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US Air Force and Marine Corps aircraft conduct a mission with the South Korean air force over the Korean Peninsula in response to North Korea's intermediate range ballistic missile launch earlier this month

Does North Korea Matter to Russia?

Sarah Lain
Commentary, 28 September 2017
North Korea, Russia, Proliferation and Nuclear Policy, Europe, Pacific
Chinese, Russian and US cooperation at the UN over North Korea’s nuclear developments does not mean that these countries see the threat in the same way. However, Russia has the potential to play a constructive role in de-escalating tensions.

Moscow can in some ways sympathise with North Korea. Pyongyang’s fear of US–South Korea military containment policies has parallels with Russia’s complaints about NATO expansion.

There is also an instinctive Russian hostility to all-out sanctions as applied to North Korea, for as Moscow sees it, they frequently indicate a desire to achieve regime change through economic collapse. This, according to Moscow, causes the sort of power vacuums seen in places such as Iraq and Libya, which Russia ascribes to the West.

That is not to say, however, that the Kremlin is comfortable with what it views as its neighbour’s provocative nuclear tests, with President Vladimir Putin noting that Russia does not recognise North Korea’s nuclear status.

Moscow argues that crippling North Korea’s economy is undesirable since it will lead to potential political instability and Russia’s worst fear ­– regime change

Russia therefore does have a common interest with the West in de-escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula. However, it is yet unclear how proactive Russia is willing to be, beyond cooperation in formal structures, such as the UN Security Council.

Russia did not veto the recent UN sanctions resolutions on Pyongyang, showing that Moscow does share at least one aspect of the US and the wider global community’s perspective, namely that a response is required to North Korea’s undesirable nuclear testing.

However, it does not necessarily share the exact same approach. Moscow lobbied to weaken the sanctions, particularly regarding a full oil embargo. It argues that crippling North Korea’s economy is undesirable since it will lead to potential political instability and Russia’s worst fear ­– regime change.

The Kremlin was still willing to go further on other aspects, even in relation to those that would appear to have a direct economic knock-on effect for Russia itself. Moscow agreed, for instance, to the ban hiring future migrant labour from North Korea, despite the fact that the US State Department estimates that approximately 20,000 North Koreans are sent to work in Russia annually.

As RUSI Research Fellow Emil Dall has noted, however, the caveat is that migrant workers may still be allowed on a case-by-case basis in support of ‘humanitarian assistance’ or ‘denuclearisation’. In addition, the application of this particular sanction is by self-reporting only, allowing Russia to take its own view on the level of enforcement.

Furthermore, there are concerns about how well Russia enforces sanctions in general. This was shown in August when the US sanctioned four Russian individuals and one company for allegedly evading the existing sanctions on North Korea.

Even in light of its support for sanctions, Russia expresses concerns that sanctions alone will not deter Pyongyang from its nuclear objectives. As Putin recently noted, North Korea ‘will eat grass, but will not give up the [nuclear] programme, if they don’t feel safe’, saying also that a response should not ‘drive North Korea into a corner’.

Russia could do more, not least because Moscow has its own interests in ensuring stability in the region, given its own economic and political objectives, such as gas pipelines to South Korea via North Korea or other investments

These observations are intended to counter US-led bellicosity and pressure on Pyongyang, given that Moscow believes this can contribute to escalation, rather than forming part of a resolution.

In light of the Ukraine crisis, sparked in 2013–2014, this also reinforces Russia’s broader narrative of defiance against what it sees as Western-dictated ‘rules’ on ‘appropriate’ behaviour in relations between states.

Although Russia and the West have a genuine shared interest in reducing tensions and de-escalating nuclear tests and posturing, there is not necessarily a shared threat perception. Russia is unlikely to feel like a target in the current showdown, given that Pyongyang’s concerns are clearly directed at the US and South Korea.

Instead, Moscow is likely to perceive as a threat the increased US presence in the north Asian region, as a result of the nuclear crisis, and most notably South Korea’s deployment of the US THAAD anti-missile defence system.

Russia has sided with China against THAAD’s deployment. Although the system does not necessarily pose much of a security threat to Russia itself, the geopolitical climate means it is more useful politically for Moscow to side with Beijing on this.

Apart from formal mechanisms, such as the six-party talks and the UN Security Council, Russia has shown interest in leading on crisis management initiatives. Together with China, Russia put forward a joint proposal of a freeze-for-freeze agreement: a moratorium on North Korean nuclear device and ballistic missile tests, in exchange for the US and South Korea refraining from large-scale joint military exercises.

This suggested that the dual-freeze would happen in tandem with negotiations on the principles of non-aggression and peaceful co-existence.

The proposal of freezing US–South Korean joint military exercises has been dismissed by Washington as unacceptable, as these are deemed a vital part of extended deterrence, assurance to Seoul and military preparedness in the face of North Korea provocations. Most importantly, given the current climate, there are suspicions about the political motives of such a Russian–Chinese proposal.

Although Russia does not have as strong leverage over Pyongyang as China, it does have strong political access and expertise on the matter

Russia could do more, not least because Moscow has its own interests in ensuring stability in the region, given its own economic and political objectives, such as gas pipelines to South Korea via North Korea or other investments.

Although Russia does not have as strong leverage over Pyongyang as China, it does have strong political access and expertise on the matter. Russia could therefore still play a more proactive role in trying to de-escalate the situation.

It has noted the deficiencies in the current approach, but has not necessarily outlined how ‘peaceful’ engagement with Pyongyang could work. This is something Russia could initiate and lead on, which would also provide the grounds for Moscow to receive the international ‘respect’ it so often demands.

Banner image: US Air Force and Marine Corps aircraft conduct a mission with the South Korean air force over the Korean Peninsula in response to Pyongyang’s intermediate-range ballistic missile launch earlier this month. Courtesy of US Army/Staff Sergeant Steven Schneider

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.

Author

Sarah Lain
Research Fellow

Sarah Lain’s research focuses on post-Soviet foreign policy, in particular Russia and Central Asia.

Key themes that Sarah has... read more

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