Sergei Lavrov Goes To Korea

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 53

The six-power negotiations over North Korean nuclearization have essentially two purposes. One obvious goal is to resolve peacefully and equitably the crisis generated by Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program. The second, and less obvious, goal is to codify a new status quo in Northeast Asia and the Korean peninsula, a framework that will determine the future alignment of these six states.

Accordingly, two or more states may share a common or even identical position that Pyongyang must renounce its military nuclear program, yet they simultaneously compete with each other for influence over both Korean states. This framework provides the context necessary for understanding Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s trip to Seoul and Pyongyang in early July.

Lavrov seeks to heighten Russian influence in Northeast Asia, because it had become clear that China and South Korea had teamed up to pressure Washington to offer new proposals, which were not Russian ones (Asia Times, July 7).

Thus Russia risked a certain marginalization on the Korean peninsula if those proposals became the basis for negotiations. This trend clearly reflected the steady improvement of Chinese-South Korean relations over the last decade, a shift because China has more to offer Seoul than does Russia. It also reflects the deeper trend in recent history of competition between Russia and China for influence over each Korean government, a development that Pyongyang assiduously exploits whenever possible.

Lavrov evidently used his trip to propose a three-power summit — although this initiative was later denied. However the proposal apparently was not for a trilateral summit per se, but for the foreign ministers of South and North Korea to meet with him in Vladivostok (UPI, July 6; Yonhap News Agency, July 5).

Lavrov also essentially resurrected his predecessor Igor Ivanov’s “package deal” of January 2003, with new amendments to update it and enhance Russia’s weight in the negotiations (Itar-Tass, July 5; Associated Press, July 6). He suggested accepting North Korea’s proposed three-month freeze of its nuclear program in return for compensation, presumably economic and energy assistance (New York Times, July 4; RIA Novosti, July 5, and July 6; Itar-Tass, July 5; Official Kremlin International News Broadcast, July 6). He also agreed that any solution must occur not as part of a simultaneous process, as Washington prefers, but in stages and must allow Pyongyang to retain a peaceful nuclear program (RIA Novosti, July 5).

Lavrov had already offered Pyongyang Russo-Chinese security guarantees above and beyond those offered by Washington (Itar-Tass, May 25). North Korea demands such guarantees against alleged “U.S. aggression,” (i.e. invasion) as the price of any solution.

In return, Moscow advocates international supervision of North Korea’s nuclear program, which could continue as long as Pyongyang rejoined the International Atomic Energy Agency and stayed within the parameters of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which it would also need to rejoin (Interfax, June 15 and July 6).

Thus Russia has on offer a multi-stage process: internationalization, an alternative trilateral negotiating venue, specific security guarantees, and energy assistance, mainly by providing gas, oil, or even possibly the future sale of a nuclear reactor (that no doubt would be paid for by someone other than Pyongyang). These proposals all aim to ensure a strong Russian presence not just in the negotiations, but also in any future Northeast Asian status quo (Associated Press, July 6).

None of this answers concerns about verification, which is entirely sidestepped or left for future discussion. As the experience of other states and the DPRK confirms, a state can build virtually every element of a functioning nuclear weapons system covertly and still fulfill the treaty on paper.

Moreover, Iran shows that neither the IAEA nor members of the UN Security Council are willing to find states guilty of noncompliance, lest they repudiate the treaty or force the issue to go before the UN, where it invariably will not be resolved. Neither do Lavrov’s proposals open a road toward dismantlement, because after the three-month freeze Pyongyang could easily reignite the same cycle since it is making an increasing amount of money through its nuclear extortion of the other five negotiators.

Indeed Pyongyang is already asking Russia to forgive its debt, probably as compensation for considering, if not accepting, these proposals (Kyodo News Service, July 14).

Lavrov’s visit clearly sought to advance Russian economic interests on the peninsula. In Seoul he solicited South Korean investment in Russia and plainly is trying to activate the proposed trans-Korean railway link to the Trans-Siberian railroad that provides an alternative to Chinese schemes for a Pan-Asian railway operating through China (RIA Novosti, July 3; Interfax, July 6; Official Kremlin International News Broadcast, July 6).

Ultimately these proposals are more self-serving than a basis for serious negotiations. In this respect, Lavrov is merely continuing three basic tendencies of Russian diplomacy. First, as so many times before, Lavrov seeks to obtain an otherwise unsustainable Russian standing in Asia, mainly by leveraging energy supplies or the prospect of them. Second, he follows in a long and distinguished diplomatic tradition of endlessly resurrecting the same proposal, as his initiatives closely resemble the January 2003 package deal. Third, he follows in President Putin’s footsteps by trying very hard to establish a lasting influence and presence in Pyongyang, one which allows Russia to obtain its security and economic objectives in North Korea, only to be spurned by Pyongyang’s continuing resort to extortion and unresponsiveness.

In this last respect, however, Russia stands with other states that have had the same experience. Ultimately an agreement may be reached in these negotiations. But unless it addresses the key issues of dismantling and rigorously verifying the DPRK’s military nuclear program, then the competition for power and influence in and around Korea will continue, but it will occur in a vastly more dangerous environment.