Russia is strengthening its links with North Korea in order to position itself as an indispensable interlocutor between Washington and Pyongyang. But the cost Russia could demand for regional cooperation may prove prohibitive for the US.
With the recent Hanoi Summit ending without an agreement between the United States and the North Korea, governments worldwide are contemplating what comes next. Yet no time has been wasted in answering that question in Moscow. Within a few weeks of the summit, Russia has hosted several visits by senior North Korean officials and a delegation of Russian Federation Council members traveled to Pyongyang. In that timeframe, Moscow and Pyongyang have signed a memorandum of understanding on tourism and a 2019–2020 plan on cooperation, aimed at expanding political, economic and humanitarian ties. There have also been reports that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un may be planning a visit to Moscow in the near future.
All this is in stark contrast with the US–North Korea relationship since the meeting of their two leaders in Hanoi. North Korea has blamed the US for the summit’s failure, and North Korean officials have suggested that Pyongyang may consider ending negotiations with Washington altogether if the Trump administration refuses to take a more conciliatory approach to sanctions relief as part of the denuclearisation process. Such comments threaten to derail the high expectations that President Donald Trump has set for making progress on the denuclearisation of North Korea.
Facing the end of his first term in office in less than two years, Trump may be tempted to accept whatever help he can get to deliver on these expectations, even if that help comes from Moscow. According to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, the Trump administration has already reached out to Moscow for assistance in navigating the talks with Kim, with US officials having conferred with their Russian counterparts on the eve of the Hanoi Summit. Considering that Russia seems set on playing a role in developments on the Korean peninsula, it may be wise for Washington to find a way to work with Moscow in the region on its own terms, before Moscow decides for itself what that role will be. However, Washington should exercise care in such dealings, for the price demanded by the Kremlin may be too high.
Russia’s overtures to North Korea and its attempts to carve out a role for itself on the peninsula are not new. The relationship between the two countries runs deep; the Soviet Union had installed the Kim regime in Pyongyang in the first place and had provided extensive economic and military support to North Korea throughout the Cold War. Russia also played a role in earlier international attempts at arms control negotiations with North Korea, as a member of the failed Six-Party Talks, and recently expressed an interest in reviving these talks. Despite the imposition of international sanctions on North Korea, Moscow has maintained its relations with the country. At a 2018 UN Security Council meeting, the US accused Moscow of violating sanctions on North Korea through illicit ship-to-ship transfers of oil and coal to North Korea. The latest report by the UN Security Council 1718 Committee Panel of Experts also found evidence of several Russian companies establishing joint ventures with North Korean businesses, a violation of UN sanctions.
But more valuable than any benefits of economic cooperation with North Korea is the opportunity for Moscow to use its influence with Pyongyang as leverage in its dealings with Washington. Any Russian effort expended on soliciting North Korean cooperation within the negotiation process, or on generally helping the talks progress, will undoubtedly come at a price to the US. That assistance may be held hostage in exchange for Washington’s willingness to look the other way on Russia’s destabilising activities in other regions, such as Ukraine.
More importantly, Moscow’s and Washington’s objectives on the Korean peninsula are ultimately incongruent, meaning that collaboration between the two is more likely to stall than to promote any meaningful progress towards North Korean denuclearisation. Neither the US nor Russia have an interest in a nuclear weapons-armed North Korea, particularly if Pyongyang restarts its missile and nuclear tests or engages in otherwise destabilising activities; this would undermine regional security – including that of Russia. Yet there is no agreement between Moscow and Washington on how to arrive at that end state. The Trump administration has made clear its commitment to a complete dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear facilities, a destruction of all of its nuclear weapons, and – if some members of the administration are to be believed – the elimination of its chemical and biological weapons as well, before any sanctions are lifted. Russia, on the other hand, has criticised Washington’s stance, advocating instead an incremental approach to denuclearisation and sanctions removal. Putting sanctions relief on the table will be a precondition for securing any significant Russian input into the negotiations – a non-starter for the US, if the last round of negotiations and subsequent comments by the administration are any indication.
To get around this hard line, Russia may push for the US to instead make important security guarantees to North Korea – for instance, the promise to conclude a peace agreement on the Korean peninsula, or the complete halt of US–South Korean military exercises – before proceeding with negotiations. Acquiescing to such requests would reduce the US’s ability to maintain an effective military presence and to extend security assurance to allies in the region. Without first securing meaningful North Korean steps towards denuclearisation and a commitment to stabilising the security situation on the peninsula, a US military drawback would be ill advised, as it would open the door for greater Russian and Chinese influence, a development sure to be welcomed by Moscow and to cause serious concern among US regional allies – namely, Japan and South Korea.
Disagreement over such critical issues would stall any progress towards securing North Korean denuclearisation. Dragging out negotiations unnecessarily would continue to give Pyongyang the legitimacy it seeks on the international stage and will further weaken the multilateral sanctions regime against North Korea without any actual progress towards denuclearisation. Such a scenario may even lead to a situation where international appetite for a strict application of sanctions, or efforts toward denuclearising North Korea, will fade over time, eventually granting Pyongyang a free pass. And while both Moscow and Washington may seek to rid North Korea of its nuclear weapons, the two countries do not have an equal interest in expediting the progress of the negotiations. Prolonged talks with North Korea keep Washington’s energy focused on the Korean peninsula and away from Europe – to Russia’s benefit. If granted any significant influence over the negotiations, Moscow is as likely to stall negotiations as it is to provide any meaningful assistance.
Yet, despite the need for caution, soliciting limited Russian input for future negotiations with Pyongyang may offer some opportunities for the US, provided this is considered on a case-by-case basis. With the possible exception of the Chinese, the Russians have the best understanding of the North Korean regime and its thinking on issues of security, sanctions and diplomacy. These insights, as well as Moscow’s ties with Pyongyang, could prove valuable for navigating future negotiations. Securing Russian buy-in early in the negotiation process and allowing Moscow to provide some input may also make for a more durable agreement and increase the chance of Russian compliance with, and enforcement of, its terms in the future.
Still, the risks of Russian influence on future negotiations with North Korea should nevertheless place significant limits on whether and how the Trump administration decides to engage with Moscow. In its desperation to reach an acceptable agreement with Pyongyang, Washington should be careful that it does not stumble into a costly deal with Moscow instead.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.
Proliferation and Nuclear Policy