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In the context of resolving the North Korean nuclear challenge, Russia rarely makes the news. South Korea is the reverse image; China is the enabler; the United States is the tough guy; and Japan is a one-man band seeking the return of its abductees. What role, then, does Russia play? In fact, Russia plays a critical role as a behind-the-scenes negotiator, spoiler, and unholy ally. It is not front and center, but it is central.
The Negotiator: Moscow’s greatest strength is its relatively equal relationship with both North Korea and South Korea. While the United States, Japan, and China maintain closer ties with one side of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) or the other, Russia has maintained steady economic and political relations with both sides of the DMZ. Over the years, as journalist Samuel Ramani has noted, Moscow has sought to carve out its own unique role in the negotiation process, encouraging inter-Korean diplomacy as the primary means of resolving the conflict. Like China, Russia has called on South Korea to downgrade its military relations with the United States, advocating that Seoul reject deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile system and referring to it as a threat to Russian security. At the same time Putin has publicly proclaimed North Korea’s nuclear program a “threat to security in North-east Asia” and has urged the DPRK to refrain from provocative actions. While there is no evidence that Russia’s negotiation efforts have proved decisive at any juncture, at the very least, it appears to have the ear of both parties.
The Spoiler: Its efforts to help bring about resolution through inter-Korean diplomacy notwithstanding, Russia also pursues its own interests, even when they are at odds with other major actors. It has been a relatively unenthusiastic participant in sanctioning North Korea. As President Trump pushed ever-tougher sanctions through the United Nations Security Council, he accused Russia of violating the sanctions to aid North Korea. Russia watered down UN sanctions that sought to repatriate North Korean workers in order to shut down the flow of money back to the DRPK; and some of its companies have been sanctioned for attempting to evade sanctions on the provision of energy to Pyongyang. Russia’s aversion to sanctioning North Korea likely has several sources: it does not believe that the sanctions will produce change in the DPRK’s behavior; it does not want to be seen as simply following the lead of the United States; and, as the target of international sanctions itself, it does not want to support sanctions as matter of policy.
The Unholy Ally: Ultimately, Russia’s most important and often overlooked role with regard to North Korea may be its shared willingness to use chemical weapons. While the United States and the rest of the world have focused attention on addressing the nuclear threat posed by North Korea, North Korea’s stockpile of chemical weapons and failure to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention also pose a significant threat to global security. In what was widely suspected to be a DRPK government plot, VX nerve agent was used in the killing of Kim Jong-un’s half-brother in Malaysia; and Russia, itself, stands accused of using chemical weapons as a means of individual assassinations (despite being a signatory to the treaty). In addition, over the past two years, Russia has backed the Syrian government in its denials of chemical weapons use, and worked assiduously to prevent UN condemnations or western military action in response.
As President Trump and Chairman Kim meet in Singapore, Russia is unlikely to be leading cheers from the sidelines. Like China, it has its own set of complicated interests with regard to North Korea that do not align fully with those of the United States. Yet Moscow cannot be ignored. Despite its relatively low public profile as a player in the North Korea negotiations, Russia’s behind-the-scenes ability to throw a wrench in the process should not be underestimated. And perhaps even more important, it will be an essential player in any future discussions around North Korea’s chemical weapons stock.