Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 162

The most recent session of the six-power talks over North Korean nuclearization finally got down to serious negotiations. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Alexeyev, head of Russia’s delegation, confirmed afterward that the draft statement of principles is 95% complete. What remains, he said are several outstanding questions or fresh “impulses from the capitals.” The three-week recess prior to resumption of the talks on August 29 suggests that delegations, especially North Korea’s, have received proposals that they need to bring back to their governments in order to obtain fresh instructions.

Sources close to the Russian delegation claim that, at this stage, North Korea does not have a nuclear arsenal, i.e. any nuclear munitions that are properly stored and ready for use. North Korea, according to these same sources, claims it is a nuclear power because it has produced a detonator to activate its nuclear charges. But those weapons and detonator have apparently not yet been combined to produce a usable weapon. This source also warns that, unless the parties provide safety guarantees to Pyongyang or make unacceptable demands upon it, then North Korea will develop a truly functional nuclear arsenal.

Given the balance of commentary coming from members of the Russian government and various experts in and around Moscow, Russia appears to believe that Washington is making excessive demands upon North Korea and therefore should make the most concessions. Moscow is advocating a stage-by-stage denuclearization of North Korea and the provision of security guarantees to all six parties. Providing such guarantees would formalize Russia’s position as both a guarantor and recipient of regional security assurances and thereby recognize its upgraded regional standing.

Kim Jong-Il warmed to Russia’s position, telling Konstantin Pulikovsky, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Envoy to the Far Eastern Federal District, that he would be willing to consider reviving the 1994 nuclear pact with America only if Washington ceases to threaten North Korea over its nuclearization, and he might even reconsider joining the Nonproliferation Treaty. While this comment received considerable media attention, it actually is a replay of former statements from Pyongyang.

Russia’s position reflects its abiding goals concerning the Korean peninsula. First of all, Russia’s main objective is to ensure that its presence and leverage over the entire Korean peninsula and both Korean states is enhanced. Thus from Moscow’s standpoint, these talks are about ensuring and legitimizing Russia as a major security guarantor of Northeast Asia. Second, it seeks to maximize its leverage over both Koreas through its ability to provide energy to both states. Moscow also hopes to use its geographic location to create a link between the Trans-Siberian and a proposed Trans-Korea railway to facilitate economic development that would further tie the two Korean states to it.

Unfortunately, this railroad project has apparently become a casualty of the talks. North Korea has stopped negotiations on construction because Washington toughened its policy towards Pyongyang. This odd pretext might suggest that North Korea is unhappy with Russia’s support for North Korea’s denuclearization, but this cannot be assumed, as North Korea’s ambassador to Moscow is known to highly value the DPRK’s relations with Russia. Nevertheless losing the railroad deal is a major economic and political setback to Russia’s overall Asian policies.

Pulikovsky recently voiced Moscow’s disappointment with the overall state of its economic ties with North Korea, even as he reiterated the need for a negotiated settlement to the nuclear question. In Pyongyang Pulikovsky stated that the development of bilateral trade and economic cooperation between Russia and the DPRK “leaves much to be desired” and noted that this trade rate grows more slowly than does that of the EU and China with North Korea. Moscow apparently is tracking the North Korean market closely.

While Russia certainly wants North Korea’s nuclear weapons program to be stopped, it is also clear that Moscow is nowhere as alarmed by this prospective nuclearization of the Korean peninsula as are Japan and the United States. Proliferation in Northeast Asia, though it is to be deplored, is not an immediate threat to Russia’s security, just as Iranian proliferation, though equally deplorable, does not represent a threat to Moscow. Therefore Russia has had little interest in supporting Washington’s demands for complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization. Moreover, to the extent that North Korea’ status is assured and Russia can use its relations with the DPRK to leverage its relations with the entire region of Northeast Asia, its overall standing grows.

At the same time, a deal would mean that Washington’s and Japan’s ability to pressure or even threaten Moscow in the future with unilateral action would diminish as well, since the regional security equation would then be incorporated into the six-power structure where opportunities for unilateral action would be constrained. The same consideration would then apply as well to China, which might be a source of future threats. Washington acceded to Russia’s participation — as did China — because Pyongyang wanted it, which is testimony to the success of Russia’s policies toward Pyongyang and the latter’s desire for closer ties with Russia. But can it really be said that Russia and China truly share America’s perspective that North Korean proliferation represents an urgent threat to Northeast Asia and not just to its neighbors? Based on recent history, the answer to that question is rather doubtful.

(RIA-Novosti, July 22, August 8, 9, 10; Itar-Tass, July 20, 25, 26, 28, August 7, 8; Xinhua, July 25; Voice of Russia, July 28; Interfax, July 27, 28, August 4, 9, 10; Yomiuri Shimbun, July 28; Agentur, August 17)