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2008/07/17 10:41 KST



By Woo Pyung Kyun
Research Professor, Institute for Peace Studies, Korea University, Seoul, Korea

Policy toward North Korea is an important component of Russia's general strategy in the Asia-Pacific region, which is now regarded by Moscow as a more important area than in the past. This growing emphasis on Asia is anticipated by the diplomatic affairs of the new president, Dmitri Medvedev, as it was by the former president and current prime minister, Vladimir Putin. Medvedev is Putin's discipline, and Putin was Medvedev's patron after the 1990s as a member of the“Poputchiki”(people from St. Petersburg).

   Now Moscow is rife with questions about just who -- Medvedev or Putin -- is really in charge of Russian foreign policy. Some observers suggest that the move might drain power from Sergei Lavrov, who has served as foreign minister since he was appointed by then President Putin in 2004, and remains in the post under Medvedev. They consider the move to be a clear signal that Putin has no plans to give up the reins in foreign affairs. Nevertheless, Medvedev is the main player in Russian foreign policy -- at least on paper.

Russia and the Korean Peninsula

A calculating and pragmatic approach toward the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea) and the Korean Peninsula in general has become an integral part of Russia's strategic course. Since 2000, Russia-North Korea relations have reached an unprecedented level. Moscow has gained unique and exclusive communications capabilities with Pyongyang based on the development of trust between the two countries' leadership at the highest political levels, described in North Korean terminology as a "personal friendship of leaders from the two countries."
The improved North Korea-Russia relationship has generated mixed reactions. Some observers dismiss it and assert that Russia has no real influence over North Korea, while others criticize Moscow for having overly intimate relations with Pyongyang. To understand the true state of present bilateral relations, it is necessary to understand the fundamental characteristics of the Russia-North Korea relationship.

   Above all, it should be stressed that Moscow's policies toward the Korean Peninsula are determined by Russia's serious and legitimate strategic interests in Korea. The fundamental goal of the preservation of peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula defines Russia's policy toward Korea, and by extension its position on any settlement of the North Korean nuclear crisis. Russia stands firmly behind a peaceful resolution of the crisis.

   Russia's first goal in North Korea is to maintain stability. Like all neighboring states, Russia does not want a dramatic transformation to happen in Pyongyang. A crisis in North Korea is too dangerous to Russia. Even if a regime collapse does not lead to prolonged violence, it will still mean a disruption of normal life, large refugee flows and an outbreak of dangerous instability near the Russian border. The situation is aggravated by the fact that the Russian maritime region, adjacent to North Korea, is considered to be a very vulnerable part of the country where the central government does not exercise much control.
The collapse of the North Korean regime might lead to irreversible difficulties, including economic damage in Seoul and hence, disruption of profitable economic cooperation with South Korea. This is not a development Russia would find desirable. With security and economic problems, a unified Korea might resort to ultra-nationalism as a way to distract its populace from unavoidable social and economic difficulties. Russia, like China and Japan, worries about strong Korean nationalistic feeling after the unification of Korean Peninsula.

Russia and the Second Nuclear Crisis

Participation in the six-party talks also provides Russia with an opportunity to present itself as a potential facilitator in dealing with the North Korean regime, often citing some special influence it allegedly has in Pyongyang. When the second North Korean nuclear crisis broke out in 2002, the Russian government actively volunteered to act as mediator in resolving the situation, in stark contrast to its attitude during the first crisis 10 years ago. Moscow dispatched Deputy Foreign Minister Losyukov to Pyongyang in January 2003 to present "comprehensive dealings" in exchange for solving the North Korean nuclear problem. Russia laid out a solution to the nuclear crisis even before China did, and communicated to the U.S. that a peaceful resolution through dialogue must remain the top priority.
Moscow has been more critical of U.S. the hard-line position than of North Korea's stubborn, inflexible position. Russia opposes pressure tactics of force, as advocated by the U.S. and Japan, as a means to resolve the crisis. It emphasizes the need to satisfy North Korea's legitimate needs and demands (security, food aid, the peaceful use of nuclear energy, etc.) while insisting on North Korea's denuclearization, and shares similar views with China and South Korea on these matters. In this sense, Kim Jong-il's calculated move to have Russia's presence at the negotiation table as a counterbalance (along with China and South Korea) against the U.S. has proven correct.

   Russia's position on the issue, i.e., that guaranteeing North Korea's economic independence through electricity and energy supplies on the basis of a flexible system of sanctions could increase the possibility of nuclear disarmament, remained unchanged until Feb. 13, 2007. Russia also argued that in order to carry out the specifics of the eventual agreement, it was important to form multiple working-level groups and maintain frequent contact. In the end, the joint agreement included various items prompted by Russia and the strong likelihood that it would play a substantially more important part in future proceedings.

   In this context, the adoption of the Feb. 13 agreement at the fifth found of the six-party talks in Beijing holds great significance for Russia. Above all, the fact that Russia's position was suitably reflected in the agreement will be lauded domestically as the Putin administration's diplomatic achievement. Putin's government has consistently maintained that since the Kim Jong-il regime's nuclear armament is an attempt to ensure its continued survival, the issue must be resolved through dialogue. Now Russia is able to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the U.S., China, Japan, and South Korea in bringing the process of peaceful resolution to a successful close. Russia's prominence becomes even more notable when we note that the catalogue of aid to be supplied to North Korea includes humanitarian assistance and energy sources, as well as heavy oil. The generally positive reaction shown by the Russian media toward the possibility of forgiving North Korea's debt of US$8 billion can also be understood along these lines.

Strained Friendship

There are some opinions that the relationship between Russia and North Korea has disappointed both sides, even though the relationship in the 2000s has improved. That is, Russia is not a donor state -- not even minor one -- and its activities in North Korea are limited to much-publicized symbolic actions. Russia has mostly been unable to assert itself as a prominent player in Northeast Asia, and North Korea has received neither the unalloyed political support nor the economic backing that it seeks. Russia has more influence in the region than it did in the 1990s, but not enough to change the equation on the Korean Peninsula. Opportunities for economic cooperation have been limited mostly by Pyongyang's refusal to open its economy, and also by Russia's fixation on overly ambitious schemes that at best may take decades to realize. China's more nimble investors have moved in much faster than Russia's state-owned behemoths.

   Pyongyang wants Russia to balance China's growing influence, but appears to recognize that Moscow will never provide the level of support that it once did. The North has been keen to discuss economic cooperation, but has lacked the political will to reform its economy sufficiently for foreign investment -- even from a country as inured to corruption and government interference as Russia. It is equally interested in technical and scientific aid. Russian technology, equipment and know-how have featured prominently in the history of both Koreas, and Pyongyang will seek to resolve its economic problems with scientific and technical solutions. But there is unlikely to be much growth in bilateral cooperation unless the nuclear crisis is resolved peacefully and the North opens its economy.


Russia's new President Medvedev, who was inaugurated on May 7, 2008, will maintain the same policy toward North Korea and the Korean Peninsula as former President Putin. The new president has had very little professional experience in diplomatic affairs, especially in North Korean relations. Many experts believe that President Medvedev will make the economy the focus of Russia's relations with North Korea while sticking to a pragmatic stance. Eventually, Medvedev will continue Putin's legacy and adopt his policy toward North Korea. In the aspect of economic cooperation, it is expected that from a pragmatic point of view, Russia will promote the project to connect the Trans-Korean Railway (TKR) and the Trans-Siberian Railway through triangular economic cooperation among the two Koreas and Russia. On April 24, Russia and North Korea signed an agreement to renovate the 54-km railway that connects Russia's town of Khasan to the North Korean port of Rajin. This is a late fulfillment of an agreement made in 2001, when North Korea's leader Kim Jong-il visited Russia, and it clearly shows where Russia's interests lie. Russia is pursuing a variety of options, like triangular economic cooperation with the two Koreas while giving complete priority to its national interests.

   On the other hand, North Korea has relatively little weight in Russia's foreign policy, which has always placed the greatest importance on the U.S. Therefore, it is expected that Russia's policy toward North Korea will not change due to the Russian government's character, but because of the“North Korean factor”like its resolution of the nuclear issue. In the short term, the coordination between Putin and Medvedev is working because they are largely in agreement on most matters of policy, despite the president's more conciliatory tone.