North Korea’s sixth nuclear test on September 3, 2017, generated reports of tremors being felt as far away as Changchun, China, over 400 miles from the Punggye-ri test site. Although it stands to reason that the tremors also reached into the sparsely populated Russian Far East, both Russian media reports and the official reaction to the test were muted. Russia’s foreign ministry called for calm and for parties to “refrain from any actions that lead to a further escalation of tension.”
The Chinese foreign ministry reaction was stronger, stating that “the Chinese government resolutely opposes and strongly condemns this.” Despite its geographic proximity and shared border with North Korea, Russia stands behind in coordination with China, with Beijing leading the response to North Korea’s nuclear development. After all, the brazenness of the North Korean test was unprecedented, and the humiliation for Xi Jinping was deeper, given that the test occurred on the eve of a BRICS summit in Xiamen, at which Putin was present, but that Xi had intended to use to further assert Chinese global leadership.
China’s leading and Russia’s supporting roles on North Korea are a reversal from the international experience in the P-5 Plus One talks with Iran in which Russia played a leading role in negotiations with China in the background. China’s stake in North Korea is directly tied to Chinese interests in stability on the Korean peninsula, its historic role as convener of the Six Party Talks, and its central role as a supplier of food and fuel to North Korea. In contrast, Russia’s main contributions to Six Party Talks were accomplished through its inclusion in the talks; its ongoing mercantile interests in transit and energy links with North Korea shadow those of China but are distinctly marginal to China’s central role.
Russia’s secondary role on Korean peninsular issues does not prevent Moscow from occasionally playing a spoiler role. In 2016, the United States engaged primarily with China to negotiate language for the UN Security Council Resolution in response to North Korea’s fourth nuclear test, only to have the text held up by Russian officials, who objected to language that would have restricted Russian sales of airplane fuel to North Korea. In negotiations on the just-passed UNSC Resolution 2375 following the sixth North Korean nuclear test, Russia and China combined to fight off a U.S. draft proposing a complete ban on oil sales and North Korea’s low-cost labor exports for foreign currency-earning purposes.
In conjunction with the adoption of UNSC Resolution 2375, Russian and Chinese officials reinforced each other’s call for diplomacy as the essential missing ingredient necessary to solve the North Korean nuclear stand-off while expressing skepticism on the efficacy of sanctions. The Russian foreign ministry has expressed its support for China’s dual suspension proposal, which calls on the United States and South Korea to end their twice annual military exercises in return for a moratorium on North Korean nuclear and missile testing. But the United States objects to this starting point for talks since the tests are what the UNSC Resolutions and the sanctions are already punishing, whereas military readiness remains the key to effective deterrence.
Another reason why Russia might feel unsatisfied with the call for additional economic sanctions against North Korea is that Russia is also the object of redoubled American sanctions toward Russia through Congressional legislation passed targeting both Russia and North Korea. The Russians resent being lumped together with North Korea while simultaneously being asked to cooperate on sanctions against North Korea.