Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 82

Few observers believe that Russia has played — or is playing — a major role in the six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear program. But this fact has not dissuaded Moscow from continuing to push for the realization of its interests insofar as the Korean peninsula is concerned. Nor has it dissuaded Russia from trying to score points against Washington at the first sign of difficulties.

Russia’s point man on Korea, Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Losyukov, recently restated his optimism that North Korea will comply with the terms of the February 13, 2007, agreement to shut down the reactor and allow inspections, even though it is already behind schedule for doing so (Russia and CIS Diplomatic Panorama, April 16; Kyodo, April 17). Losyukov also said that it would not be constructive to create new deadlines to spur Pyongyang to fulfill the accords, even though the other parties are clearly pressing Pyongyang to meet its commitments. His oblique criticism of U.S. impatience was a subtle effort to suggest that it is Washington’s fault that the money from Macao’s monetary authorities and Banco Delta Asia has not yet been released, as prescribed in the February agreement (Kyodo April 17; Interfax, April 16). But when pressed, he backed away from Russian involvement in devising a solution, saying that Washington must resolve this problem with Beijing and Pyongyang (Interfax, April 16).

Up to now, Russia’s diplomats have not been actively pursuing their country’s interests in South and North Korea. However, Russian diplomats are continuing their discussions with South Korea about their overall bilateral relationship and the agenda of the six-party process (Russia and CIS Diplomatic Panorama, April 20). Similarly, a former South Korean senior intelligence official has claimed that the next round of inter-Korean talks may be held in Russia on Russkiy Island near Vladivostok, citing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s alleged desire to win a Nobel Peace Prize (Choson Ilbo, April 17).

Moscow had put its efforts into economic and energy initiatives that would give it a more pivotal position regarding the overall settlement of the six-party accords, particularly on the issue of providing North Korea with energy. Recently Moscow has tried to present itself globally as a willing and avid provider of nuclear power to counties that want or need it. Thus Konstantin Pulikovsky, Putin’s former viceroy for the Far East and a man with excellent connections to Kim Jong-Il and North Korea and now the co-chairman of the Russo-North Korean Economic Cooperation Commission and head of the Russian Federal Service for Ecological, Technological, and Nuclear Monitoring, has publicly stated that the only alternative source for ensuring energy supplies to all of the DPRK is nuclear energy (Interfax, April 18). Presumably the energy in question is intended to come from Russia as part of the six-party accords and would have to be paid for by the other four members besides North Korea. However, Pulikovsky also carefully evaded commenting on the question of whether Russia would enrich uranium for North Korea’s future peaceful nuclear energy program (Interfax, April 18).

Russia is also contemplating the issue of forgiving North Korea’s $8.8 billion debt to Russia, largely incurred during the Cold War. Certainly Pyongyang is hoping that Moscow will forgive that debt and has publicly expressed the hope that it will do so (Xinhua, RIA-Novosti, April 18). However, any movement on that debt will have to be a top-level political decision, and no answer has yet been forthcoming from Moscow regarding the North Korean request for debt forgiveness.

Finally, Gazprom has completed a transaction giving it a controlling stake in Sakhalin Energy, the operator of the Sakhalin-2 project. This transaction, Russia says, should give a major impetus to completing the project and allow it to provide liquefied natural gas to Japan, Korea, and even the West Coast of the United States (Russia and CIS Business and Financial Daily, April 19). Russia evidently hopes that if North Korea enters the international oil and gas market, Moscow could take advantage of that development and exploit it for its own benefit.

Here as elsewhere, Russia is trying to leverage energy as its principal instrument for enhancing its overall international position, as well as its standing in key regions like Northeast Asia. Moscow also clearly is trying to insist on its interests being defended and advanced while shirking any responsibility for the ultimate settlement and blaming the United States for anything that goes wrong. These have been consistent tactics in Russia’s Korean strategy since the start of the six-party process. But with North Korea’s recent invitation to UN inspectors to verify its nuclear programs, it appears that a new chapter, based on fulfillment of the February 13 accord, is possibly beginning. If that agreement is fulfilled, it presages the transformation of the overall regional security equation in Northeast Asia. Then it will be critical for Russia to adapt an old strategy and tactics to a new and unprecedented situation in a key region of the world.