Russia’s ‘pivot to Asia’ hinges on the Korean Peninsula

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Russia's President Vladimir Putin in Sochi, Russia, on October 12, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Maxim Shemetov

Russia expert James DJ Brown believes Moscow genuinely supports ‘denuclearization’ in North Korea but has an overriding fear of a disorderly collapse of Kim Jong-un’s regime.

“I think that the worst scenario for them [Russia] is definitely regime collapse and the chaos that leaves, so I think that if it comes down to a choice they’re willing to live with a fully nuclear-armed North Korea – in part because they believe in the rationality of the North Korean regime,” said the associate professor at Temple University Japan in a phone interview.

The United States has sought to ratchet up pressure on North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program and recently won backing from Russia and China for tougher sanctions at the United Nations security council. But Moscow and Beijing favor dialogue to resolve the standoff and oppose the deployment of US missile defense systems to Japan and South Korea, both American allies in the region.

US president Donald Trump said last weekend that he wanted Moscow’s help to rein in North Korea, although he admitted to feeling constrained by US domestic pressure. In contrast to the US intelligence community’s assessment that Russia meddled in the 2016 election, Trump seemed to dismiss the alleged interference as an “artificial thing” that was impeding bilateral ties.

“If we had a relationship with Russia, that would be a good thing … because he [Vladimir Putin] could really help us in North Korea,” Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One while traveling to Vietnam for a regional summit on Saturday.

“You’re talking about millions and millions of lives. This isn’t baby stuff. This is the real deal. And if Russia helped us, in addition to China, that problem would go away a lot faster.”

Economic enabler or bargaining chip?

Asia Times turned to Brown, a Tokyo-based academic who specializes in international relations and Russia’s foreign policy, to provide insight into Moscow’s motivations when it comes to resolving the North Korea crisis.

During a presentation at Temple University Japan last week and a follow-up interview this week, Brown noted a recent uptick in economic ties between North Korea and Russia. He attributed this partly to “small-scale opportunism by Russian firms” in combination with Moscow’s desire to prevent regime collapse.

Bilateral trade more than doubled in the first quarter of this year to US$31.4 million. This year a ferry service began running between Vladivostok and the North Korean port of Rajin. Separately, media reports have highlighted cases of North Korean ships leaving Russia after loading up with fuel and then changing their stated destination mid-course, raising concerns about sanctions compliance.

The developments have not gone unnoticed in the US, with UN ambassador Nikki Haley raising concerns in June that Russia might “backfill” the apparent reduction in China-North Korea trade. After North Korea conducted its second test of an intercontinental ballistic missile in July, US secretary of state Rex Tillerson branded China and Russia as “the principal economic enablers” of the weapons program.

In August the US Treasury imposed sanctions on a Moscow-based company allegedly involved in procuring metals for an entity linked to North Korea’s weapons program. The sanctions also targeted three Russian individuals linked to the oil trade.

“If Russia has that leverage with North Korea then it could make some sort of grand bargain with the United States and say: we can help you here but we want something in return”

“It is unacceptable for individuals and companies in China, Russia, and elsewhere to enable North Korea to generate income used to develop weapons of mass destruction and destabilize the region,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said when announcing the sanctions.

Meanwhile, Russia’s political links with the regime have also been growing.

For example, a senior North Korean diplomat, Choe Son-hui, traveled to Russia for meetings related to the nuclear issue in September and for a non-proliferation conference in October.

A Russian political delegation visited Pyongyang in early October, Brown noted. In the same month, the head of the Russian state-owned news agency TASS traveled to the North Korean capital and met with foreign minister Ri Yong-ho to mark the 69th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Russia’s actions are aimed partly at increasing its influence with the North Korean regime, which could become a handy bargaining chip in negotiations with the US in future, Brown said.

“If Russia has that leverage with North Korea then it could make some sort of grand bargain with the United States and say: we can help you here but we want something in return,” Brown said. That might take the form of the US reducing pressure on Russia, although Congress recently passed a bill largely taking sanctions out of Trumps hands.

Avoiding regime collapse

Russia shares many of China’s worries about the “complete chaos” that could flow from the collapse of the North Korean regime on their doorstep, including a flood of refugees, the risk of unsecured nuclear weapons, and the possibility of US military forces moving north of the 38th parallel that divides the two Koreas.

“The prospect of regime change is a serious concern,” Andrey Kortunov, head of the influential Russian International Affairs Council, confirmed to the Reuters news agency last month.

Putin himself told an economic forum in September that the North Korean leadership, fearful of the type of regime change the US pursued in Iraq in 2003, regarded nuclear weapons and missile technology as its only form of self-defense. The Russian president asked rhetorically: “Do you think they’re going to give that up?”

Brown said acceptance of a nuclear-armed North Korea was “particularly scary if you think that Kim Jong-un is not a rational actor because then he can’t be deterred”.

“But if he is [rational], then old-fashioned Cold War deterrence should work; he can have nuclear weapons but he can be persuaded not to use them by making it very clear what the response to that would be,” Brown said.

“So I think that the Russians believe that that’s something that the world can live with, whereas of course Trump has said it won’t happen; he’s suggested that that’s a red line for him.”

Future development opportunities?

However, in the longer term, Brown believes Russia is less wary than China about the idea of peaceful reunification of the Korean peninsula. The Russian government now places a large amount of emphasis on economic development of the Far East and Siberia, in line with shifting global priorities.

“There’s also the recognition within Russia that it’s the Asia-Pacific that’s becoming more dynamic and Europe is becoming a bit more sluggish,” Brown said.

“That means that Russia, which remains enormously dependent on its links with Europe rather than the Asia-Pacific, needs to reorient. In the past under [Barack] Obama there’s always been talk about the US pivot to Asia but Russia has been trying to do its own pivot. If anything it’s more important for Russia, especially when they have such bad relations with the West – they recognize that economically it’s vital to improve ties with Asia.”

Many within Russia, Brown said, believe that if development of Siberia and the Far East is really going to succeed, they need to make better use of the Korean peninsula.

“Part of this goes back to old-fashioned considerations about geography. Russia has very limited access to the Pacific. Despite having this really long Pacific coast, much of it’s not really much use in terms of port facilities. So throughout Russian history there’s always been this idea of seeking to gain control of warm-water ports. One way of doing that is to use another country’s ports. If they have strong railway connections through the Korean peninsula, that means that the ports of Busan and some other ports in South Korea can work for the benefit of Russia.”

With South Korea reported to be the second-biggest buyer of liquefied natural gas in the world, the region also looms as a potentially significant market for energy. Russia’s ability to capitalize on this market could be improved by construction of a gas pipeline through the northern part of the peninsula.

“This is a very long-term plan; it’s dependent obviously on relations between the North and the South being much better,” Brown said. “But to take it back to the most basic point: all of this means that I think Russia is much more relaxed about unification than China is. Economic incentives account for that.”

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