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Russia plays dual game on North Korean crisis

Strategic concerns shape Moscow's deep ambivalence toward Pyongyang

The 15 members of the United Nations Security Council vote in favor of adopting new sanctions against North Korea at U.N. headquarters in New York on Aug. 5.   © AP

On Aug. 5, Russia joined the rest of the United Nations Security Council in voting for a U.S.-sponsored resolution to toughen sanctions on North Korea in response to Pyongyang's intercontinental ballistic missile tests on July 3 and 28. Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the U.N., praised the council's "strong and united step," and described the resolution as "the single largest package of economic sanctions ever leveled at the regime."

Although Russia assisted Western countries in approving these measures, in other respects Moscow's position on the unfolding crisis is diametrically opposed to that of the U.S. and its allies. Indeed, rather than isolating the regime, in recent months Russia has been seeking to expand its ties with North Korea.

During the first three months of 2017, bilateral trade increased 85% compared with a year earlier. Russian customs data also show a 200% increase in exports of oil products to North Korea between January and April. Transport links have also expanded, with a new ferry line beginning operations from Vladivostok in May.

Moscow and Pyongyang also agreed in March to expand the employment of North Korean workers in Russia, where there are already an estimated 40,000 laboring in the timber and construction industries. This program is controversial due to widespread allegations of human rights abuses. It is also believed that Pyongyang seizes a large share of these workers' earnings to fund its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. For this reason, the latest U.N. sanctions require all states to refrain from further increases in the total number of authorizations granted to North Korean workers.

Due to these strengthening bilateral relations, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on July 28 categorized Russia, alongside China, as "the principal economic enablers of North Korea's nuclear weapon and ballistic missile development program." He claimed they "bear unique and special responsibility for this growing threat to regional and global stability." What then accounts for Russia's apparent inconsistency in its approach to North Korea?

Proliferation danger

The reality is that Russia is genuinely concerned by Pyongyang's confrontational behavior. To begin with, as one of the three countries with a land border with North Korea, Russia is well aware that any conflict provoked by Pyongyang could have serious implications for its own territory. Added to this, there is the danger that North Korea's nuclear weapons program will spur wider proliferation.

Quite apart from the associated security risks, this is a matter of concern to Russia since its vast stockpile of nuclear weapons is the principal basis for its claim to great power status. As such, any expansion of the nuclear club threatens to diminish Russia's global prestige. For these reasons, Moscow supported the latest U.N. sanctions.

Despite this, Russia is unwilling to go further and commit to the full isolation of North Korea. Part of this is opportunism. As relations between Pyongyang and Beijing have cooled of late, the Russian leadership has spied the chance to fill the gap by cultivating closer economic and political ties. Moscow also wishes to be sufficiently involved with North Korea to ensure that the crisis cannot be resolved without its involvement. This helps demonstrate Russia's continued standing as an indispensable global power.

Although these considerations play a role, Russia's ambivalent attitude owes more to the fundamentally different way in which Moscow views the tensions on the Korean peninsula. To most observers in the U.S., European Union and Japan, the rogue regime in Pyongyang bears exclusive responsibility for the current crisis on account of its unjustifiable, if not irrational, pursuit of nuclear weapons.

By contrast, the view of the Russian government is that blame must be shared by the U.S., whose own aggressive military posturing forces an insecure North Korea into ever more desperate responses.

Specifically, Russia highlights what it regards as the destabilizing effect of the large-scale military exercises conducted by the U.S. and its regional allies. It has also criticized unilateral sanctions imposed by the U.S., warning that North Korea must not be subjected to "economic asphyxiation." Since Russia is also subject to U.S. sanctions, it is not surprising if policymakers in Moscow feel a degree of solidarity with Pyongyang.

Russia is also vehemently opposed to U.S. anti-missile defense systems within the region, including the THAAD system deployment in South Korea. Joining with Chinese counterparts, the Russian foreign ministry condemns such systems as "inflicting serious damage on strategic security interests of regional states," and claims they do "nothing to help achieve the aims of the Korean Peninsula's denuclearization, nor to ensure peace and stability in the region." This criticism is underpinned by the belief that the real target of U.S. anti-missile defense is the nuclear deterrents of Russia and China.

Reshaping the world

This view of Washington as a major contributor to the current crisis is consistent with the broader understanding of the U.S. global role that now predominates within Russia. This holds that the U.S. has been unable to resist the temptation to use its post-Cold War military pre-eminence to reshape the world in its own interests.

However, rather than extending peace and democracy as intended, this unilateralism has simply spread disorder as the toppling of anti-U.S. regimes, such as those in Iraq and Libya, has resulted not in liberalization but in chaos. Meanwhile, other countries, fearing they may be next for U.S.-sponsored regime change, feel obliged to adopt a preemptively aggressive stance.

Strange as it may seem to Washington's allies, Russia views U.S. hegemony as at least as much a threat to global stability as North Korea's frantic pursuit of nuclear weapons. Based on this understanding, Russia sees the solution to the current crisis as requiring the restraint of not one but two belligerent powers. For this reason, the roadmap put forward by Russia and China proposes a "double freezing," that is, of both North Korea's missile and nuclear activities and of the U.S.'s large-scale military exercises.

Longer term, Russia would like to see the system of exclusive U.S. alliances within the region replaced by a new security architecture that includes all regional powers. Only in this way can the perennial insecurity of countries such as North Korea be finally eliminated.

Clearly, many will disagree with Moscow's interpretation of America's international role. Others may note that the Russian government's proposal for resolving the crisis seems unworkable, since it depends on Washington making concessions to Pyongyang. Despite this, it remains essential to appreciate the starkly different manner in which Russia comprehends the current crisis.

Only in this way can it be understood that, despite Moscow's consent to the latest U.N. sanctions, Washington and its allies cannot expect much greater assistance from Russia in increasing the pressure on North Korea.

James D.J. Brown is an associate professor in political science at Temple University in Tokyo and a specialist on Russo-Japanese relations.

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