Russia And The North Korean Nuclear Negotiations

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 31

Evidently Russia wants to intensify its role at the six-power talks on North Korea’s nuclear program. But it is doing so by carving out a position at odds with Washington’s stance and which only facilitates Pyongyang’s nuclearization. Moscow is calling for security guarantees for North Korea in advance of any pledge that it completely and fully verifiably dismantle its nuclear weapons program. It also claims to share a common stance with both Seoul and Beijing while its diplomats argue that Washington is the one responsible for the impasse at these talks.

Thus Deputy Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Trubnikov claims that no such program exists, despite evidence unearthed by the IAEA suggesting that North Korea has a uranium enrichment capability, as well as previous admissions to this effect by Pyongyang. Trubnikov also claims that North Korea should have a right to have a nuclear program provided it maintains it according to IAEA standards and blames Washington for the impasse. (Energy Compass, January 8, 2004; Itar-Tass, March 17, 2004, Itar-Tass April 29, 2004; Itar-Tass, May 24, 2004) Of course, he neglects to say how this program should be implemented because North Korea’s refusal to abide by its agreements with the IAEA and refusal to submit to any outside verification lie at the heart of the crisis. Instead, he and his fellow diplomats maintain that it is Washington who seeks to put pressure on Pyongyang and therefore it needs to be more flexible.

Trubnikov’s boss, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, argues that Russia is not hampering the negotiations. Rather, it is a responsible member who puts forward constructive and practical proposals and would accept any date for resumption of the talks. This comes as something of a surprise since there is no previous public mention of any Russian initiative comparable to those launched by China. Instead, Moscow keeps insisting publicly that it and Beijing have an identity of views on North Korean nuclearization. (Itar-Tass, May 28, 2004)

Apparently Russian diplomats’ latest statements represent a run up to Lavrov’s forthcoming visit of July 2-4 in Seoul and July 4-6 in Pyongyang. Russia evidently wants to intensify its presence in the region and at the negotiations while trying to move the latter forward. It may well resent the fact that it has been Beijing’s initiatives, rather than its own that are responsible for whatever negotiations have occurred thus far, even though the talks have yet to produce meaningful progress. Thus, it is attempting to hunt with the hounds and run with the hare at the same time.

For example, on May 25 Moscow announced that it and Beijing were ready to extend additional security and economic guarantees to North Korea if Washington’s guarantees failed to satisfy North Korea. (Itar-Tass, May 25, 2004) Subsequently it claims it will accept any guarantees that all parties accept. Kremlin efforts to play both sides against the middle seem motivated by its desire to be seen as an accepted member of the security agenda for Korea and Northeast Asia. Since Vladimir Putin came to power, he has emphasized a rapprochement with both Koreas and attempted to stimulate large-scale economic projects, in particular a linkup of the Trans-Siberian railroad with a projected Trans-Korean railroad. While the talks over nuclear issues stagnate, Russian diplomats and officials are trying very hard to foster real progress on realizing this railroad project. At the same time, Russian businessmen, ignoring U.S. calls for a freeze on foreign investment in North Korea, are already contemplating new large-scale trading projects involving the refinery in Najin, and building a highway to that city along with the projected railroad link (June 4, 2004; Itar-Tass, June 6, 2004) Though Russia publicly professes a shared point of view with China on Korean issues, in fact the economic rivalry for influence over North Korea is strong and visible and, moreover, may underscore Lavrov’s motives for his upcoming trip. (RIA Novosti, June 9, 2004; Itar-Tass, June 11, 2004)

Moscow’s diplomatic maneuvers and foreign policy initiatives suggest that while Putin and his subordinates faithfully hold to a view that they are pursuing just Russian national interests, in particular economic ones in foreign policy, in fact much of Russian foreign policy can fit rather easily into the categories of earlier governments’ foreign policy and strategy. What is clear is that the Kremlin is ready to compromise on North Korean security guarantees and even a nuclear program under some sort of an IAEA rubric even if it is not completely verifiable and will try to push Washington to do so as well. At the same time, its rivalry with China for economic and political influence over both Koreas will also continue behind the facade of friendship. Unfortunately the only player in the six-party talks who benefits is North Korea, which is not under sufficient pressure to renounce its nuclear program and submit to international verification. Under those conditions, can it honestly be said that Russian policy here is really working to achieve Russia’s true national interests?