It is symbolic that Vladimir Putin’s big international debut as Russian president took place in Asia — at the Group of Eight summit in Okinawa in 2000.
On the way, he made a stopover in Pyongyang, becoming the first G-8 leader to meet Kim Jong Il, the father of North Korea’s incumbent leader Kim Jong Un.
The Kremlin chief clearly showed that he has a serious interest in the fate of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, even though Moscow had lost its controlling influence over the country when the Soviet Union collapsed and allowed Beijing to become the principal patron.
But what does he make of the rush of diplomacy over the Korean peninsula which led this week to the historic summit between Chairman Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump? And what interests does Russia have at stake in the international negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear program?
The situation today has some parallels with the position in the year 2000. Then too there was clear warming of relations between North Korea and the rest of the world. An inter-Korean summit was held (the first since the Korean War), and there was even speculation that the U.S. president (Bill Clinton) might visit Pyongyang.
All this activity — including Putin’s personal contact with Kim Jong Il — failed to produce tangible results. But Moscow, which was still deep in its post-Soviet weak phase, had at least managed to resume direct relations Pyongyang.
The Korean Peninsula has changed dramatically since then. And, following a long political and economic recovery under Putin, Russia has regained some of its lost political and diplomatic clout in Asia.
The biggest shift is the progress achieved in North Korea’s nuclear missile program which has lifted the country out of the category of isolated rogue states and made it a nation that great powers must take seriously.
Pyongyang is playing a big game, often quite riskily, but the result is obvious: Everybody has recognized Kim Jong Un as an equal and even respectable partner. Kim has been skillfully using the fact that East Asia and the Asia-Pacific region as a whole are rapidly turning into a center of world politics. The situation around North Korea is crucial not only for the security of South Korea and Japan, but also for a strategic balance of power in the coming decades, as well as for relations between the U.S., China, and, to some extent, Russia.
Importantly, North Korea in 2018 is not a country that blackmails the rest of the world for the sake of humanitarian aid, but a country with a relatively stable economy and ongoing domestic reforms. Kim Jong Un is a bold, cold-blooded and calculating politician who has outplayed many.
Next, Russia is not playing a central role in the processes surrounding North Korea and has no intention to do so. Moscow is well aware of the fact that Pyongyang wants to talk with Washington in the first place. It also knows it cannot challenge China’s role as the North’s prime sponsor.
But Russia has re-developed important interests in East Asia since Putin took power, as he sought to balance Moscow’s considerably more significant ties with the U.S. and the EU with Asian links, both economic and political. Russia has business and constructive relations with both Koreas, a strategic partnership with China, and active economic contacts with Japan. Putin has invited South Korean President Moon Jae-in to visit Moscow later this month after his Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov flew last month to Pyongyang.
Russia’s pivot to Asia aims to give a boost to economic development of the vast Russian territory of Siberia and the Far East, and its energy reserves. But now Russian economic insignificance in that part of the world generates grave geopolitical implications. Russia cannot count on having serious global clout without being an important element in rising Asia.
So Russia will not remain passive over the Korean Peninsula. The interests of key players involved in the Korean issue form an intricate configuration.
Russia appears to be the only non-partisan actor in the regional politics surrounding the Korean Peninsula. All other players, in particular U.S. and China — have big strategic stakes and rather complicated histories in the region. Russia is much less burdened with the past and less feared, and Moscow’s ambitions are limited compared with Washington’s, Beijing’s, and even Tokyo’s. It means that Russia is well situated to play a role as a broker, if regional powers need to adjust their relations.
Any peaceful settlement on the Korean Peninsula would benefit Russia, because peace will open up new opportunities for important economic projects vital for the region.
These may include the construction of a gas pipeline from Siberia to South Korea and the extension of the Trans-Siberian Railway connecting Asia and Europe, all the way to the south of the Korean Peninsula.
Moreover, when it comes to security, Moscow’s interests do not run counter to the interests of China, Japan or even the U.S., unless the latter is going to turn the whole Korean Peninsula into a military base, of course.
Russian position on Kim’s nuclear and missile program has always been firm — illegal possession on nuclear arms is unacceptable. That is why Russia endorsed all United Nations resolutions condemning North Korea over its nuclear program and backed all international sanctions.
In practical terms Russian experts has traditionally been more skeptical in assessments of North Korea’s actual nuclear capacity, and assumed a fair amount of bluff on Pyongyang’s part. But the nuclear tests produced a lot of concern, especially as Vladivostok, de facto capital of Russian Far East, is just 100km from the border of North Korea.
At the end of the day Russia is not at all in favor of Kim’s nuclear advances. At the same time Russian position has always been consistent — pressure and sanctions only will never produce any real result, since the North Korean regime is resilient and ready to respond.
Finally, experts in Moscow do not expect any lasting breakthrough from the Trump-Kim meeting since an unbiased look at the interests and possibilities of the sides clearly suggests no agreement of any substance will be possible. Washington wants Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons and missile program. But this is Pyongyang’s ultimate trump card, the main reason why Trump is talking with Kim at all.
The parties’ positions are asymmetrical. Whatever will eventually be agreed as officials try to flesh out the vague summit declaration, the steps Kim will be required to take will be irreversible — scrapping his weapons under international control. Whatever Washington may promise or guarantee could be revisited at any moment. The Iranian nuclear accord — which Trump has recently renounced — shows this quite vividly. So, it is not quite clear how the two leaders might go about realizing their deal in such a situation.
The Trump-Kim meeting has turned out to be more of a symbolic event, as Russian specialists expected, possibly giving more advantage to the North Korean leader than the U.S. president, but bringing no solution.
A settlement on the Korean Peninsula can be achieved only through persistent efforts to build a new international balance in East Asia, involving all interested parties, primarily (apart from the two Koreas) China, Japan, the U.S. and Russia.
Russia stands ready to play a role as a broker and balancing force in any future diplomacy to settle the North Korean issue.