The North Korean nuclear test: The Russian reaction

By Anton Khlopkov | July 7, 2009

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:

  • The North Korean regime is displaying a growing tendency toward unpredictability and self-isolation. Speaking to the Italian media on July 4, Medvedev said that compared to Iran, the North Korean situation "worries me more because whereas Iran is maintaining dialogue with the international community, North Korea has practically ceased all contacts with the outside world." He added, "At the same time, North Korea continues nuclear tests and the launches of short, intermediate, and longer-than-intermediate range missiles. . . . Obviously, we are concerned by this. We are in close territorial proximity to that country."
  • No understanding has been reached with North Korea about halting its exports of nuclear technology, although the issue has been raised at the Six-Party Talks. There also is sufficient reason to believe that the North Korean nuclear program is fomenting the development of nuclear technology and expertise in other countries–a matter of utmost concern for Russia. Medvedev's spokeswoman said in late May that Moscow expects North Korea to take a responsible approach to the issue of nonproliferation of WMD. With this concern looming large in its mind, Russia has agreed to inspections of ships in open waters that are suspected of carrying banned cargo to and from North Korea.
  • The North Korean situation is setting a dangerous precedent for the nonproliferation regime. The country has withdrawn from the NPT and conducted two nuclear tests. And without progress on North Korea, the crisis over the Iranian nuclear program will be much more intractable. Rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula, on top of existing concerns about Iran, Pakistan, and Syria, are especially worrisome ahead of the 2010 NPT Review Conference.
  • North Korea's actions are undermining efforts by Russia and other countries to speed up the signing, ratification, and entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which Moscow ratified in 2000.
  • Pyongyang's actions also can be used by the United States and other nations in the region as a pretext to deploy an anti-ballistic missile system in Northeast Asia, which could destabilize the balance of power there.

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.

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