The growing furor over North Korea’s preparations for a missile test has evoked only a tepid response in Moscow.
Beijing only weighed in publicly on June 21, with a typically restrained statement of its being very concerned about a possible test (Xinhua, Chinadaily.com, June 22). This statement came only one day after a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman stated that she had no specific details on North Korea’s plans other than what was written in foreign news reports (China, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, June 20) Yet, as both Moscow and Beijing knew, high-level Sino-North Korean discussions were taking place at this very same time, as China’s Chief of the General Staff was then visiting North Korea (Interfax, June 22).
Indeed, the Kremlin might even be described as displaying an amazing insouciance about this projected test. Its only complaint to date has been that nobody has formally notified it of any potential North Korean missile launch. However, there are no official documents regulating mutual notification of launches (Itar-Tass, June 16). Beyond that fact, Russian experts think that North Korea’s visible preparations for a launch of the Taepodong-2 missile represent nothing more than the usual manifestation of political blackmail in order to secure economic advantages (Interfax, June 20). Another interpretation holds that North Korea is publicly flaunting its preparations for a test because it is jealous of the concessions that Iran appears to be gaining as well as Tehran’s recent monopolization of the political limelight (Kommersant, June 14). Most significantly, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, even as he conceded legitimate grounds for concern by other countries, said that reports about a missile test are “purely speculative” (Interfax, June 22).
In other words, Moscow believes that this test — or at least the diplomatic uproar it is causing — is essentially the same old thing and nothing about which to become upset. Russian leaders continues to hold to this position even though officials and prominent political figures like Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the Duma’s International Affairs Committee and a figure sympathetic to North Korea, acknowledges that a test would have unpleasant political repercussions for Pyongyang in the international community (Interfax, June 19).
Indeed, Russian experts do not really believe — or at least profess not to believe — that Pyongyang has a compact nuclear warhead that it could use to equip an ICBM. They maintain that North Korea’s nuclear program is based on weapons-grade plutonium and plutonium-based explosives that resist all forms of miniaturization (Kommersant, June 14). In so doing, of course, they either deny or depreciate the possibility that North Korea has a well-developed uranium program to accompany its more publicly acknowledged plutonium program. Certainly Washington believes that North Korea has a substantial and developing uranium program and has stated as much repeatedly. Even experts like General Viktor Yesin, vice president of the Academy for Security, Defense, and Law-Enforcement Problems, who believes that North Korea could develop a missile with a 6,000-kilometer range, denies that the North Koreans have a nuclear weapon. He even stated that although they claim to have such a weapon, it is most likely an explosive device, not a truly powerful nuclear weapon (Interfax, June 19).
Russian experts have long publicly maintained this posture; namely, that North Korea does not really have nuclear weapons. And Yesin even argues that because it left the Nonproliferation Treaty, North Korea is immune from any legal repercussions for exploding a tested nuclear missile (Interfax, June 19). Neither can experts agree as to whether or not North Korea even has a missile ready for testing, let alone deployment (Kommersant, June 14).
However, by far the most insouciant of Russian responses to a possible North Korean missile test came from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aide, Igor Shuvalov, in a recent briefing for the upcoming G-8 summit. Shuvalov stated that North Korea’s recent actions were likely a psychological test. Based on his comments, the Russian news agency Novosti headlined its report on the topic by mentioning that Shuvalov had dismissed reports out of North Korea as being a “psychological test” (RIA-Novosti June 20). Indeed, Shuvalov replied to questions about Russia’s reaction to a test as if he were daring Pyongyang to conduct a test. He stated, “Let them first launch it. Will it take off and where will it fly? Only then will it become clear who will make which statements in either unilateral or multilateral formats” (Itar-Tass, June 20). Obviously this Clint Eastwood-like attitude, daring North Korea to “make Moscow’s day,” indicates a widening sphere of discord with Washington over proliferation and Korean issues. It hardly augurs well for an effective response either to any possible test or to any other North Korean provocation in the future and suggests that Moscow now opposes Washington on principle, regardless of the strategic consequences to itself from future nuclear proliferation. Under these circumstances, it is reasonable to ask whose psyche needs testing: those who proliferate or those who remain in denial about proliferation’s ultimate consequences for them and everyone else.
Late yesterday, June 22, Moscow seemed to finally be taking North Korea’s threat seriously. The Russian Foreign Ministry summoned North Korean Ambassador Pak Ui Chun to make plain Moscow’s concerns. According to a Foreign Ministry statement, “In particular, the undesirability was stressed of any actions which could negatively affect regional stability and complicate the search for a settlement to the Korean peninsula’s nuclear problem” (Foreign Ministry Press Release, June 22).