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2009/05/21 11:04 KST


Russia Must Take Consistent Approach Toward N. Korea's Nuclear Program

By In-kon Yeo, Senior Researcher at Korea Institute for National Unification

The Russian government showed contradictory attitudes toward North Korea's long-range missile launch before and after it was conducted. When North Korea announced Feb. 24 that it was preparing to launch a satellite in early April, Russia delivered a lukewarm response. Asked whether the launch would violate U.N. Resolution 1718 during his visit to Seoul, Russian chief nuclear negotiator and Deputy Foreign Minister Alexei Borodavkin said, "Let us wait and see what will be the real technical parameters of this launch." His statement can be interpreted as tacit approval or tolerance of North Korea's provocative behavior.

   The next day, the chairman of the Russian Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, Mikhail Margelov, expressed concern that the launch would have negative effects on the security of the Korean Peninsula and the six-party talks. But instead of condemning North Korea, he simply called for "absolute transparency in the actions of North Korea in this area."

   However, tensions escalated to an unprecedented level as Japan announced it would shoot down North Korea's rocket and North Korea dispatched a fleet of MIG-23 fighter jets to counter Japan's deterrence. It was only then that a Russian foreign ministry spokesperson asked North Korea on April 2 to refrain from launching the rocket. Despite the international community's warnings, North Korea still launched a rocket on April 5, bringing about fear and insecurity in the international community.

   Shortly after North Korea's rocket launch, both Russia and China rejected the U.N. Security Council's sanctions, saying it was difficult to punish North Korea for its attempt to put a satellite into orbit. Their statement was implicit acceptance of North Korea's rocket launch. However, the Russian government was in favor of the U.N. Security's joint statement released on April 14 condemning North Korea's rocket launch. It still maintained that sanctions were not the appropriate measures in dealing with North Korea. The Russian government's position changed from accepting North Korea's rocket launch to condemning it.

   While visiting North Korea April 23-24, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov recognized every country's sovereign right to peacefully launch a satellite into space. He even suggested Russia would help North Korea launch a satellite. Lavrov's statements in Pyongyang were contradictory to what he said in Seoul the next day at a meeting with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak. The Russian foreign minister stated he did not approve of North Korea's long-range rocket launch, and that he tried to persuade North Korea not to launch another rocket during his trip to Pyongyang.

   After a close look at the way Russia has responded to North Korea's rocket launch, especially immediately after the U.N. Security's Council's joint statement, it's clear that Russia is limited to merely "recommending" that North Korea refrain from testing rockets. Russia has not followed a consistent line, as is evident from its "tacit approval and toleration" of North Korea's rocket launch preparations, calling for "absolute transparency" right before the test, asking for "restraint" under mounting tensions, "accepting" the satellite launch, and "condemning" North Korea in the U.N. Security Council's joint statement. Russia is not free from blame when it comes to the state of heightened tension on the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia, and North Korea's boycott of the six-party talks.

   Which begs the question: Why hasn't Russia been able to pursue a more consistent policy toward North Korea? Russia's inconsistency could be interpreted as an attempt to check the U.S. missile defense system, which is seen as a threat to the security of Northeast Asia, Eastern Europe and Russia. In his visit to North Korea in July 2000, then Russian President Vladimir Putin met with North Korean officials and expressed a common concern about the U.S. missile system. In other words, Russia is using North Korea as a lever to secure its interests in Northeast Asia.

   In addition, it may have been difficult for Russia to firmly oppose North Korea's supposed satellite launch while it was negotiating with South Korea to launch its own satellite in June at the Naro Space Center in Goheung, South Jeolla Province. Also, Russia may have been seeking economic benefits by offering to launch the satellite for North Korea under the condition that North Korea would not test more rockets.

   The escalating tension on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia caused by North Korea's long-range missile launch, which led to North Korea's boycott of the six-party talks, its announcement that it would restart its nuclear and missile programs, and the sanctions imposed on North Korea by the international community threaten Russia's interests in the region. Russia must make efforts to align the security environment in the region with its own national interests.

   In order to do this, Russia must first prevent North Korea from developing its nuclear and missile program by taking a consistent approach to North Korea. In the same way Russia arbitrated the Banco Delta Asia incident in 2007, it must put diplomatic pressure on North Korea to rejoin the six-party talks. If Russia makes cooperative diplomatic efforts with China, there will be a higher possibility that North Korea will rejoin the six-party talks. Only when North Korea agrees to come back to the six-party talks can Russia have a role in ensuring the stability and denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and achieve peace and security in Northeast Asia.