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Russia can curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions

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In Brief

Russia is well-positioned to play a central role in managing the unrestrained acceleration of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. A larger role for Russia to deal with North Korea might yield some progress in scaling back Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions — a potential contribution that is seldom acknowledged in Western public discourse.


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Why Russia? Russia shares a land border with North Korea and has a wealth of experience in dealing with the Kim dynasty, whose installation it directly supported some 70 years ago. History matters. The unique circumstances of North Korea’s founding have generally been a stabilising factor in DPRK–Russian relations. Moreover, Russia may one day be the only country of consequence with whom Pyongyang remains more or less on friendly terms. Although China is still North Korea’s treaty ally and by far its biggest trade partner, relations between Beijing and Pyongyang have recently been marked by growing distrust.

While Russia’s direct trade volume with the DPRK is small (roughly US$100 million per year), as much as one-third of Chinese exports to the DPRK may consist of Russian-origin products, mainly oil and fuel-related. Further, Russia hosts some 30,000 North Korean guest workers, whose earnings are estimated to provide Pyongyang with up to US$170 million in cash annually, according to research by a group of scholars from Moscow and Vladivostok. There is also an unestablished number of North Korean-owned businesses in the country.

Russia is one of the very few destinations for North Korean students, who mostly major in humanities, engineering, and sciences, even though the latter two may soon become off limits due to the latest round of sanctions. In terms of transportation links, Russia is the only country, apart from China, which maintains regular overland traffic with the DPRK and allows Air Koryo, the North Korean flag carrier, to perform scheduled flights.

Finally, by virtue of its strategic location, Russia could offer significant inducements in the form of a trans-Korean gas pipeline, railway and electricity transmission projects linking the Russian Far East to the Korean Peninsula. If implemented, these schemes could greatly boost the economic fortunes of the DPRK. A few years ago Russia already spent roughly US$300 million on the upgrade of a 54-kilometre cross-border railway link from Russia’s Khasan to the North Korean port of Rajin. The Khasan–Rajin venture remains the largest single foreign investment in North Korea, except for South Korean-funded projects.

Like Washington, Moscow is loath to accept a nuclear North Korea, though the Kremlin’s reasons may be somewhat different. Although North Korea’s nuclear test site is just 200 miles from Vladivostok, Russia does not feel directly threatened by Kim’s nukes. However, North Korea’s continued nuclearisation — and the chain reaction of horizontal proliferation this may trigger — will inevitably devalue Russia’s own nuclear arsenal, which it sees as an essential attribute of its great power status and the ultimate guarantee of national security.

Russia clearly has substantial leverage that could be used to inflict considerable pain on the regime, or to reward improved behaviour. That said, Moscow’s role in the Korean peninsula is currently constrained by its quasi-alliance with Beijing. Moscow’s estrangement from the West in the wake of the Ukraine crisis has made it increasingly deferent to Chinese interests in East Asia. In recent years, Russia’s policies on the North Korea problem have largely followed China’s. Yet China is playing its own strategic game in the peninsula, in which the denuclearisation of North Korea is by no means the top priority.

With Donald Trump moving into the White House, prospects emerge for improvement in US–Russia relations. If a Russia–US détente materialises, this will give Moscow more freedom vis-à-vis Beijing, including in the Korean peninsula. Even though the Russo-Chinese ‘strategic partnership’ is likely to continue, Moscow will be more inclined to act as an independent pole in East Asian geopolitics rather than as a passive bystander and Beijing’s junior ally. Russia has great-power ambitions in the Asia Pacific, especially in the Korean peninsula. By holding up the vote on the UN Security Council’s North Korea sanction resolutions in March and November in 2016, Moscow showed its displeasure at being excluded from decision-making within the region.

Diplomatically, Russia is almost ideally placed to play a key negotiating role in finding a multilateral solution to the North Korea conundrum. Moscow is friends with Beijing and Pyongyang, has reasonably good relations with Seoul and has lately enhanced ties with Tokyo. One major reason Russia has kept a low-profile in Korean affairs in recent years is its preoccupation with Ukraine and Syria. If those crises are contained, Moscow will be able to commit to the escalating nuclear problem in the Korean peninsula.

Artyom Lukin is deputy director for Research at the School of Regional and International Studies, Far Eastern Federal University. You can follow him on Twitter at @ArtyomLukin.

Rensselaer Lee is senior fellow at Foreign Policy Research Institute.

One response to “Russia can curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions”

  1. One element not noted in this article is the following: Putin may want the DPRK to continue to pursue its nuclear ambitions as part of his overall strategy of presenting the West with challenges to its stability.

    How this will all play out in the context of a Trump presidency remains to be seen. Will Trump really achieve a rapprochement with Putin? If so, at what price? Will Trump make things better or worse with China?

    There is a great deal of uncertainty right now.

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