Russia’s East Asian Strategy: The Korean Challenge

2 march 2008

Georgy Toloraya is Director of the Asian Strategy Center at the Institute of Economy of the Russian Academy of Science and works for the “Russkiy Mir” Presidential Foundation as Chair of Regional Programs and CEO of the Russian National Committee on BRICS Research. He is also a professor at MGIMO (Moscow University of International Relations).

Resume: Russia has a chance of getting an attractive niche in Northeast Asian affairs now – peacefully, without irritating its partners and avoiding considerable costs. The Russian position in the region may in some measure resemble (although with a much smaller military element) the one that Russia had in post-Versailles Europe, when the absence of conflicts with other major players allowed it to play a balancing role.

The situation in the Korean Peninsula has changed radically since the end of 2006. Although these changes are not irreversible, they have lain the groundwork for a new geopolitical reality in which Korea will play a greater and a much different role than it has done in the past.

These changes could have happened earlier. A meeting between the leaders of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the Republic of Korea signaled a crucial step toward North-South reconciliation back in 2000. However, charges made by the U.S. against Pyongyang in 2002 that it is implementing a covert highly enriched uranium program and North Korea’s subsequent withdrawal from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty grew into a profound crisis that disrupted the peace process.

However, an agreement reached on September 19, 2005 at Six-Party Talks in Beijing that had started in 2003 suggested that North Korea would denuclearize in exchange for synchronized steps by its partners at the talks (above all, the U.S.) toward normalizing relations. The document envisioned security guarantees and multilateral economic aid to North Korea. But once again it was practically torpedoed a mere two months later. Accusations that Pyongyang had engaged in illegal financial transactions and the freezing of North Korean accounts at Macao’s BDA bank by Washington played an important role. As a result, North Korea found itself cut off from the global financial system.

Pyongyang aggravated the situation further when it conducted a missile test on July 4, 2006 and it carried out what is believed to be a nuclear test on October 9, 2006. Paradoxically, this did produce a result. In spite of sanctions imposed by the UN, Washington made direct contact with North Korea – something it had rejected before – at the end of the same month. A secret bilateral meeting between the North Koreans and the Americans took place in January 2007 in Berlin where the sides coordinated the main details of a mutual compromise. The six negotiating countries “ratified” the accords in a public statement on February 13, 2007.

The agreement stipulated that all nuclear facilities known to exist in North Korea be disabled and all nuclear programs by Pyongyang be disclosed, while the U.S. agreed to move toward normalizing diplomatic relations and economic aid. Working groups to discuss issues related to specific areas were formed. The parameters of the process were later coordinated and the first practical steps were made. North Korea started disabling its nuclear facilities with U.S. aid in November 2007. Furthermore, Washington promised at bilateral talks that it would drop North Korea from its list of countries that sponsor terrorism and exempt it from the Trading with the Enemy Act.


Why did the peace process suddenly acquire an almost jump-like dynamic after fifteen years of stalemate, especially since at least 80 percent of the current plan of action was featured in the Agreed Framework that the Clinton administration and the North Korean government signed back in 1994? This agreement broke down in the 1990s due to the White House’s inaction and North Korea’s nuclear activity. The Bush administration classified Pyongyang as part of the ‘Axis of Evil’ and wanted to isolate and pressure the country. The nuclear issue history neatly falls into a chain of attempts to ensure security and the status quo on the Korean Peninsula using not non-military means, but muscle-flexing and blackmail – by the weaker partner in this case.
Paradoxically, one must admit that the situation eventually improved thanks to Pyongyang’s offensive – and often provocative – policies toward the world’s only remaining superpower.

The situation can be characterized by the following.

  • North Korea has de facto obtained nuclear status. Although this status has not been recognized by the world community, it exerts influence on political processes and decisions;
  • This development resulted in an about-face in U.S. policy that ranged from pressure and attempts to bring down the North Korean regime to engagement. The explanation lies at the surface. Washington badly needs achievements in foreign policy against the background of growing problems in Iraq and Iran and the intensifying internal political struggle. The normalization of relations with Pyongyang does not threaten U.S. strategic interests in any way, except for stirring ideological idiosyncrasies;
  • After the stereotypes were discarded, U.S. and North Korean diplomats easily found agreement on the terms for halting Pyongyang’s nuclear program in exchange for security guarantees (including the normalization of bilateral relations) and economic aid;
  • There is no confidence at this time that the pivot in U.S. policies, which was borne out of tactical, transitory and personal factors, is irreversible. Progress in this sphere actually hinges on the persistency of the President and the Secretary of State. There are well-grounded doubts as to whether influential forces in Washington have fully renounced the strategic goal of replacing the North Korean regime, albeit by milder methods rather than through the use of force. Yet the existing reality prevents the materialization of such aspirations – over the short term at least. This will help consolidate positive tendencies. Even if this deal is not fully implemented during President Bush’s term in office, it will serve as lasting legacy for the future U.S. administration; 
  • The emergence of a basis for peaceful coexistence between North and South Korea has proven to be a tangible factor and the inter-Korean summit of October 2007 provided a graphic illustration of this. Pyongyang and Seoul de facto reached a consensus on maintaining separate statehoods simultaneously with a growing economic and, at a later date, cultural integration of both countries. South Korea has assumed the role of a self-styled sponsor and an advocate of North Korea in the international arena, pushing China aside in this traditional capacity. South Korean economic aid has turned into the main factor for North Korea’s survival. New conservative president Lee Myon Back is unlikely to fully reverse such a policy;
  • The steady progress of six-nation talks builds up the potential for transforming them into a permanently functioning mechanism for peace and stability in Northeast Asia.

All of these factors inspire hope that, regardless of internal political changes (such as a new president in South Korea and possible leadership changes in the countries opposing North Korea), a sudden return to a tense confrontation would not happen easily. It looks like the political elites in the West, to say nothing of South Korea, have developed a clear realization of the catastrophic aftermaths (ranging up to a civil war) that cataclysms in North Korea might have for the entire region. Additionally, rising awareness in Seoul that a collapse of North Korea and the subsequent need to shoulder responsibility for the neighbors (the cost of restoring the North Korean economy might run over $1 trillion) would demolish South Korea’s own model of economic progress as a country integrated into the global economy.


Finding a solution to the nuclear problem will be the most crucial factor for political processes both inside and outside of North Korea. The following scenarios are possible in this regard.

Scenario 1. The talks make successful progress, Pyongyang discloses and dismantles all nuclear facilities and programs it has and, most importantly, signs an agreement to destroy its stocks of fissile materials and nuclear explosive devices at its disposal. This lays the basis for the normalization of North Korea’s relations with the U.S.  and Japan. The sides lay the foundation for a multilateral maintenance of peace, while other countries refrain from interfering in Pyongyang’s internal affairs. The world community provides large-scale aid to Pyongyang. One delicate problem may be the construction of light water reactors (something that was promised to North Korea in the statement of September 19, 2005). This may predetermine the further pace of denuclearization and continuation of the peace process. A reduction in external threats and interaction with the world economy (first of all with South Korea) may prompt Pyongyang to attempt to introduce market economic levers that will be handled by the existing political elite.

It remains to be seen whether such impressive results can be achieved before the 2008 presidential election in the U.S. The new U.S. administration might not feel that it has to fulfill the agreements reached by its predecessors, all the more so that a legally binding and verified plan of action has not emerged so far. If the Democrats win the White House, the fear of rebukes for liberalism will restrict their freedom to make concessions to countries like North Korea, especially if new grudges against Pyongyang are voiced, including claims that it ostensibly handed over nuclear technology to third countries. One should remember that Israel bombed a facility in Syria in September 2007 that supposedly was a nuclear power unit being built with North Korean assistance.

Japan, which is concerned about the fate of its own citizens kidnapped by North Korea in the past, is also standing in the way of normalization between the U.S. and North Korea and Washington cannot ignore the interests of its closest ally.

Scenario 2. A situation in which North Korea maintains the status of a country having a limited nuclear potential also looks quite realistic. The world community may reconcile itself to this fact and become unwilling to press for full denuclearization. Pyongyang in its turn will abstain from perfecting the nuclear devices it already has, increasing their stockpiles, resorting to nuclear blackmail or proliferating nuclear technologies, the latter being the most important for the West. Dismantling nuclear facilities and programs should be a precondition in this case. One cannot rule out that North Korea intentionally overstates the problems that the elimination of its nuclear industry evokes, as this may help them get as much aid as possible, including construction of nuclear power-generating facilities.

If the international community eventually puts up with Pyongyang’s “Indo-Pakistani” status, this will result in highly deplorable international consequences and will impact the non-proliferation regime. That is why the halfway solution may be disguised in a continuation of talks on North Korea’s final nuclear disarmament or on the country’s reverting to the format of the non-proliferation treaty as a non-nuclear state. The fruitlessness of these negotiations will prevent full normalization of relations with the West, but will not stop it altogether. Displays of “dignified” conduct on the international stage will enable Pyongyang to continue receiving economic aid even in the absence of visible changes inside the country. However, the liberalization of the regime will continue in one form or another.

If a changed North Korea manages to ensure its external security through diplomatic methods, it will eventually not need weapons of mass destruction in a more distant future and will give them up voluntarily (remember that South Africa destroyed its nuclear arsenals). This is far from the worst scenario and it will eventually bring a solution to the problems of the Korean Peninsula. Implementing this scenario depends on the continuity of U.S. policies toward a dialog with North Korea, on the one hand, and on the North Korean leadership’s self-restraint and preparedness to avoid provocation.

Scenario 3. One cannot rule out a possible deterioration in the situation due to conflicts, for instance, involving North Korea’s ambitions to keep nuclear weapons or ways of suspending the nuclear program or over the problem of providing a nuclear power plant to North Korea. This may be fuelled by a number of circumstances, such as the success of U.S. troops in Iraq, an unexpected untangling of the Iranian nuclear problem, collisions of internal political grappling in the U.S., a tougher approach toward the North on the part of a new South Korean conservative leadership, or Pyongyang’s own reckless actions.

Scenario 4. A reverting to forceful methods of action may be caused by a crisis inside North Korea, for instance, by Kim Jong Il’s departure from power and the subsequent fight for “succession to the throne,” by popular unrest or by a collapse of the system of governance as a result of an economic crisis. However, this scenario is not very likely and, should it materialize, it does not necessarily imply a re-emergence of attempts for a military solution. China and South Korea are the two powers that have paramount interest in preventing military intervention in North Korea and they will attempt to use all possible measures (including economic ones) to minimize the risks of a U.S. incursion.

In the short term, a stabilization of developments around the North Korean nuclear program with gradual positive trends seems to be the most realistic prospect. All the main actors are interested in this, but everyone should be ready for possible new breakdowns and for nerve-wracking moments that Pyongyang will yet give to negotiators in a chase for maximum concessions. However, if the efforts prove successful, possibilities may appear for the modernization of the country with support from other states and for its opening to the outside world, while the ruling class will keep their hands on the levers of power.

Such a course of events would not contradict Russia’s interests either. It would not demand a major readjustment of approaches on our part. But the consistency of political priorities does not mean that Moscow should not step up its role in the Korean settlement process, including economic projects. On the contrary, Russia must play a more active role in order to consolidate its positions in Asia, especially in the light of the growing competition on “the Korean front.”

Long-term prospects conceal far more serious strategic challenges. It is important to weigh up now what the future geopolitical layout of Northeast Asia will be like after the ongoing processes draw to a logic end there. For the first time after the Korean War of the 1950s the geopolitical balance in the region will experience a major change. Idle watching may bring up trends detrimental to Russia’s national interests. At the same time, opportunities are opening up for more fruitful strategies.


These processes may be catalyzed by changes inside North Korea and by its increased interaction with the outside world. The totalitarian regime cannot last forever with a bankrupt economy, although the current improvement in the country’s international standing and economic aid has already sparked attempts by North Korean leaders to crack down on “petty proprietary instincts,” “bourgeois showings,” and “penetrations of alien culture” (coming from South Korea in the first place). Conservatives and siloviki continue to have a large influence on the political elite and young cadres are still being recruited in those milieus.

Yet there are quarters in Pyongyang that want change. There is growing dissatisfaction among the people and an increasing external influence. This is a natural result of a withdrawal from self-isolation and the normalization of relations with the West and it will push the country’s leadership toward a tough choice – between a collapse and an all-embracing systemic transformation. The problem is whether the political elite will be able to lead the transformation or will act as a diehard and watch the country fall naturally downhill.

It looks like the North Korean leadership has recognized that it would be impossible to escape that choice and it is ready for reforms, apparently hoping that this will help prop up the regime and avoid collisions. The main condition here is one hundred percent external security. However, issuing guarantees of security should not become a mandate for Pyongyang to conserve the old  system. On the contrary, the international community should precondition guarantees to the North Korean state by the latter’s “drift toward the norm” (or ‘conventionalization’).

Some novel features in the North Korean economy show that changes are budding. They are emerging in the form of a paradigm that has been tested many times in transition economies. It would be appropriate to make references to China here, as well as to Vietnam and Russia.

North Korea’s centralized command-and-control system of the distribution of commodities and finances came to a virtual standstill in the 1990s. The abrupt ending of aid from Socialist countries and isolation ignited an economic crisis and caused a massive famine, which forced the North Koreans to bartering. The process became irreversible and the North Korean economy has become diversified. Market economy outlets – retail trade, shuttle traders, joint ventures and free economic zones – coexist with a practically dysfunctional state sector. A shadow (criminalized) economy also exists.

Ownership relations are also showing signs of change. One should not exclude in a longer  perspective the emergence of semi-state-owned – and eventually privatized by the political elite – conglomerates like the South Korean chaebols. But these processes are gradual and hidden from view, as their failure may not only cause a change in the regime, but also destroy the North Korean statehood as such.

Change is creeping into ideological priorities at the same time. Communist phraseology is step by step giving way to the nationalistic one, and growing cooperation with South Korea plays a noticeable role in this process. The Koreans in the North and the South may possibly consolidate around the idea of winning a worthy place in the world for the nation. This perfectly fits the North Korean Juche (Self-Reliance) ideas, which incidentally were invented in Korea long before the import of any Communist theories.

The North Korean regime has a chance to survive if it implements a cleverly designed policy and simultaneously improves the living standards of its citizens. We may see a totally different North Korea in fifteen to twenty years – an authoritarian (not totalitarian) country with a market (or quasi-market at the beginning) economy and broad links to South Korea. There are other such countries and if North Korea’s confrontation with the West and especially with the U.S. and Japan ends, there will be no reason anymore for assigning the ‘rogue status’ to Pyongyang.

Nationalistic moods in the North strike home to the South Koreans and the emergence of new generations of leaders may lead to a revaluation of the problem of Korea’s reunification. Seoul has realized that the two Korean states must work toward a long-term peaceful coexistence for a start. The most sagacious South Korean politicians may harbor egotistic considerations, realizing that only the maintenance of North Korea’s independence in one or another form can prevent a spread of its problems to the rest of the nation and thus avert the outbreak of a sweeping political, social and economic crisis.

It can also not be ruled out that a confederation based on a significant regional autonomy will prove the most viable form of a unified Korean state  in the future. This formula was de facto agreed on by the leaders of the North and South at their first summit in 2000. Their agreements indicated that the processes of national reconciliation and rapprochement should develop in an evolutionary way beginning with non-political spheres, and should take account of the integration experience of nations in other parts of the world.

The reunification of the two countries is something for the long term. The two countries should first level out their development and overhaul their relationship before practical discussions of this issue can begin.


The process of peace-building in the Korean Peninsula started with a search for solutions to the North Korean nuclear problem, but the success of this process looks problematic without the adoption of broader principles of interaction between the countries involved. The confrontation paradigm between blocs that guaranteed the status quo in Korea in the past should be replaced by a new model of security preservation. This is critical especially in the light of a nascent standoff between China, on the one hand, and the U.S. and Japan, on the other, which both sides would like to avoid in principle. All these factors lay the ground for a broader mandate to the six-nation process and would be essential for fulfilling the agreements reached, as well as for coordinating economic aid to North Korea. The experience the six negotiating countries have accumulated could lead to a gradual expansion of the scope of the problems discussed.

The growing internationalization of economic life, the cross-border nature of the new challenges and threats, and the current migration problems in Northeast Asia require an instrument of interstate coordination that would function irrespective of the Korean problem. The idea of giving an institutional status (up to creating a Northeast Asia Security and Cooperation Organization) to the six-party mechanism became a subject of discussions long ago.

What mandate could such a multilateral organization have in the Northeast Asian region? 

  • A search for precursor approaches to forming a collective and comprehensive security system. For this purpose, the sides should begin designing confidence-building measures for the prevention of maritime and air incidents, notifications about military exercises and inviting observers to monitor them, annual reviews of defense doctrines (The White Books), etc. Ensuring security of maritime communication lines in Northeast Asia and to the south of it may also be relevant;
  • Elaboration of countermeasures to unconventional threats and challenges – assistance during natural disasters, as well as fighting epidemics, environmental problems, cross-border crime, drug trafficking, and illegal migration;
  • Discussion of multilateral economic projects and coordination of regional economic policies, particularly laying out common approaches to setting up new free trade areas and reforming existing ones. Russia is particularly interested in the latter as an intensification of regional integration may leave it on the sidelines otherwise;
  • The setting up of an infrastructure for inter-civilizational and inter-ethnic contacts and rapprochement in the region where there is historical ethnic strife. It is important to develop joint projects in culture, science and education and to stimulate multilateral humanitarian exchanges with due account of experience gained at bilateral negotiations.

This multilateral process is desirable – in one degree or another – for most countries in Northeast Asia, and especially for China as the “host” of the diplomatic process. Beijing looks inclined to turn the six-party talks into one more international organization under its auspices (considering its experience in the formation of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization). The Chinese would like to consolidate their influence in the region and on the global plane, and “soft adhesion” to U.S. policies in Northeast Asia might be instrumental in this sense.

The U.S. is typically pessimistic about such regional associations, but it has recently shown interest in this particular opportunity. Washington might regard multilateral formats as an instrument for containing China and a leverage for strengthening its own position in the region.

Seoul wants to turn the Korean Peninsula into the economic ‘hub’ of the region. South Korea is positioning itself as a balancer and a go-between power that could have mediatory functions precisely in the format of the multilateral mechanism.

North Korea is so far undecided, but its negative attitude toward organizations that “restrict sovereignty” is well known. Nonetheless, Pyongyang might become interested in the opportunities offered by an international structure committed to observing North Korea’s legitimate rights in the international arena, as well as in access to resources.

Russia has traditionally spoken in favor of a multilateral system of security in Northeast Asia, although the specific advantages of Russia’s participation in an association of this kind have not been clearly stated so far. Given the relative weakness of Moscow’s positions in Northeast Asia, engagement in a multilateral mechanism would presumably reward Russia with a full-fledged role in regional decision-making. The multilateral format is also useful for equitable presence in Russia’s  Far East, which would help it avoid a slide into the position of a resource vault for Northeast Asia’s economic growth.

If the processes described above continue progressing, they will kick off sizable geopolitical shifts. A decrease in the U.S. role in Korea may bring about a relocation of the line of China’s “deterrence” eastwards to Japan. Until fairly recently it was impossible to imagine that American troops would pull out of the Korean Peninsula, but this is very possible to imagine today. A deeper integration between the two Koreas would contain China’s ambitions to “global domination.” Japan, too, will see its field for maneuvering shrink, as the two Korean states will then play a much more independent role in regional and global affairs.


How will all this affect Russian policy and interests in the region? It appears that the possible benefits outweigh the hypothetical problems.

  • There are not many disagreements between Seoul, Pyongyang and Moscow. A deepening of contacts depends first and foremost on Russia’s readiness to give them more attention and resources. Good-neighborly relations with both Koreas would help Russia use the Korean factor to balance off the influence of China and Japan in the region and even strengthen its positions in the dialogue with the U.S. All the more so that the Koreans would also need a counterbalance as they build more independent relations with the centers of global power. Russia is quite suitable for this. In this light the progress of relations with both Koreas not only has a value per se, but also has a broader political significance;
  • Russia successfully avoided being drawn into in the inter-Korean confrontation on either side in the 1990s and now it can get some of the political and economic dividends. Innovative trilateral projects in railway transportation and in the energy sector seem to be particularly promising. Russia may become a “Eurasian bridge,” which will speed up the development of its Far Eastern regions and facilitate its deeper integration in the Asian economic space;  
  • Moscow should make its interest in North Korea’s denuclearization more pronounced, show its readiness to assist this process, and take part in providing economic aid to Pyongyang in the framework of multilateral agreements. This is necessary for a deeper understanding with other parties to the peace process (and China and the U.S. in particular), as well as to convince them that Russia does not have any hidden agendas and its increasing presence in Korea will not damage the interests of other players. It is inadmissible to let Russia’s role in regional processes slide, especially as it is often criticized for its inactivity. The maintenance of that role needs political will backed up by resources. This in turn will require the elimination of inter-departmental miscommunication and the coordination of efforts at the political level;
  • Participants in multilateral processes can promote their interests through a search for compromise rather than through face-to-face collisions (the way it has happened in the past). This means that an institutionalization of the Northeast Asian security and cooperation mechanism does not run counter to Russia’s interests at least. It might play an important role in a changeover from contentions based on mutual deterrence to a system of cooperation/competition grounded in the balance of interests, i.e. in a ‘concert of powers.’

It is time Russia contemplates a more inventive and vigorous diplomacy toward the situation in Korea. There are no obstacles to Russian leadership in designing the concept of Northeast Asian security and cooperation; all the more so that, as shown by past experience, other parties to the six-nation process do not object to ceding this role to Moscow.

Washington and Beijing would obviously like to avoid confrontation around a problem that does not translate into practical policies yet, and hence they have taken a wait-and-see stance. Japan is fixed on narrower problems and it has not formulated the basic ideological parameters of its positioning in the region so far. South Korea, in spite of all its ambitions, will scarcely have enough vigor to claim the role of a regional leader for integration, although its resources can be drawn in for this purpose.

Russia has a chance of getting an attractive niche in Northeast Asian affairs now – peacefully, without irritating its partners and avoiding considerable costs. The Russian position in the region may in some measure resemble (although with a much smaller military element) the one that Russia had in post-Versailles Europe, when the absence of conflicts with other major players allowed it to play a balancing role.

Last updated 2 march 2008, 14:44

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