Russia has decades of experience in dealing with North Korea on nuclear nonproliferation matters. The former Soviet Union first tried to coax Pyongyang into joining the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) back in the 1960s. Later, in the early 1970s, Soviet diplomats flew to North Korea to explain the virtues of NPT membership. They recall that the delegation was received with great fanfare and the hosts listened politely enough, but Pyongyang remained unresponsive.
The current nuclear and missile crises on the Korean Peninsula figured prominently on the agenda of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov's visit to Pyongyang in late April of this year. He cautioned his hosts against any further escalation following the April 5 missile test, which had earned the condemnation of the U.N. Security Council. But just like 35 years earlier, Moscow's efforts went for naught.
On May 25, North Korea conducted its second nuclear test. The detonation was registered in the northeastern Kilju region, less than 100 miles from the Russian border and 200 miles southwest of Vladivostok. The following day, Pyongyang test-fired two short-range missiles and began preparations for further launches. (At least seven more missiles of various ranges were fired on July 4.)
None of this has pleased the Russian government. "The underground nuclear test by North Korea in an area adjacent to Russian territory . . . is a cause for extreme concern," a spokeswoman for Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said after the test. She added that the people behind the nuclear test bear personal responsibility for undermining the nonproliferation regime. For Moscow, the gravity of the event itself was compounded by its timing. May was the month Russia assumed the rotating chair at the Security Council and a meeting of the Russian-North Korean commission for trade, economic, and science cooperation had been scheduled for the week of the test.
To be clear, Moscow isn't absolving the other members of the Six-Party Talks of their share of responsibility for the worsening crisis--some of them have failed to honor their pledges to North Korea in return for Pyongyang's cooperation. But there's a growing consensus in Moscow that North Korea's behavior is posing a threat to regional security and Russia's national interests. The following circumstances are making Moscow particularly uneasy:
Unlike Iran, North Korea is experiencing dwindling returns on its strategy of playing the permanent Security Council members against each other. On the contrary, Pyongyang's brinkmanship actually is forging agreement between these countries. The improving climate of U.S.-Russian relations also is fostering more productive cooperation between Washington and Moscow on all key nonproliferation problems.
Officially, Russia remains an advocate of political and diplomatic instruments of resolving the current North Korean crisis. A statement to that effect was made at a June meeting between Medvedev and Hu Jintao during the Chinese leader's visit to Russia. That commitment was reaffirmed during a meeting in Moscow on July 4 between Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksey Borodavkin and his Chinese counterpart. But speaking on July 3 in the presence of journalists, a senior Russian diplomat said it wasn't clear when political and diplomatic means might reasonably be expected to bring a resolution to the North Korean crisis. Meanwhile, the Russian expert community is increasingly accepting the idea that alternative solutions should be considered as well.