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The Role of Russia in the Korean Peninsula Peace Regime
The Korean Journal of International Studies 20-1 (April 2022), 149-174
Published online April 30, 2022
© 2022 The Korean Association of International Studies.

Iordanka Alexandrova [Bio-Data]
Received January 24, 2022; Revised March 10, 2022; Accepted March 11, 2022.
This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0) which permits unrestricted non-commercial use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
Abstract
What role can Russia play in the preservation of peace between South and North Korea? What factors determine its choice of policy? This article examines Moscow’s strategic interests and capabilities to offer theoretically informed answers to these salient questions. It argues that Russia aims to play an important but limited role as a facilitator in the peace regime on the Korean Peninsula. This approach is preferred due to its desirability and feasibility: Moscow has important interests it wants to protect by remaining involved in the peace process, but its medium stakes in the issue and limited capabilities relative to other participants restrict its ability to perform the more demanding roles of a guarantor or mediator. Nevertheless, as its strategic interests and economic and diplomatic capabilities in the region grow, Russia has the potential to take a more central role in a multilateral peace regime in the long term. These arguments are corroborated by drawing upon primary and secondary sources in Russian, Korean, and English.
Keywords : peace settlement, denuclearization, East Asian security, South Korea, North Korea
INTRODUCTION

Thirty years after the end of the Cold War, the question whether there is a future role for Russia in the peace process on the Korean Peninsula has become a topic for contestation. Russia’s renewed attempts for engagement in Northeast Asia and its gradually increasing military power have intensified interest in its potential contribution to the security architecture of the region. This article draws on evidence from official Russian statements and expert accounts to add to existing understanding of Moscow’s views and prospects for engagement in the building of a peace regime between South and North Korea.

The consensus is that there is a role for Russia on the Korean Peninsula (Economy 2018; Park et al. 2013; Park 2015; Tan and Govindasamy 2021; Toloraya and Yakovleva 2021). It is less clear if this would be a role as a guarantor that would defend North Korea from aggression if it denuclearizes, an actively involved mediator, or a facilitator in the process of negotiations. So far Moscow’s contribution has been limited. Russia did not participate in the Agreed Framework of 1994, had a minor role in the Six Party Talks launched in 2003, and has not been engaged in any major peace incentives since the breakdown of negotiations (Bazhanov 2000; Pritchard 2007, 95-96). This has drawn criticism from U.S. experts suggesting that Moscow was not using all of its available leverage to help reach a deal with Pyongyang (Hiebert 2005). More recently, South Korea has asked Russia to “exert maximum influence over North Korea,” while European leaders have called for Moscow to “use its influence on North Korea to stop the spiral leading to military confrontation” (Ria Novosti 2017a; TASS 2017). Since 2017, Seoul has been entertaining the idea of Moscow acting as a mediator in the Korean Peninsula question (Eom 2018, 164). Russian officials, on their side, have insisted that progress on North Korea and the creation of a collective security system in the region is “impossible” without Moscow’s involvement (BBC Monitoring 2018; TASS 2018). Some routinely bring up the possibility of offering guarantees that will “prevent the United States from threatening [Pyongyang’s] security” (Funabashi 2007, 169; Mirovalev 2018). This active Russian interest in participating in the formation of a peace regime and emphasis on the need to guarantee North Korean security may lead to misleading conclusions inflating expectations about the role that Moscow is willing and able to take. In this paper, I aim to examine the extent of Russia’s prospects to contribute to the stabilization of the Korean Peninsula by estimating its intentions and potential for assuming an active role in a multilateral peace regime.

I argue that Russia aims to play an important but limited role as a facilitator in the peace regime on the Korean Peninsula. Moscow has medium stakes in preserving stability at its shortest border. It also has limited economic and diplomatic leverage over the other potential participants in the peace regime. This combination of power and interests restricts Russia’s ability to perform the roles of guarantor or mediator in the peace process between the two Koreas. Nevertheless, if its strategic interests and economic and diplomatic capabilities in the region grow, Russia has the potential to assume a more central role in a multilateral peace regime in the long term.

This article is distinct from previous studies of Russia’s involvement in Korean Peninsula affairs. First, this theoretically informed analysis of Russia’s interests and capabilities makes a less optimistic estimate of Pyongyang’s strategic importance to Moscow than previous studies that may overestimate North Korea’s significance as a political and security buffer (Hirose 2017). Moreover, this is the first attempt to apply a systemic typology of third-party actors in peace regimes to Russia and the Korean Peninsula. Its arguments are also corroborated by drawing upon primary and secondary sources in Russian, Korean, and English thereby providing a comprehensive perspective.

The remainder of this article proceeds as follows. The next section offers a conceptual framework. It first outlines the problems of cooperation in security regimes involving adversaries with significant disparity in power. Next, it offers a classification of the roles of third parties in addressing these problems and the necessary conditions for each role. The following section focuses on evaluating which role best corresponds with Russia’s interests and capabilities. The conclusion outlines the prospects for future developments and policy implications needed for a constructive approach to future negotiations with Moscow.

CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORK

This article defines security regime as a set of “principles, rules, and norms that permit nations to be restrained in their behavior in the belief that others will reciprocate” (Jervis 1982, 357). A peace regime is viewed as a broader concept incorporating a security regime at its core and aiming at the establishment of peace between former adversaries (see Chung 2019). Ideally, such peace would be stable: a state “in which neither side considers employing force, or even making a threat of force, in any dispute, even serious disputes, between them” (George 2006, 55). This was the state achieved in Europe after the end of World War II when France and Germany reconciled and proceeded to establish a stable peace that has preserved after seven decades.

The success of such a peace regime is defined as the permanent elimination of use of force between the participating parties. It hinges critically on two conditions: first, the ability of the participating parties to reach an agreement on the terms of a post-war settlement; and, second, the ability of the participating parties to enforce compliance with the terms of the agreement. It follows that peace regimes are most likely to be successful among adversaries similar in power. Between them, it is possible to agree on terms and verification procedures and rely on reciprocity to hedge against cheating. In addition, should one side renege on the deal, the survival of the other in unlikely to be at stake. Conversely, when one of the potential participants in a peace regime is significantly weaker than its adversaries, cooperation will be difficult to sustain. The best starting point for examining the roles of third parties in keeping peace in such cases is to explain the nature of problems of asymmetric cooperation. Next, I identify the specific functions of each role and the necessary conditions for performing them.

Peace Regimes and Problems of Asymmetric Cooperation

Among participants with high disparity in power, the necessary conditions for a stable peace regime are hard to satisfy. The main reason is that a weaker state is unable to enforce the terms of an agreement on a stronger partner. The problem of enforcement is most severe when the postwar settlement adds an additional power disadvantage on the weaker side if implemented. An example is the condition set by the powerful side that the weaker side gives up its nuclear weapons – a crucial part of its defense capability.

Negotiating the denuclearization of a weak state facing an overwhelming adversary is challenging because it requires for them to resolve issues of strategic distrust. Due to the difference in power between them, neither side can credibly commit to uphold the terms of a nuclear arms deal (Kim 2014). The pursuit of nuclear disarmament locks the opponents in a Prisoner’s Dilemma, in which they attempt to cooperate when both sides expect high rewards from cheating. Each party prefers to defect while the other cooperates, and the worst outcome for both is to cooperate and see the adversary defect. The stronger side most hopes to see the weaker side cooperate by disarming, at which point it will face a strong incentive to violate the agreement and demand policy concessions. Its least preferable outcome is to cooperate and maintain peaceful relations with the enemy and face a threat in the future if the nuclear program is completed or upgraded in secret. The minor power prefers to reap the benefits of cooperation with the stronger adversary, while making sure its deterrent stays in place should the stronger party ever attempt to coerce it into complying with an unfavorable policy in the future.

The problem of mutual distrust is made worse by the uncertainty of future intentions and third parties’ involvement. A powerful state cannot credibly commit to uphold the terms of a deal should its intentions change over time (Kim 2014; Mearsheimer 1994). This increases the incentives of the weaker state to secretly maintain a nuclear arsenal to hedge against future defection by the adversary. At the same time, the proliferator’s disarmament process cannot be easily verified. A weak state is also usually reluctant to risk allowing full access to its military establishment, particularly if it has more than one security threat to consider (Duelfer and Dyson 2011).

Most significantly, both states would take a risk by cooperating as neither could retaliate against the other in case of defection. Assuming that the proliferator pursued nuclear capabilities, because it is unable to deter an attack by conventional means, denuclearizing will leave it defenseless against the whims of the adversary. Should it maintain secret armaments, however, the stronger state will find it difficult to punish a cheater that owns a functional nuclear arsenal. It follows that the two parties are unlikely to reach an agreement and even less likely to sustain it over time. The empirical record supports this conclusion – only the government of Muammar Gaddafi has given up its nuclear program through a deal with stronger states with tragic consequences.

Third Party Roles in Asymmetric Peace Regimes

Third parties can contribute in various roles to the establishment and maintenance of peace regimes between adversaries with significant power asymmetry. In classifying these, I focus on three constructive functions: provision of security guarantees, sustaining the negotiations process, and promoting mutual understanding. The actors in charge of each function are respectively guarantor, mediator, and facilitator.

A guarantor contributes to asymmetric cooperation by providing positive security guarantees to the weaker party (see Walter 1997, 340). Third parties in this role can promise to protect a relatively weak state and punish violations of the regime rules by stronger states. This can help to resolve the problem of strategic distrust by reducing the fear of cheating because the weaker state no longer needs to worry about surviving if it cooperates and the opponent turns aggressive. Furthermore, the stronger state would be more likely to exercise self-restraint if the costs of defection are higher than those of compliance. By guaranteeing the security of a weaker participant a third party can make it less costly for them to accept such terms as nuclear disarmament as a precondition for the formation of a peace regime. Great powers have often acted as guarantors in peace building between states. For example, the United States acted as a guarantor between Germany and France after World War II helping them achieve a state of stable peace (Choi and Alexandrova 2020).

A mediator contributes to cooperation by helping to sustain the negotiations process. A third party in this role may use its influence over the main participants to bring them to the bargaining table. A mediator thus defined is not simply a messenger, but a state with active responsibility for the continuation of dialogue. A capable mediator might also be able to exert sufficient pressure on other participants to induce their compliance without damaging the cooperation framework should low-level violations be detected. This was the role taken up by China during the Six Party Talks when it used a mixture of sticks and carrots to convince North Korea to come to the meetings table when it threatened to exit the negotiations (Lee et al. 2020, 597).

A facilitator may help cooperation through various contributions that require no exercise of power. It could help increase understanding between the key participants, provide neutral meetings environment, perform inspections of nuclear facilities, or share expertise. A capable facilitator, for example, may help resolve the issue of monitoring and verification of compliance with denuclearization agreements reducing the risk of cheating by the potential proliferator. A minor state would be wary of allowing invasive verification protocols to be implemented by agents of the adversarial superpower, but accepting regular inspections by a friendly third party could be relatively less problematic. A facilitator can also perform the tasks of a messenger, an advocate, interpreter, counterweight, or any other that does not require use of pressure to influence the behavior of other parties.

The likelihood of a state to undertake one of these functions is determined primarily by its strategic interests and power capabilities. Stated intentions alone are not a good predictor of a government’s decision to undertake a certain role. It is necessary to have, first, sufficient stakes in the preservation of the peace regime to justify the level of involvement required by a certain role and, second, the military, economic, and diplomatic capabilities to perform all relevant functions.1

A third party’s stakes in maintaining a peace regime are ranked based on its interests, calculated in terms of the benefits if it succeeds and the costs if it fails. Vital interests can be narrowed down to “preserving its sovereignty and protecting its citizens” – aims, which represent the highest benefit for a state (Press 2005). Important interests are those that increase a state’s economic well-being and security, but carry moderate potential value or loss (Art 2003, 45-47). All other interests such as the preservation of prestige that have no immediate effect on a state’s economy or security are considered secondary and have low estimated benefit or cost. If a potential conflict may jeopardize a third party’s vital interests, it has high stakes in the success of the peace regime. If the collapse of the peace regime is likely to cause significant economic losses to a state, its stakes can be ranked as medium. Lastly, if neither the security or the economic interests of a state are likely to suffer as a consequence of the peace regime collapse, its stakes in the deal should be viewed as low.

The second variable determining the role of a state in a peace regime are its capabilities. There are three main types of capabilities that states can rely on in promoting cooperation: military, economic, and diplomatic. A third party has a high level of military capability when it is endowed with sufficient relative strength to enforce compliance with the terms of a peace agreement on every other participant. While it does not need to be able to defeat a potential aggressor in battle, it has to be able to make it pay an exorbitant price for violating the terms of the deal. This means that if at least one of the main parties in a peace regime is a wealthy nuclear state (or allied with one), the third party will need to possess nuclear capabilities, as well as substantial conventional military capabilities. A state fitting this description will be able to credibly threaten to intervene in a dispute in ways corresponding to the different levels of aggression that another state can resort to in violation of the terms of the agreement – for example, by participating in denial campaigns using conventional forces, or by threatening retaliation in kind in response to a nuclear attack.

A state with high level of economic or diplomatic capabilities is able to exert influence over other participants through economic or diplomatic pressures and incentives. Such capabilities must be sufficient to cause some change in the behavior of a relatively weaker target state. However, they are less potent than military capabilities; economic or diplomatic tools alone are unlikely to dissuade a powerful state from using force against a weaker opponent.

Finally, third parties with a low level of military, economic, and diplomatic capabilities have little or no influence over others. They can neither commit to defending other participants in a peace regime, nor pressure them into changing their behavior.

The roles desired by and available to third parties in peace regimes can be determined based on the preceding criteria. A state with high stakes in the maintenance of a peace regime may be willing to become a guarantor to make sure that stability is preserved. If this state has high military capabilities needed to enforce compliance it will be able to take that role. Since a state is unlikely to be capable of guaranteeing the military security of a protégé by applying only economic pressure, a guarantor cannot rely only on economic or diplomatic power. When a third party has high economic capabilities, but low military capabilities, it will be unable to provide credible security guarantees and might take the role of a mediator instead.

A state with medium stakes in the preservation of peace is likely to covet the role of a mediator. It will have sufficient incentives to contribute to the maintenance of the regime, but would not wish to commit the resources needed for a guarantor. To act as a mediator a third party must have high economic or diplomatic capabilities enabling it to influence the policies of other participants.2

States with high or medium stakes and low capabilities are likely to take the least demanding role of facilitator in a peace regime. The reason is that they are interested in participating, but unable to make material contributions to preserving stability. Finally, third parties with low stakes are unlikely to show interest in participation. All multilateral arrangements come with certain costs, which the state will not be willing to pay to contain a conflict that concerns it only marginally.

The following section estimates what role corresponds best with Russia’s interests and capabilities on the Korean Peninsula.

A KOREAN PEACE REGIME AND RUSSIA’S ROLE

The Korean Peninsula peace regime will require an asymmetric peace settlement. As envisioned by the South Korean Foreign Ministry, it will aim at the “establishment of peace that is solidly secured… among the related countries with the two Koreas lying at the center” (Ministry of Foreign Affairs [MOFA], Republic of Korea [ROK] 2021). North Korea is markedly inferior in military terms relative to South Korea. A peace agreement, as defined above, would also include South Korea’s allies and partners – the United States and Japan – putting North Korea at an even greater power disadvantage (MOFA ROK 2021). Further, the South Korean government considers concluding a peace agreement “at the final stage of complete denuclearization” (MOFA ROK 2021). This means that the establishment of a peace regime would require North Korea to dismantle its nuclear arsenal leaving it unable to deter a potential attack – a crucial concern for the leadership in Pyongyang. Given these conditions, this is a case where the success of cooperation will hinge critically on the contribution of third parties acting as guarantors, mediators, and facilitators. This section evaluates Russia’s willingness and capability to play any of these potential roles in a Korean Peninsula peace regime.

Russia’s Stakes in a Korean Peninsula Peace Regime

Russia has medium stakes in maintaining peace between South and North Korea according to the criteria presented earlier. The Kremlin has important economic and political interests to protect in the Northeast Asian region, but none of its vital interests would be crucially affected either by positive or negative developments on the Korean Peninsula.

Russia’s vital interests are unlikely to be jeopardized either by a maintenance of the current status quo or a conflict involving North Korea. Russia and the DPRK share a mere 17-km long land border along the middle of the Tumen River. The two countries are connected with a single railway bridge making Primorsky Krai – the border region – relatively easy to defend and control. This means that despite their proximity, Russia would be shielded from most crises emanating from North Korea. Destabilization of the government in Pyongyang as a result of continued tensions and international pressure does not constitute a direct threat to the security of the Russian Federation. Even if the North Korean regime collapses resulting in civil war, hostilities are unlikely to spill over the narrow corridor to Russia. With its 1,350-km land border and more hospitable environment, China is likely to bear the brunt of refugee flows that may result in a crisis (Bartlett 2021; Wit et al. 2004, 31, 198). This is what happened in the mid-1990s when food shortages pushed North Koreans to seek to escape the country en masse (Lee et al. 2020, 591). Similarly, Russia would not expect to face a substantial threat if the United States resorted to military action against North Korea. Military engagement can be expected only in the very unlikely case that American troops cross into Russian territory (Fedorov 2005, 54). The one potentially serious issue is the risk of collision of U.S. and Russian warships near the North Korean coastline or along Russia’s Northern Sea Route (Fedorov 2005, 47). However, Washington is likely to go to great lengths to avoid such clashes, which may have disastrous consequences between the two nuclear superpowers if the conflict escalates. Active “collision avoidance” behavior has been the norm in other flashpoints between Russia and the United States such as Syria where their militaries came in direct conflict amid rising tensions in the aftermath of the Ukraine crisis of 2014 (Weiss and Ng 2019). Further, Russian policymakers do not believe that North Korea’s nuclear weapons may target their motherland (Funabashi 2007, 175; Topychkanov 2020). The Russian military appear to worry most about weapons going astray during North Korean missile testing close to its borders. This threat has been addressed with the deployment of advanced air defense systems in the Russian Far East (Gavrilov 2021). Finally, as Russian diplomats attest, the prospect of Korean unification, even if it means permanent U.S. military presence on the Peninsula, does not threaten Russian security (quoted in Funabashi 2007, 191).

Moscow has been careful not to overstate its interests. Remarks by government officials expressing concerns about the sovereignty of the country or the safety of its citizens during previous crises on the Korean Peninsula are hard to find. In 1995, Russia rejected joining the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization, established as a response to the first North Korean nuclear crisis, due to a disagreement over which state was to supply Pyongyang with nuclear reactors (Bazhanov 2000, 226). In the late 1990s, Moscow protested its exclusion from the Four Party Talks mainly on historical and economic grounds with no mention of security interests (Bazhanov 2000, 226-227). This type of behavior does not befit an actor with high stakes in the resolution of a conflict. Apart from general references to the “danger of destabilizing the Korean Peninsula” by scholars and experts, Russia’s involvement has not been premised on the need to protect a vital interest of the state. This is unlikely to change in the short term. One indicator is that as of 2021, among the regional priorities of the Russian Federation listed in its official foreign policy the Asia-Pacific and the Korean Peninsula still emerge behind the Eurasian and European region signifying their perceived lower strategic importance (MOFA, Russian Federation [RF] 2016).

Although its vital interests may not be at stake, Russia has a number of important interests on the Korean Peninsula. These are related mainly to economic development, great power status, and nuclear nonproliferation.

First, a crisis escalation in North Korea may disrupt Russia’s plans for increased economic engagement in East Asia. It could end the prospects for realization of a series of ambitious projects promising to bring significant economic benefits to Russia (Fedorov 2005, 54). President Vladimir Putin’s strategy toward the Korean Peninsula has been guided by economic objectives since the early 2000s. These have included developing of East Siberian oil and gas deposits and the construction of pipelines; connecting the Trans-Siberian and the Trans-Korean Railway to promote economic growth in Russia’s Far East; and assisting North Korean economic reform and advancement (Ha and Shin 2006, 14-15; Funabashi 2007, 179-180). The present situation on the Peninsula does not allow to complete both the railway and pipeline projects, which require free movement of goods and South Korean investment currently restricted by international sanctions targeting North Korea over its nuclear and missile programs (Funabashi 2007, 180; Wishnick 2019, 9).

The Kremlin often emphasizes the fact that Russia associates the resolution of the North Korean issue with economic opportunities. At the height of the second nuclear crisis in late 2002, Putin proposed to offer Pyongyang positive incentive in the form of the “building of a pipeline from Siberia, through North Korea, to South Korea, to provide energy to Japan and South Korea” in exchange for denuclearization – an offer deemed unacceptable and guided by Russian economic interests in Washington (quoted in Funabashi 2007, 184). Тhe Russian president has clarified that Russia is ready to build a gas pipeline to South Korea over the territory of North Korea and recreate the Trans-Korean railway as soon as “political problems are resolved” and “the two Koreas can reach an agreement” (Kremlin 2013). Continuing tensions are thus viewed as the “critical issue” preventing the realization of Russia’s ambitious projects on the Korean Peninsula (Toloraya and Vorontsov 2015, 62). For Moscow “a regional settlement is essential for its economic agenda in the Russian Far East, which involves plans for trilateral economic and energy cooperation with North and South Korea,” as an expert report attests (Wishnick 2019, 9).

The second important interest Moscow aims to defend by contributing to a Korean peace regime is its position as a great power with relevance in Northeast Asia. As a Russian expert stated in 2019, “Moscow fears being left outside looking in on a bilateral solution to the North Korean missile and nuclear issue” as this could “clearly devalue … the narrative of the international role of Russia as a global great power, which is very important to the Kremlin” (quited in Ayres 2018). This position has been evident since the 1990s (Bazhanov 2000, 220). It is determined by the Korean Peninsula’s significance as a “geostrategic gate connecting the continent and the ocean” and Moscow’s concerns that by being excluded from the solution to the Korean issue would equate to “giving up its influence” in the entire region (Ha and Shin 2006, 13). The preservation of Russia’s standing in Northeast Asia provides clear benefits such as participation in regional rule-making, access to various economic opportunities, and diplomatic leverage (Wishnick 2019, 10). The importance of access to such goods in this region is increasing as Russia faces diplomatic isolation in its area of traditional priority in Europe due to rising tensions over Ukraine since 2014.

To further the aim of increasing its influence in Northeast Asia Russia has promoted multilateral solutions of the North Korean issue. During President Boris Yeltsin’s term in office, Moscow suggested to establish “a multilateral negotiation and regional risk-management system for Northeast Asia” in 1992, eight-party talks (between China, Japan, North Korea, South Korea, Russia, the United States, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and the United Nations (UN) Secretary General) in 1994, and later 10-party talks (between the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (UNSC), Japan, North and South Koreas, the IAEA Secretary General, and the UN Secretary General; Ha and Shin 2006, 10). Russia’s push for multilateral negotiations continued in the 2000s. For example, the first proposal for six-party talks came from Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Losyukov in October 2002 (Ha and Shin 2006, 11). The rationale behind this is that a multilateral approach would allow Russia to remain involved in Peninsula affairs until there emerged an alternative way to sustain its influence through economic or diplomatic power (Funabashi 2007, 188).

A third important Russian interest is preventing nuclear proliferation. Due to its advocacy for lifting UN sanctions on North Korea, imposed over its nuclear and missile programs, the Kremlin may appear to be at ease with Pyongyang’s nuclear development (Nichols 2019; Nichols 2021). This, however, is not the case. Admittedly, there is disagreement between Russia and the United States over how to deal with Pyongyang, and therefore discussions regarding the severity and objectives of sanctions (Ha and Shin 2006, 5-8; Wishnick 2019, 7). Moscow has used its veto power at the UN to soften sanctions and later appeared lenient with their implementation (Wishnick 2019, 6). Nevertheless, the question of whether or not North Korea should be denuclearized is not contested by Moscow (Ha and Shin 2006, 8). Nonproliferation is high on the agenda of Russian policy-makers who perceive North Korean nuclear development to present a significant hazard (Funabashi 2007, 167, 174; Wishnick 2019, 8). Notably, before its fall, the Soviet Union made a serious and successful attempt to restrain North Korea’s nuclear development during the 1980s when it still had leverage over its protégé. Moscow provided significant incentives to Pyongyang to have it join the Non-Proliferation Treaty and accept IAEA safeguards on its nuclear facilities (Orlov et al. 2001, 113; Szalontai and Radchenko 2006, 20; Zhebin 2000, 32-33). Russia’s position on this issue has remained unchanged. As Federal Council officials explained to their disgruntled North Korean colleagues when Russia voted to accept UNSC Resolution 2375 imposing additional sanctions on North Korea after its sixth nuclear test in 2017, Moscow “has always stood for the preservation of the nuclear nonproliferation regime” and insisted that Pyongyang return to the NPT (RIA Novosti 2017b).

There are several reasons why Russia continues to attach importance to the denuclearization of North Korea. One is the risk of nuclear dominos in East Asia (MOFA RF 2003). Fearing about its security Japan might opt to build its own nuclear arsenal, followed by other regional powers such as Taiwan and South Korea. The introduction of missile defense systems in the region is a further unwelcome complication (Funabashi 2007, 175; RIA Novosti 2017c; RIA Novosti 2018; Sputnik International 2016). Russia views these not only as precursors to the effective end to the nonproliferation regime, but also as developments that would shift the balance of power in Northeast Asia eroding Russia’s position (Fedorov 2005, 47, 53). A second reason is the possibility of potential transfer of nuclear weapons into the hands of states sponsoring terrorism or terrorist organizations (Fedorov 2005, 47).

In sum, for Russia, the preservation of peace on the Korean Peninsula offers a number of important, albeit not vital, security, economic, and diplomatic benefits. Therefore, Moscow’s interests set its aims in contributing to multilateral peacebuilding and conflict prevention efforts to a medium level in the role of mediator. The role available to it, however, is determined by the extent of its capabilities.

Russia’s Military, Economic, and Diplomatic Capabilities

This section measures the different types of capabilities Russia can use on the Korean Peninsula and finds that it has a high level of military capability and low levels of both economic and diplomatic capabilities.

With resilient conventional forces and formidable nuclear power Russia maintains a high level of military capability relative to other states in Northeast Asia. An ambitious and generously financed arms modernization program has resulted in large-scale defense upgrade in Russia’s eastern regions. Hardware upgrades and organizational reforms since the 2000s have brought significant improvements in Russia’s land and air power allowing for a bolder reach into the Asia-Pacific (Muraviev 2018, 21-22). The Eastern Military District, which is responsible for operations in Primorsky Krai, has more than 130,000 active troops deployed under Operational-Strategic Command East (OSK Vostok) gradually supplied with new or upgraded “modern and advanced” weapons since the early 2010s (Muraviev 2018, 24). According to an expert estimate, these highly mobile forces with improved maneuverability provide Russia with “the capability for limited power projection” across the region (Muraviev 2018, 24). Power projection capabilities have also grown due to advancements in the increasingly active Russian Pacific Fleet as noted by American defense analysts (Defense Intelligence Agency 2017, 70). In addition, efforts to counter the security risks posed specifically by the United States and its allies have prompted investment in regional air defense with the aim to create an A2/AD zone in the region (Gady 2018; Muraviev 2018, 28).3 With such capabilities Russia may have a strong chance of raising the costs of aggression against North Korea to an unacceptable level by relying on conventional power. This would be sufficient to deter the cost-sensitive Unites States from violating the terms of a peace settlement.

In an alternative scenario, rather than committing troops to a large-scale conventional conflict on the Korean Peninsula, Moscow might opt to escalate to the nuclear level (Ven Bruusgaard 2021, 23-27). In terms of nuclear capacity, Russia possesses secure second-strike capabilities against the United States. In 2021, its stockpile was estimated to stand at approximately 4495 nuclear warheads. Of these around 1625 are deployed on strategic ballistic missiles and at bomber bases and another roughly 1910 as tactical weapons (Kristensen and Korda 2021, 346). Moscow’s strategic nuclear weapons credibly cover a number of its allies, such as Armenia and Belarus. Considering this, it is likely that should Russia extend its nuclear umbrella over North Korea, this would be sufficient to deter the United States from using military power against it.

Russia ranks low among the potential participants in a Korean Peninsula peace regime when it comes to economic and diplomatic capabilities. In other words, it is unable to exert influence over other regional actors through economic or diplomatic pressures and incentives. Therefore, Moscow has limited potential for causing change in the behavior of North Korea, China, or the United States and its allies.

First, Russia has little economic leverage over North Korea. Pyongyang’s dependence on foreign trade has been minimal and decreasing since 2013. By 2020, its total trade volume had fallen to USD 863 million – less than three percent of its USD 29 billion gross domestic product (Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency [KOTRA] 2021). Russia’s share in these limited economic exchanges stood at less than five percent (KOTRA 2021; Sohn 2021). During the period from 1995 to 2018 Russian exports have been volatile averaging less than USD 90 million yearly, while imports have rarely topped USD 10 million (Federal State Statistics Service, RF 2021). In 2020, North Korean imported from Russia goods worth less than USD 42 million, while exports were almost completely cut off making for a mere USD 70 thousand (KOTRA 2021, 19). Moscow provides little investment and economic aid to the struggling Pyongyang (Lankov 2020). In sum, given the limited scope of economic exchange and North Korea’s low level of dependence on Russian assistance, “Russia cannot apply any economic pressure to North Korea” (Lankov 2020).

Despite geographic proximity and complementary political interests, Russian-North Korean economic cooperation has not grown due to a number of persistent obstacles. Pyongyang has sought to counter Chinese dominance in its market by diversifying its trade partners and the Russian government has made efforts to promote economic ties. For example, in 2014, the Russian parliament wrote off almost the entire USD 10.96 billion North Korean Soviet era debt “to facilitate the building of a gas pipeline to South Korea” (Reuters 2014). The further development of bilateral trade and investment had been considered impossible before settling the unresolved liability (Denisov 2009, 5; MOFA RF 2002). The Russian government further launched a number of incentives aimed to make it easier for companies to operate in North Korea, albeit with limited success (Burghart et al. 2020, 284-285, 300; Loshchikovskiy 2014). Nevertheless, Russia’s prospects of expanding its influence in North Korea remain bleak. The main issue at present is that the economic sanctions imposed on North Korea greatly constrain the potential for cooperation. Sanctions have cut the range of products traded between the two countries, restricted relations between banks, and effectively blocked the implementation of all major projects related to the modernization and development of North Korean infrastructure (Burghart et al. 2020, 285-286, 288; Toloraya and Yakovleva 2021, 376). The difficulty of obtaining funding for any enterprises in North Korea due to the high-risk environment is another long-term obstacle to cooperation (Burghart et al. 2020, 287; Lankov 2019). Problems have been exacerbated since January 2020 by Covid-19-induced border controls (Smith 2021). Even after the effects of the global pandemic are reversed and assuming that sanctions are partially eased, it may take a long time for Russia to create favorable conditions ensuring stable economic ties with North Korea sufficient to translate into influence. Growth in trade volumes will likely continue to be stalled by chronic lack of funds, institutional barriers, and a poor business environment, with things further complicated by the fact that the two economies are largely incompatible with Russia having little need for North Korean products and North Korea being an unattractive export market for Russian goods (Burghart et al. 2020; Lankov 2019; Lukin and Zakharova 2018; Toloraya and Vorontsov 2015, 59).

Second, Moscow has little diplomatic clout over Pyongyang. What influence the Soviet Union had as North Korea’s patron during the Cold War was lost in the 1990s as Moscow focused on building a relationship with Seoul (Burghart et al. 2020, 284; Funabashi 2007, 177-178; Oberdorfer and Carlin 2014, 154-177; Toloraya and Yakovleva 2021). Since then, diplomatic ties went through ups and downs – complete freeze until 1995, revival of relations with the signing of a new treaty of friendship and President Putin’s historic visit to Pyongyang in 2000, followed by two decades of efforts to rebuild ties interrupted by complications caused by North Korea’s nuclear program (Kim 2012, 392; Toloraya and Vorontsov 2015, 54-55). Overall, at no point has Russia been able to talk North Korea into significant changes of behavior. The fact that the North Korean leadership does not show concern regarding Russian interference underscores how limited is Moscow’s ability to influence Pyongyang’s policies (Lankov 2020).

It is worth noting that despite occasional tensions Russian diplomats enjoy unparalleled access to top North Korean officials. The close ties forged between the two former allies during the Cold War provide a basis for mutual understanding. Since at least 2000, no core ideological differences have hindered political contacts (Bazhanov 2000, 221; Toloraya and Vorontsov 2015, 56). More recently, a form of solidarity has emerged between the two countries since they both became the target of U.S.-led sanctions – North Korea because of its nuclear-related activities and Russia as a result of the 2014 crisis in Ukraine (Ryall and Koval, 2015). This gives Moscow channels for communication with Pyongyang – a valuable privilege used occasionally to deliver messages and seek explanations if not to exert pressure.

Moscow does not have the economic or diplomatic reach needed to promote changes in the behavior of other regional powers. Of all the interested parties, besides North Korea, South Korea is the one potentially most interested in maintaining economic and diplomatic ties with Russia (see Eom 2018, 166). South Korea-Russia economic cooperation, however, is undermined by at least three persistent obstacles. One is the sanctions regime against North Korea, which limits trade flows between the Russian Far East and South Korea. Another is the fact that the Russian Far East itself remains economically underdeveloped, which reduces the potential for expansion of business between Seoul and Moscow (Rinna 2019; Zakharova 2019, 6). Finally, the deterioration of relations between Russia and the West and the stringent sanctions regime implemented against Russia since 2014 may also have long-term negative consequences for South Korea-Russia relations. Seoul’s interest in expanding cooperation has visibly decreased as it joined U.S.-led economic pressure against Russia (Denisov 2015, 46). In March 2022, bilateral ties reached a new low with South Korea imposing new unprecedented sanctions over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (Kim 2022; Shin and Kim 2022).

Russian influence on China and Japan is equally negligible. Notably, Moscow’s leverage over other states with stakes in peace on the Korean Peninsula depends somewhat on its clout in Pyongyang. From their perspective, Russia is most valued as a partner when North Korea is susceptible to its pressure, which is currently not the case (Bazhanov 2000, 221; Funabashi 2007, 178; Toloraya and Vorontsov 2015, 54).

In sum, Russia’s economic and diplomatic capabilities in Northeast Asia are relatively low. As a result, Moscow is unlikely to successfully induce change in the actions of other actors in the region without resorting to use of military force.

What Role for Russia on the Korean Peninsula?

This section examines how Russia can contribute to a Korean peace regime and finds that its interests and capabilities best suit the role of facilitator. It also shows that Moscow has consistently played this role since the early 2000s.

What are the combinations of interests and capabilities required for the roles of guarantor, mediator, and facilitator in a Korean peace regime? In order to fit the profile of a credible guarantor, Russia would need to have high stakes in the implementation of a peace settlement on the Korean Peninsula and high military capabilities sufficient to defend North Korea. For the first condition to be fulfilled, the preservation of Russia’s sovereignty or citizens must depend on the success of the peace settlement. This requirement can be relaxed to include severe economic losses and humanitarian disasters, such as waves of refugees that can result from a crisis in North Korea. For the second condition to be fulfilled, Russia needs to have sufficient power to deter military aggression, particularly on the side of the United States on the territory of North Korea. To take the role of a mediator, Russia would need to have medium to high stakes in inter-Korean peace and high economic and diplomatic capabilities. The first condition would be fulfilled if Moscow has important interests on the Korean Peninsula. The second condition requires Russia to be able to influence the behavior of other participants to an extent necessary to sustain the process of negotiations and prevent escalation. The role of a facilitator in the construction of a peace regime also calls for medium or high stakes in its success. While there is no specific requirement for capabilities, traditional ties or well-maintained diplomatic channels are useful tools in the arsenal of a capable facilitator.

Russia’s willingness to act as a guarantor of a potential peace deal is limited primarily by strategic considerations. Moscow has important, but not vital interests on the Korean Peninsula translating into moderate political will to participate in maintaining peace between South and North Korea. Therefore, a policy of providing security guarantees to North Korea and risking involvement in potentially costly conflict is unlikely to gain domestic support. Russia does have high military capabilities relative to all other likely participants in a multilateral peace regime. If it committed to the task, Moscow is likely to be capable of protecting North Korea from potential threats. Although it enjoys a power advantage, however, the balance of stakes is likely to favor the adversary. This reduces the credibility of Russian security guarantees in the eyes of North Korea, undercutting Pyongyang’s readiness to accept them and making Russia an unlikely guarantor in a potential peace agreement (Funabashi 2007, 194). Moscow’s assurances are discredited as its commitment to defend Pyongyang is questioned on account of the medium level importance Russia attaches to North Korea in its strategic calculations. This is in line with the expectation that a state with high military capabilities will not be willing to play the role of guarantor unless it also has vital interests at stake in the conflict.

Russia is also unprepared to act as a mediator due to its limited economic and diplomatic capabilities. The Kremlin is interested in active economic engagement in North Korea as a gateway to Northeast Asia, in gaining recognition as a regional great power, and in limiting nuclear proliferation. It may be tempted to pursue the part of mediator to help promote these important economic and political interests. However, Russia has minimal economic and diplomatic influence over the other participants, including North Korea. Therefore, Moscow is unable to help sustain the process of negotiations, which is the task required from a third-party mediator in the construction of a peace regime.

Based on its interests and capabilities, Russia is best suited for the role of a facilitator. As discussed above, Moscow’s stakes in preserving peace provide sufficient motivation to seek involvement in the resolution of the North Korean issue. The Kremlin has clearly signaled its inclination to contribute, particularly by maintaining close dialogue with the leadership in Pyongyang, suggesting paths for resolving conflict, and volunteering expertise. Although some policy-makers use rhetoric hinting on greater ambition, it is unlikely that Russia’s current capabilities will allow it to play a qualitatively different role. The Russian official position also points to interest in a facilitator role. As stated in its Foreign Policy Concept, Russia aims to maintain friendly relations with South and North Korea, and “will seek to ease confrontation and de-escalate tension on the Korean Peninsula, as well as achieve reconciliation and facilitate intra-Korean cooperation by promoting political dialogue” (MOFA RF 2016).

Russia’s previous involvement in the Korean issue conforms with these conclusions. Since the 1990s, Moscow has had no vital interests, but consistently maintained the same set of important interests on the Korean peninsula: expanding economic ties, restoring political influence, and nonproliferation. These have been backed with high (albeit lower than today) level of military capability, and low level of economic and diplomatic capabilities. Accordingly, the expectation is that Russia’s role should have been that of a facilitator. In reality, this is exactly the role that Moscow has taken so far. Since the end of the Cold War Russia has kept firmly to tasks requiring no use of pressures or inducements – explaining and clarifying the positions of the negotiators to one another and suggesting various paths and approaches to resolving the crisis (Toloraya and Yakovleva 2021; Funabashi 2007).4 It has produced ideas such as multilateral talks that helped address the conflicting demands of the many interested parties, offered communication channels, and helped to increase understanding between the negotiators. In the early 2000s, Russia briefly acted as a self-claimed “honest broker” promoting dialogue between the two Koreas and between North Korea and the United States and Japan before moving to the “backseat role” of a less active facilitator (Funabashi 2007, 182-187; Ha and Shin 2006, 19-21; MOFA RF 2002; 2003; Wishnick 2019, 10). Moscow has plainly refused offers to act as mediator suggesting that China is better fitted for the part (Funabashi 2007, 168; Ha and Shin 2006, 23). This is congruent with the expectations for Russia’s role given its interests and capabilities on the Korean Peninsula outlined earlier.

CONCLUSION

This analysis found that Russia’s strategic interests and capabilities best correspond to the role of a facilitator in a Korean peace regime. Moscow has medium stakes on the Korean Peninsula, relatively high military capabilities, and low economic and diplomatic capabilities. This combination of power and interest is not conductive to performing the roles of mediator or guarantor demanding higher stakes and/or capabilities from a third-party participant in an asymmetric peace regime. Nevertheless, Russia can make significant contributions as a facilitator of the peace process. To begin with, using its familiarity and traditional ties with all other participants and its privileged access to North Korean policy-makers, Moscow can clear misunderstandings and help identify points of convergence of interest. Furthermore, should it come to denuclearization verification, Pyongyang may find inspections of its nuclear facilities by to be more acceptable if led or supervised by Russian experts.5

Considering these findings, what future developments could allow Russia to undertake a more active role in the Korean peace process? One is Moscow improving its economic and diplomatic capabilities in Northeast Asia. If inter-Korean exchanges resume and Russia’s relations with South Korea and Japan improve, Russia’s economic engagement with the Northeast Asian region would grow accordingly. Moscow’s economic and diplomatic leverage could increase, allowing Russia to undertake a greater role as a mediator. However, given the current Russia-Ukraine war, the prospects of Moscow’s relations with Seoul and Tokyo improving over the short to medium term appear dim. South Korea and Japan, both of which “strongly condemned Russia’s armed invasion” against Ukraine, would be wary of expanding cooperation and providing additional leverage to what they may start to perceive as a potentially aggressive great power neighbor (MOFA ROK 2022; Landers 2022).

Another possible development is the Korean Peninsula gaining increased strategic importance in Kremlin’s calculus. Specifically, if the ambitious railroad and pipeline projects are completed, Russia’s most influential industrial complexes would have significant financial stakes in North Korea (See Lukin 2019, 27). As a result, Moscow’s reliance on Northeast Asia may also increase, particularly if its trade with Western countries is decimated due to international sanctions and European reliance on Russian gas is reduced in the aftermath of the current Ukraine crisis (McGrath 2022). In one scenario, there may be a role for Russia as a part of a two-member guarantor team. Another regional player – China – may fit the profile of a credible guarantor. It has vital interests at stake and sufficient military capabilities to guarantee the success of a peace regime by extending a nuclear umbrella to North Korea. For Pyongyang, however, such security guarantee would create an unacceptably high level of dependency. North Korea may be willing to give up its nuclear weapons if an ally guarantees its security, but not if it fears loss of autonomy (Reiter 2014). China partnering with Russia as co-guarantors creates a way to minimize North Korea’s loss of autonomy by spreading the responsibility for providing security guarantees among the two great powers. Such an arrangement also has the benefit of making the security assurances public, which adds to their credibility and minimizes the risk of unilateral rewriting of the conditions of cooperation.

In sum, if its strategic interests in the region grow, and provided that its reputation and relations with other regional powers are restored, Russia has the potential to assume a vital role in a multilateral peace regime becoming a part of a unique solution for the problems currently obstructing progress on the Korean Peninsula.

Footnote

1 States can take one or more roles at a time and switch between functions over different periods.

2 The level of military capabilities is irrelevant for this role. A mediator has little use for military power as its ability to perform its role depends primarily on having significant economic and diplomatic clout over other participants in the peace regime. For example, threatening unwilling negotiators with military strikes to pressure them to resume dialogue is unlikely to succeed and may be counterproductive.

3 A2/AD refers to antiaccess, area denial strategy aimed at preventing enemy forces from conducting operations in a specific area.

4 Most recently in 2019 President Putin delivered a message from North Korea to Washington (See Tanas and Lee 2019).

5 This was the conclusion reached by U.S. officials, including John Bolton, looking for solutions during the second nuclear crisis. They believed that the verification of North Korean disarmament required Russian assistance (Funabashi 2007, 174).

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