Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 33

True to past experience, Russia greeted the six-party agreement on Korea signed February 12-13, with official expressions of correct appreciation and relief that the “nightmare of the Korean crisis [was] over.” Also unmistakable was a delight at what its media regarded as Washington’s “capitulation” and a wariness about the durability of this agreement (RIA-Novosti, Vremya novostei, February 14; Russia and CIS General Newswire, February 13). Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Losyukov, head of Moscow’s delegation, welcomed the agreement as “justifying the sides’ expectations” and as “an additional impetus to the process of negotiations toward ensuring a ‘nuclear-free status’ on the Korean peninsula” (Interfax, February 13).

Under the agreement, North Korea agreed to shut down its nuclear facilities within 60 days and allow international inspectors to view the sites. In return, North Korea will get fuel and food and opportunities to normalize bilateral ties with Japan and the United States.

Commentary on the deal echoed Russian analysis of the initial six-party accord of September 19, 2005, which fell apart within hours of its announcement and revealed the strong schadenfreude (joy at other’s sorrow) that now characterizes Russian commentary on virtually all aspects of U.S. foreign policy. Thus RIA-Novosti (February 14) openly called the new agreement a U.S. “capitulation” and tacit recognition of its past failures in Korea. Sergei Markov, director of Moscow’s Political Research Center, also opined that Washington came to recognize its past mistakes on Korea, but suggested that Washington signed the deal because it needed a foreign policy victory (Interfax, February 13). Other commentators, such as Mikhail Margelov, chairman of the Federation Council’s International Affairs Committee, hailed the agreement but pointedly noted that it creates a very important precedent whereby proliferation problems are solved by diplomacy, not threats — an implicit rebuke to Washington (Russia and CIS General Newswire, February 13). So while the press regarded the agreement as a U.S. defeat, there was a distinct wariness about what this agreement entailed for Russia.

Vyacheslav Nikonov, president of the Polity Foundation, acknowledged that Russia did not play a key role in this settlement, but admitted that China did (Interfax, February 13). Other analysts emphasized that the agreement was still tenuous and subject to the destructive effects of continued mistrust between Pyongyang and Washington (Vremya novostei, February 14). At best, analysts like Alexander Zhebin, director of Moscow’s Center for Korean Studies, voiced “cautious optimism,” noting that the agreement was a first step — not a breakthrough (Russia and CIS General Newswire, February 13).

At the same time there evidently is a failure of coordination on the key issue of whether or not Moscow will now waive North Korea’s debts, valued at over $8 billion (RIA-Novosti, February 13, see EDM, January 22). Losyukov flatly denied that the government was considering debt forgiveness, and other commentators observed that this decision exceeded the competence of the delegation working in Beijing (Interfax, February 13). Yet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, traveling with President Vladimir Putin in Abu Dhabi, indicated that Russia was willing to slash North Korean debts and provide aid (Itar-Tass, February 14). At the same time Valery Yazev, chair of the State Duma Energy Committee, claimed that it would be no problem for Russia to provide North Korea with electric energy and fuel oil (a not wholly convincing statement, given the fact that energy production in Russia has peaked). Yazev, who stated that Russia would provide the DPRK with electric power from a Far Eastern hydropower plant, was simultaneously putting out stories that Russia was also ready to export gas to North Korea (Itar-Tass, February 14). However, Russia’s role in providing energy assistance remains to be discussed and clarified (Interfax, February 10).

Finally Losyukov indicated that Russia seeks the ultimate destruction of the Yongbyon nuclear reactor, rather than the suspension indicated in this agreement (RIA-Novosti, February 13). The six parties are also discussing Russia’s plan to write off its and presumably other parties’ debts as a way of providing humanitarian aid to the DPRK. Moscow and Seoul will discuss these debts at a special intergovernmental commission meeting next month (RIA-Novosti, February 13). Russia will also head one of the working groups set up under this agreement, specifically the security-working group for Northeast Asia (Russian and CIS Diplomatic Panorama, February 13).

Moscow has displayed a complex reaction of relief mixed with caution and glee at Washington’s supposed defeat. But only time will tell if this agreement, and the pathway to a restructuring of security relationships in Northeast Asia that it entails, will play to Russia’s interests or to those of Beijing or Washington, not to mention Seoul, Pyongyang, and Tokyo.