tepid joint Sino-Russian public criticism of Pyongyang's nuclear program suggest either the real limits of Moscow's leverage on either Beijing or Pyongyang and the fundamental unseriousness with which Russia views international proliferation of nuclear weapons, rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding. These lackluster activities and lack of results from them also suggest that neither Russia nor China is overly concerned about arresting or reversing North Korea's provocation of the United States, Japan, and the South.
It is clear what Russia hopes to gain in terms of its relations with Pyongyang and Beijing form adopting such a stance. And undoubtedly international appeals for Moscow to act make Russian diplomats feel good again, if only temporarily, about Russia's status in Asia. But again we must ask whether or not Russia really wants to play an active role in Asian security. For if it truly does, then its policies and public postures must seek more than merely achieving status.
For Russia to be a real player here and elsewhere in Asia it must go beyond status to seek and accept responsibility for devising solutions to crises. Unfortunately, we still have no evidence that Russian policy makers either can or want to grasp that point and its implications for the future.
Stephen Blank is an analyst of international security affairs residing in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.