North Korean leader Kim Jong Un arrived in Russia today for a meeting with President Vladimir Putin. For Kim this is a logical step. Aside from the fact that his country shares a border and has traditionally friendly relations with Russia, Kim needs to diversify his big-power relations and balance the influence of China. He hasn’t yet succeeded in doing so with the United States; and now it looks like he may decide to turn to Russia for support. Despite Russia’s past vote in favor of sanctions on Kim’s regime, Moscow has many reasons not to lean too hard on Kim over nuclear disarmament.
Many believe the Kremlin voted for United Nations Security Council sanctions on North Korea out of pressure, and arguably it was a vote that went against Russia’s own economic interests and views on sanctions. But the Kim-Putin summit may present an opportunity for Russian leadership to clarify its North Korea policy. On paper, Russia opposes North Korea’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. The North, after all, had once been a non-nuclear-weapons state, a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Russia considers the North’s nuclear ambitions as a so-called “Korean Peninsula nuclear issue.” In that context, Russia views a host of actions, including the lifting of the US nuclear umbrella over South Korea and Japan as legitimate bargaining chips for denuclearizing the North. Obviously, that might be an impossible ask. But for Russia, some things are worse than a nuclear-armed Pyongyang. Russia, like China, views a stable North Korea as more important than having the country forgo its nuclear weapons. And importantly, a nuclear North Korea will not fall under the total influence of China and thus can serve as a buffer capable of deterring any military incursions by Beijing.
North Korean nuclear weapons and denuclearization. Russia continues to consider the North as a party to the NPT, arguing that Russia recognizes only those nuclear countries that had produced and tested nuclear weapons before January 1, 1967, as nuclear weapons states. Russia refuses to make distinctions among the de facto nuclear nations, including the North, and categorizes it, along with Israel, India, and Pakistan, as a nonnuclear country. Despite considering the North’s nuclear weapons illegitimate, the Kremlin wants to see measures to ensure international security accompany calls for disarmament–and adherence to the NPT–for the “unofficial nuclear powers.”
Resolving the problem of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs says, “is impossible without reducing overall military and political tensions, refusing to build up military infrastructure, reducing the scale of maneuvers, and building trust between the states of the region.”
It takes two to denuclearize. Based on how Russia views issues on the Korean Peninsula, it seems clear that a resolution of the nuclear proliferation problem posed by the North will require, at a minimum, the denuclearization of the entire peninsula. The unilateral disarmament of the North is an impossible demand. Pyongyang now relies on nuclear weapons as its main deterrent against large-scale enemy aggression, even aggression which only uses conventional weapons. From this point-of-view, real denuclearization of the entire Korean Peninsula would be more acceptable for the North. But the United States would need to remove its nuclear umbrella guarantees for South Korea. The South cannot be considered nonnuclear as long as it can rely on another country’s nuclear weapons. Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula would require not only the North’s nuclear disarmament, but also complete, verifiable, and irreversible removal of the US nuclear arsenal, including nuclear-armed bombers and submarines on the peninsula. Indeed, it means disarmament of the United States, which is as impossible as unilateral disarmament of the North.
North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. Even denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is itself only a partial solution: a viable solution must also take into account the greater regional security environment. Indeed, the security architecture in Northeast Asia has been in flux for decades. And for many years, countries have used North Korea’s nuclear program as justification for military buildup. This dynamic has produced a regional arms race. Countries have modernized their forces and weaponry and North Korea has made dramatic progress in nuclear weapons and missile development. Аnd the United States has contributed to this phenomenon by agreeing to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system on the Korean Peninsula, a rather useless defense against North Korea, but quite capable against Chinese missiles. Russia and China are improving their strategic capabilities, developing hypersonic weapons to overcome US missile defenses. Their expert communities are discussing ideas such as collective missile defense systems. Japan, under the pretext of protection against North Korea, has modernized its military, exceeding the needs of self-defense, and now is considering deployment of US missile defense systems on its territory. The arms race involves a wide sphere of countries, including India, Pakistan, Iran, and others.
North Korean security. At the Eastern Economic Forum in 2017, Putin seemed empathetic to North Korea’s quest for nuclear weaponry: “They know full-well how the situation developed, for example, in Iraq … and they see possession of nuclear weapons and missiles as the only way to defend themselves.” Such statements may indicate that Russia understands North Korea’s motives for going nuclear and does not see any alternatives.
Indeed, Russia can offer little to North Korea in the absence of an effective military cooperation treaty. The treaty between North Korea and Russia, which was signed in 2000 in order to update the 1961 North Korean-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance, has no clause on military cooperation. A Chinese treaty with North Korea, meanwhile, requires that China aid Pyongyang only if a third country attacks the North. Moreover, China sometimes seems to question its obligations under the treaty.
For North Korea relying on one’s own forces (including nuclear weapons) offers more security than any treaty.
A significant question is whether North Korea, deprived of its own nuclear deterrent, would need another country’s nuclear umbrella to guarantee its security. Many experts believe China is most likely the country to do that. But Russian experts, however, argue that North Korea has decided not to rely upon big countries’ nuclear umbrellas. While China’s nuclear umbrella could provide North Korea more security than its own arsenal, this protection contradicts the concept of denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula.
Another strike against the idea that North Korea would settle for the protection of someone else’s nuclear umbrella is that the notion doesn’t take into account Pyongyang’s accomplishments or pride. North Korea has already acquired nuclear weapons and has developed good enough systems to bring the United States to the negotiating table. Such a country is unlikely to exchange security assurances for what it views as a pretty good deterrent. Also, much of North Korea’s official ideology is wrapped up in the concept of having nuclear weapons. Nuclear status is even enshrined in the country’s constitution. Kim Jong Un has called his country the “nuclear power in the East,” thus confirming a special status and role for nuclear weapons. They aren’t just the main deterrent in its arsenal but also a symbol of prestige and an indicator of the efficacy of the country’s current political course. If Kim abandoned these weapons, he would be inviting serious consequences for his leadership domestically—as he also would were he to form a military alliance with a big power. These consequences could include society and regime destabilization.
Russia wants a stable North more than a non-nuclear North. Although, Russia continues to officially oppose North Korea’s nuclear status on the basis of its strict interpretation of the NPT, experts already speak about “nuclear emancipation” for the North, meaning recognition of its status as a lesser nuclear state. These ideas coincide with an idea some Chinese scholars have developed whereby North Korea would reduce its nuclear arsenal but keep some weapons as a deterrent. From Russia’s perspective, nuclear weapons now guarantee the security of the North Korean regime. The weapons can prevent attempts at violent regime change by external force. Through them, North Korean leadership has the independence to make changes within its borders. That’s good for Russia.
The security of Kim’s regime, in turn, guarantees stability near Russia’s eastern borders. For Russia, a stable North Korean regime guarantees the absence of refugees flows, a normal feature of conflict zones, but also prevents US troops from deploying in a potentially disintegrating North. And with its nuclear weapons as diplomatic leverage, North Korea can maintain some independence from China. Thus, Moscow views Kim’s stability as providing something of a buffer between Russia and China.
Do North Korean nuclear weapons pose a threat to Russia? From Moscow’s perspective, the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia are relatively stable and don’t pose any immediate threats to security. Relations between Russia and North Korea are neutral, if not friendly. North Korean leadership appreciates Russia’s cautious, slow approach to the relationship, in contrast to China’s activist take on issues on the Korean Peninsula. Russia’s emphasis on the need to respect state sovereignty as a fundamental principle of international relations further lubricates the bilateral relationship: Russia avoids any attempt to interfere in the internal affairs of the North, so Pyongyang does not consider Russia as an external threat.
Many Russian analysts consider North Korea’s nuclear program to be defensive. Looking at the North’s nuclear doctrine, it seems likely the country wouldn’t use its nuclear weapons against a country that isn’t planning an attack. While little is known about Russia’s military planning beyond its publicly available doctrines, the specifics of the bilateral relations it holds with the North may guarantee that Russia has no plans to attack its neighbor.
But there is one scenario whereby North Korea’s nuclear weapons could threaten Russia. If Kim launches missiles against the United States, experts say they’ll fly over Russian territory. A US anti-missile response could, thus, risk a war between Russia and the United States. But Russian experts don’t believe that North Korea would ever attack the United States; they consider Kim Jong Un too rational for that.
Why did Russia support UN sanctions? While there is little threat to Russia from North Korean weapons, there remains the question of why Russia supported the last Security Council resolution imposing sanctions against the North. One potential explanation is that the situation on the Korean Peninsula was really tense, and Russia preferred economic pressure to military actions by the United States. But the risk of invasion decreased significantly when the North achieved serious progress in its nuclear and missile programs and thus acquired a minimal nuclear deterrent. Supporting sanctions in September 2017 damaged economic interests in Russia’s Far East and created other economic obstacles for Russia. Even as Russia voted for sanctions, Moscow was convinced they were ineffective in halting the North’s nuclear ambitions. Indeed, decades of sanctions have had little discernible impact on North Korea’s intention to develop its nuclear potential. On the contrary, they pushed the country to accelerate the pace of its development. And it was, in fact, China that benefited from the latest sanctions. China could monopolize trade relations with Pyongyang, retaining its influence on North Korean leadership. Thus it’s hard to see what Russia gets from supporting sanctions.
Russia’s official position on North Korean nuclear weapons belies the fact that Moscow, in fact, sees some benefits to the North having a nuclear deterrent. Meanwhile, Russia’s support of UN sanctions doesn’t have much logical basis. But as US President Donald Trump’s recent visit with Kim in Vietnam illustrated, negotiations with North Korea can be fluid and unpredictable. Russia has not yet developed its own strategy on the Korean Peninsula. Kim’s visit with Putin poses the question: Is Russia is ready to deal with North Korea in its own way?