Russia’s media have been unusually quiet, even restrained, about the July 9 announcement that North Korea would return to the six-party talks on its nuclear program on or around July 27. While the Foreign Ministry voiced its happiness over this decision, and other official media indicated the same sentiment, they did so in dry, formal language, not even hinting that Moscow is pleased with this development. This restraint is quite atypical for the voluble Russian press and also for the large number of foreign policy and defense analysts located in Moscow’s media and think tanks.
What makes this seeming silence even more unusual is the fact that U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice specifically thanked Russia for its help in persuading North Korea to return to negotiations. Rice also praised China and South Korea and was conspicuously silent about Japan’s role in the discussions leading up to North Korea’s announcement. This omission hardly escaped the notice of he Japanese press, but it did not appear to register very much in Russia.
There are several possible explanations for this reticence in Moscow, although none of them can be called definitive or even verified from available evidence. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs reacted positively to reports of the DPRK’s return to the negotiating table, as it has been urging the speediest possible resumption of the negotiations and working toward that end. But that is essentially all the Russian government revealed.
There is little doubt that the Russian reaction and Rice’s praise indicate that Moscow helped persuade Pyongyang to return to the table. We know that, throughout the spring, Russian officials had been very worried that North Korea might actually test a nuclear weapon, as it had earlier announced it had them. Russian legislators, such as Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of a recent Duma delegation to North Korea, have frequently criticized Washington for seeking to bring pressure upon North Korea. Therefore Russia is probably relieved that North Korea has so far refrained from testing a nuclear weapon and that Washington appears to have moved some distance to answer North Korea’s concerns and fears.
To the extent that Moscow may have been helpful in persuading both sides to take these steps, it may feel that it is better not to boast about its role, lest everyone expect more of it in the future when the negotiations become much more difficult and intense, and real issues are at the forefront of discussion. Since Russian policy is based on maintaining a balance between the two Koreas and between North Korea and Washington, while seeking an identity of responses to the issues on the table with China, silence may appear to be the better part of valor here.
But Russia still believes in a package deal for North Korea, under which Pyongyang denuclearizes in return for recognition, security guarantees, and large-scale assistance, including energy. Undoubtedly Russia hopes to provide some of that energy in return for genuine payment and trade deals that connect it with both Korean states. By appearing to play down its capacity for mediating effectively between Pyongyang and Washington, Russia may hope to evade demands for it to extend its capabilities beyond its comfort level and to a point where its ability to balance between competing governments comes under pressure.
Moreover, as the announcement of North Korea’s return to the talks was made in Beijing, and it is clear that Chinese intercession likely played the largest role in getting North Korea to the table, Moscow may have made the following calculations. As it seeks an identity of views and partnership with Beijing, not least to check U.S. power globally, it would not do for Russia to boast about its role and steal China’s thunder, especially as China plays a larger role generally in influencing North Korea. Ultimately Russia’s longer-term aims for Korea diverge from China’s and indeed its leaders are well aware of the Chinese commercial challenge to Russia’s Asian position. But there is no gain for Moscow in overtly showing this discrepancy in long-range objectives or competing too overtly with China over Korean nuclearization at this time. These calculations may have entered into Russia’s decision to refrain from too overt a discussion of the repercussions of North Korea’s decision and the circumstances arising from it.
Admittedly the paucity of responses about this announcement forces analysts to read between the lines. But clearly and certainly Russia has vital interests on all issues connected with the Korean peninsula. When it calculates that its interests must openly be advanced, if not defended, Moscow will express them in no uncertain terms.
(Itar-Tass, April 28, May 3, 8, 9, May 23, June 6, July 9, 11; Interfax Diplomatic Panorama, July 11; Yonhap [Seoul], May 3, July 9; Kyodo World Service, May 19, 23, July 10; Xinhua Domestic Service, July 10; Korea Herald, May 9; Agence France Presse, May 23; Associated Press, May 8, 23; Interfax, May 7, 23; Radio Mayak, May 3; RIA-Novosti, May 3, 7 June 2; Channel One TV, Moscow, May 3; KCNA, May 8; Asahi Shimbun, May 7)