Although North Korea’s nuclear test on October 9 transformed the Northeast Asian landscape, it apparently has not changed the postures of the members of the six-party talks all that much. Russia’s reaction to this test is very much a linear progression from its previous stance in the negotiations and suggests that it will not be a party to U.S. and Japanese efforts to come down very hard on North Korea. Although Russian President Vladimir Putin and the government immediately condemned the tests, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov observed that North Korea is now a new nuclear power, suggesting that it will not be possible to roll back the clock to the status quo ante (RIA-Novosti, October 10).
This may be a realistic assessment, but it hardly is one that looks to achieve a successful denuclearization or punishment of North Korea. Indeed, both Putin and Ivanov have ruled out the use of force against North Korea, with Ivanov pointing out that Russia shares a border with North Korea, implying that war could thus engulf Russian territory (president.ru, October 10; Moscow Times, October 11). Putin even went further in his October 10 interview with the Suddeutsche Zeitung (president.ru, October 10), when he stated that the other five parties to the talks must stick together and not drive the problem into a dead end. He said the negotiating process should be maintained at all costs to ensure that there is always the prospect of a political solution. But this can only happen if the parties are willing to make compromises. In his interview with German ARD Television, Putin stressed, “We need to move from talk of ultimatums and sanctions toward seeing international law prevail in international matters.” He cautioned that as long as one side believes its security is being violated or that it is being discriminated against, it would continue to behave this way (ARD Television, Germany, October 10). Thus he implicitly criticized U.S. obduracy as well as North Korea’s equal stubbornness in these talks.
This view accords with that of much of the Russian elite. Andrei Kokoshin, chairman of the Duma Committee for CIS Affairs and a man with great experience in defense and foreign affairs, said that the problem would have been much easier to solve had it not been for U.S. officials’ verbal attacks on North Korea (Russia and CIS Military Newswire, October 10). While it is not yet clear whether or not Russia will endorse severe sanctions on North Korea as Washington is proposing, the above statements seem to exclude that possibility. Indeed, on October 11 Russia completed scheduled food deliveries to North Korea under the UN World Food program (RIA-Novosti, October 11). Had Russia really been as furious as is Washington, it might have used that shipment to signal its anger.
One reason for Putin’s measured attitude may be that he and his team recognize that the entire negotiating process over Korea could break down, leaving Washington and China unrestrained and Russia unable to influence future developments in the region. Therefore Moscow lost no time in stating that it is ready to rejoin efforts to achieve a peaceful resolution of the situation around North Korea (RIA-Novosti, October 10).
This attitude should not come as a surprise. Ivanov is still trying to find excuses for Iran’s proliferation efforts, and it is clear that Beijing and Moscow are unlikely to unite with Tokyo and Washington. In other words, the lineup observed earlier and throughout the duration of the crisis, which began in 2002 when North Korea’s cheating of the Agreed Framework was revealed, continues to prevail. Moscow and Beijing still oppose U.S. efforts to pressure North Korea beyond a certain point, are reluctant to embrace sanctions, and will certainly not let Washington act unilaterally against the North Korean regime. Therefore it is unlikely that this nuclear test will effect a major change in the lineup as constituted until now. While this may seem surprising, this sense of deja vu in the posture of the other five states probably suggested itself to North Korea, which calculated that nothing too severe would happen to it and that the internal divisions among the five would allow it to test with relative—if not absolute—impunity.
These continuing divisions among the five powers call into question the utility of the multilateral forum as long as Washington insists on dragging into it issues of regime change. It may not even be possible to achieve a multilateral agreement on a strict nonproliferation agenda. But to weigh down this forum with other issues that are perceived by Moscow, Beijing, and Seoul as extraneous and deliberately counterproductive has led to a dead end for Washington and Tokyo, because those three states have systematically opposed both U.S. and Japanese initiatives. Russia’s, if not China’s, posture suggests that an “agonizing reappraisal” of the multilateral format’s utility and prospects for success is not only long overdue, but urgent.