As Russia backed measured UN sanctions against Pyongyang following its October 9 nuclear test, Moscow appears to be seeking concerted action with Beijing regarding North Korea’s mercurial behavior.
Russian President Vladimir Putin criticized the North Korean test and argued that Pyongyang’s nuclear program should be resolved through diplomatic means. On October 14 Putin met China’s State Counselor Tang Jiaxuan in Moscow to discuss “our contacts [and] coordination on international issues,” notably the North Korean nuclear program. Tang was reportedly dispatched to Moscow as China’s special presidential envoy to discuss North Korea (Itar-Tass, October 14).
The nuclear problem on the Korean Peninsula “can only be settled by peaceful means,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Tang on October 13. “We have a common position with China regarding the need for a balanced approach in order to avoid any emotional response or extreme sanctions,” he said (Interfax, October 13). Moscow thus confirmed that it, along with Beijing, is reluctant to introduce tougher sanctions against Pyongyang.
Russian officials hailed the UN Security Council resolution adopted on Saturday, October 14. “North Korean nuclear tests are dangerous for the region and the entire world,” Leonid Slutsky, deputy head of the State Duma’s International Relations Committee, declared the following day. He described the resolution as “balanced,” while conceding that Pyongyang seemed unable to guarantee the safety of its nuclear tests (RIA-Novosti, October 15).
The Kremlin dispatched a high-ranking diplomat, Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Alexeyev, to Pyongyang and Seoul. Before his departure, Alexeyev urged Pyongyang to return to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and resume talks. “We intend to do everything possible in order to prevent events from developing in line with the worst, confrontational scenario,” he said. He also pledged to avoid “long-term negative consequences for Russian-North Korean relations” (Itar-Tass, October 11).
However, Alexeyev’s mission to Pyongyang brought quite modest results. Both sides “described their respective positions regarding the Korean Peninsula’s nuclear problem following the DPRK nuclear test of October 9,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement on October 13. The possibility of the resuming six-party talks was also discussed, the statement said (Interfax, October 13). Thus Moscow is yet to abandon its preference for a multilateral format to negotiate Pyongyang nuclear program, while its own ability to influence Pyongyang remained increasingly limited.
Russia, which shares a narrow land border with North Korea near Vladivostok, is understood to have little to lose economically by supporting sanctions against Pyongyang. In the wake of the Soviet collapse in 1991, Moscow sharply downgraded its ties with North Korea. Bilateral trade turnover has been around $150 million in the past two years, a fraction of Russia’s trade with South Korea, which reached $6.4 billion in January-August 2006.
Russia exports petroleum products, timber, coal, machinery, ferrous metals, and chemical fertilizers, while North Korean exports of consumer goods have been decreasing. Now Pyongyang mainly exports its cheap labor resources to Russia. With thousands of North Korean workers employed in Russia’s timber industry, labor resources amount to some 80-90% of North Korean exports to Russia.
Bilateral trade has remained low due to North Korea’s ongoing economic crisis and its unpaid debts to Russia. Both countries have been struggling to agree on Pyongyang’s Soviet-era 4 billion transferable-ruble debt to Moscow, which is estimated at anywhere between $2 billion and $7 billion. As Russia and North Korea have not had any debt negotiations for more than five years, Moscow apparently has lost any hope of having the debt issue settled.
In recent years, Pyongyang has indicated a willingness to get involved in high-profile regional projects. In 1997 North Korea reportedly agreed to a 5,000-kilometer pipeline exporting Russian natural gas from Siberia to South Korea and then onward to Japan. Moscow has also been mulling a project to help restore trans-Korean rail links and connect the country to the Trans-Siberian railway. However, both projects have remained on paper for years, and will hardly deter Russia from supporting tougher sanctions against Pyongyang.
Moscow has an historical link with Pyongyang’s nuclear program. The former Soviet Union was one of North Korea’s main suppliers of nuclear know-how when the two were Cold War allies. Pyongyang’s nuclear program started with a small Soviet-supplied isotope-producing facility. The Soviet Union and North Korea signed a nuclear cooperation treaty in 1956. In 1965 Soviet experts launched Yongbyon, a 5-megawatt reactor north of Pyongyang. But Russia now says that its nuclear cooperation with the isolationist communist country ended more than a decade ago.
Although bilateral economic ties remained very limited, few years ago Pyongyang turned to Moscow for assistance in modernizing the North Korean army. In the wake of Putin’s visit to Pyongyang in July 2000, Russia pledged to restore military cooperation with North Korea. When North Korean Defense Minister Vice-Marshal Kim Il-chol visited Moscow in April 2001, a deal on bilateral cooperation in the defense industry and military equipment.
Nearly all weapons used by the North Korean military are obsolete, Soviet-made models or domestically manufactured arms produced under Soviet licenses. North Korea’s armed forces reportedly have 50 missiles, more than 2,000 tanks, 10,000 pieces of artillery, 50 naval vessel, and 23 diesel submarines, all of which need urgent modernization. However, due to tensions on the Korean Peninsula Moscow has refrained from developing military ties with Pyongyang.