Sunday, April 10, 2011

Russia Eyes Bigger Role on North Korea Issue

by Dmitri Trenin

Russia, up till now a more discreet player in the North Korean nuclear issue, seems to be intervening more actively in the rising tension over the Korean Peninsula recently. Does this signal a policy change by Russia toward North Korea? And what is the thinking behind Russia's increasing military presence in Northeast Asia? Global Times reporter Liu Linlin talked to Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, on these issues.


GT: After the UN Security Council (US)'s failure to reach an agreement on North Korea, what are the next steps for Russia?

Trenin: In this most recent skirmish on the Korean Peninsula, Russia's No.1 priority has been to help avoid a military conflict. It publicly criticized North Korea's military provocations and its non-cooperation with the US, and appealed to South Korea and the US to show restraint.
Moscow also wanted to demonstrate that Russia is closely involved in diplomacy on the Korean issue. As a general principle, Moscow prefers to call upon all parties to engage in negotiations, and wants to be a party to the talks. On denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula, the Russians probably realize that North Korea will not give up its nuclear arsenal, but they want to defuse the situation and divert it into the diplomatic channel, where it can be controlled.
No one wants a war at this point, but incidents may happen, people may die, and a border conflict, or even a border war, cannot be ruled out. Moscow is coordinating positions with Beijing and talking to Tokyo. It wants to demonstrate it is closely involved in diplomacy on the Korean issue. Right now Moscow looks like a community fire brigade volunteer.

What's the possibility of an all-out war in the Korean Peninsula at this point?

There is a distinction between what I call a border war - fire exchanges across the lines separating South Korea and the North Korea - and a large-scale war. I do not think either side wants such a war. Nor does the US. In the future, a large-scale war on the Korean Peninsula cannot be ruled out, but I hope it can be prevented.
The US has very publicly shown its full support for South Korea. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, have visited Seoul. I am sure that, beyond expressing support for its ally and sympathy for the losses sustained, they have also counseled the South Koreans to be extremely careful in this war of nerves.
The US is increasingly concerned over the developments on the Korean Peninsula. Washington certainly does not want a war, but it does not like Pyongyang seizing the initiative with military provocations and nuclear "surprises."
However, there is not much that the US can do on its own. So it leans on China to rein in its ally. Seen from Washington, Beijing is reluctant to pressure Pyongyang effectively. This adds to tensions in US-China relations. President Hu Jintao's visit to Washington next month promises to be even more interesting.

Recently Russia seems to be taking a more active role in the North Korean issue, including condemning North Korea's artillery exchange with the South. Does this indicate a policy shift of Russia toward North Korea?

Russia's more active policy stance on North Korea meets Russia's strategic, political and economic interests. Pampering Pyongyang did not lead to any positive result in North Korea's behavior. Russia was unable to show it could be a useful "handler" of North Korea for the international community. Moscow came to the conclusion that the Pyongyang rulers were unreliable, not fit to be partners. Also, North Korea is simply dangerous: Its missiles once flew into Russia's economic zone; its military provocations against the South threaten to start a war, possibly with nuclear overtones, close to Russia's borders. In all respects, South Korea is the more preferred partner. It is also a potential source for Russia's technological modernization and a partner in developing Russia's Pacific territories.

Will Russia's more active participation further complicate the North Korean issue? And how will it affect its relationship with China?

On the contrary, a more active Russia may impact the situation positively. Russia's passivity encouraged unhelpful attitudes in Pyongyang. And I don't think that Moscow's activism will negatively impact Russia's relations with China. Beijing and Moscow agree on the need to peacefully resolve all issues pertaining to the Korean Peninsula. There are differences, of course. North Korea is China's ally, and Beijing has much more clout in Pyongyang than Moscow does. Also, China needs North Korea as a buffer between itself and the US forces. By contrast, Russia is more relaxed on the issue of US military presence in Asia. So, China and Russia cannot march in lockstep on Korea, because of their different interests and positions, but as friends and partners they need to continue discussing the situation on the peninsula between themselves.

Russia seems to be increasing its military presence in Northeast Asia, including disrupting a joint military drill between the US and Japan in early December. What signal is Russia trying to send?

The Russian leadership monitors shifts in global strategy, and has upgraded the importance of East Asia and the western Pacific. This part of the world will probably be the most important strategic chessboard in the 21st century. Russia's military presence in the region is moderate.
Except for its missiles and aircraft, it is not capable of projecting power far from its borders. Military reform has only just started, and the rearmament program is just about to begin. I do not believe that the Russian military command planned to disrupt the US-Japan drill. Rather, Russians were sending a message to the Japanese that they were around and capable of protecting the country's interests, such as the current status of the Kuril islands.
What worries Russia in Northeast Asia is not an increase in US influence but the growing tensions in the region. The prospect of a war on the Korean Peninsula, clashes over disputed islands, and increasingly complicated relations between China and the US raise the strategic profile of Asia in the Russian geopolitical mind.

How do you assess prospects for the Six-Party Talks? Will it still be the main platform for solving North Korean issue?

The Six-Party Talks will not solve the North Korean issue, which is broader than the nuclear issue. North Korea will continue using the talks to extract concessions from the US and South Korea. However, South Korea is in no mood to resume the Sunshine policy which is widely seen as a failure.
The North Korean issue is actually an issue about the political regime and the economic system in North Korea, and its relations with the wider world. This issue can only be solved through domestic developments in North Korea. If at some point the rulers in Pyongyang decide to start economic reforms, Chinese-style or Vietnamese-style, the situation will begin to change.
However, they know they would be risking political stability, and therefore their power and possibly also their own freedom, or worse. So they are more likely to continue the present policies, which over time will accumulate enough combustible material for a full-blown crisis.

This interview originally appeared in Global Times.


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