Russia's influence on North Korea - never had it, never will: analysts
April 4, 2003
Even in Soviet times, Moscow had only a vague idea about what Pyongyang was up to. So chances that Russia may help defuse North Korea's nuclear standoff with the United States now are slim indeed, analysts say.
With war heating up in Iraq, some media pundits and politicians here have expressed concern that the United States may come after the other members of its "axis of evil" like North Korea or possibly even Iran.
A US strike against Moscow's Soviet-era dependant North Korea is especially worrying for Russians because the two countries are neighbors and any retaliatory attack from Pyongyang could affect bustling and vital cities like Vladivostok. Thus Moscow -- abandoning an earlier policy of a multilateral engagement with North Korea -- has tried repeatedly to arrange direct dialogue between Pyongyang and Washington in a bid to cool off crisis and stabilize the region.
None of its efforts so far have worked.
Washington refuses direct talks -- arguing that they would ammount to giving into nuclear blackmail. And Pyongyang says countries like Russia, Japan and China have no stake in its power struggle with the United States.
But some had looked on hopefully to Russia. President Vladimir Putin has had unmatched access to North Korea's eccentric leader Kim Jong-Il and a top Moscow envoy held exclusive talks in Pyongyang last year.
Experts here however say that other regional powers should expect little from Russian diplomacy.
"Even in the Soviet era, North Korea did what it wanted without consulting us. It would attack a US ship and we would only hear about it from Washington," said the Russian Academy of Science's Japanese department chief Viktor Pavlyatenko.
"Both Russia and Japan are now trying to play their role," he said, pointing to a tough declaration signed January 10 by Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi calling on North Korea to disarm.
"But we are acting -- and continue to act -- like spectators on this."
Russia's chief problem is that despite Putin's unlikely friendship with Kim, Russia has no levers of either military or economic influence on the hermetic state.
It used to act as North Korea's military protector but that agreement fell apart with the Soviet Union. Trade between the two sides stood at a trivial 115 million dollars last year.
"We would only be able to exert influence over North Korea if we continued to guarantee its security," said the head of Moscow's Far Eastern Institute's Korean department Vladimir Tkachenko.
"Now all we can do is consult. That does not get us far."
Moscow has also appeared to paint itself into a corner by stridently defending North Korea following its decision in October to kick out foreign inspectors and later to re-start its nuclear power plants -- a step, some fear, on the way to churning out half-a-dozen atomic bombs this year.
The foreign ministry here has issued a string of statements demanding that Washington open direct talks with Pyongyang -- a call that by definition would lock Moscow out of the negotiations process and further threaten its influence on Kim's government.
Russia argues that North Korea has legitimate security concerns in comments that betray a certain leniency toward Kim's nuclear ambitions.
But analysts say that, in private, the Russians are hatching a negotiations plan that would fuse Washington's and Pyongyang's contradictory approaches to the talks.
"There are discussions going on in Moscow about holding multilateral talks, in which the United States and North Korea then have direct negotiations of their own," said another Russian Academy of Science Asia specialist, Alexander Vorontsov.
"This would be a compromise which I think is being seriously considered by all sides involved, and this compromise is being negotiated in Moscow," said Vorontsov.