The latest round of the six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear program took place November 9-11 in Beijing. Like many of the preceding rounds, this one ended inconclusively. While U.S. President George W. Bush and his officials are still busy trying to organize a unified position among the other four parties (excluding Japan) to the talks, those governments appear to be going their own way. Even if they agree that Pyongyang should not have nuclear weapons, there is no agreed-upon strategy to achieve this end (Washington Post, November 17). Indeed, China and South Korea are again trying to work together, while there is little sign of such cooperation between Seoul and Washington.
Russia too seeks to work with both South Korea and China along lines different from those espoused by Washington. Indeed, Moscow has again emphasized not just an identity of views with Seoul regarding North Korea’s nuclear program, but also with Beijing (RIA-Novosti, Itar-Tass, November 15; Interfax, November 16). Moscow also professes its desire to help resolve North Korea’s demand for guaranteed and reliable energy sources, which is a sticking point in the talks, by offering the DPRK electricity. (Yonhap, November 15) As such offers have been a constant point of Russian policy, it is not new, but still it is a notable feature of Russian policy.
Indeed, Russia has consistently and successfully sought to use its relationship with the North to leverage and improve its ties with South Korea. Those latter relations have taken a significant step forward recently. In comments on the latest negotiating round, Russia officially adopted a cautiously optimistic line, pointing to constructive discussions among the parties and their readiness for full and comprehensive implementation of the principles outlined in the September 19, 2005, joint declaration on the basis of “obligation in response to obligation, action in response to action” (Interfax, Itar-Tass, November 11).
In advance of his trip to South Korea for the annual APEC summit, Russian President Vladimir Putin also published an article calling upon Russia to take an advanced position in providing Asia with energy and innovative technologies — surely some of which would go to either or both Koreas — and enhancing Russia’s Asian position (www.president.ru, November 17). Putin also wrote a letter to the South Korean people in which he cautiously but clearly announced support for unification of Korea on the basis of inter-Korean dialogue (Yonhap, November 16). Russia’s rewards for trying to be everyone’s friend in Korea have not been long in coming. Chinese reports indicate that the Russian company Severstal is negotiating to buy equity stakes in North Korean iron mines from a Chinese firm, Tonghua Iron and Steel Group (Yonhap, November 12).
Finally, Russian Economics and Development Minister German Gref, who also traveled to the APEC conference, used that opportunity to present a joint South Korean-Russian draft action plan for signature by their presidents during the APEC summit. The plan includes provisions for improved mutual investment, greater access for South Korean companies into the Russian market, and measures to liberalize and thus expand bilateral trade (RIA-Novosti, November 15). On this basis Gref proclaimed, “We now perceive South Korea as our strategic partner in the region and political relations between our countries are very favorable” (RIA-Novosti, November 15).
In this respect Russia is continuing along the successful lines of Putin’s policies. Since 2000 Moscow has worked to expand relations with North Korea and to use that relationship as a basis for later expanding ties with Seoul and for that matter Beijing as well. This policy has produced numerous rewards or Moscow. North Korea, not China, requested its participation in the six-party talks as a condition of its attendance and thus Russia’s ties to Pyongyang helped it gain recognition as a key member of the solution to the peninsula’s issues. This was clearly not the case several years ago. Second, Russo-South Korean cooperation has been greatly enhanced because Russia not only has energy and transport links that Seoul wants, it has leverage on Pyongyang that Seoul wants to be able to use for its purposes. And third, both Koreas now want to expand trade and transport opportunities with Moscow including — but not only in — energy.
All these outcomes point to the need for any successful Asian policy to be able to have a relationship with North Korea that represents a substantive engagement with Pyongyang even at the risk of serious disagreements with it. Russia has greatly benefited from this kind of relationship and stands to continue reaping gains even if the talks stall. Moreover, inasmuch as Washington has a rather different notion of what should now happen next than do Beijing, Seoul, and Moscow, it is unlikely that President Bush’s efforts to sway Russian policy will encounter any great success. Instead, one suspects that Putin may have told Bush to learn from his example instead. Putin’s policy has worked very well for Russia and probably will continue to do so for a long time to come, irrespective of North Korea’s nuclearization.