Russia-DPRK dialogue on nuclear-related issues: what it means for US policy vis-à-vis North Korea

Dual Degree M.A. Program Global Security, Nuclear Policy, and WMD Nonproliferation (MGIMO-MIIS-PIR Center) graduate (2019–2021)
December 17, 2019

The North Korean nuclear issue is one of a few pressing issues in the nonproliferation arena today. There have been many efforts made by the international community to deter North Korea from developing nuclear weapons with little success. Now there is reasonable belief that North Korea possesses dozens of nuclear weapons and also has delivery means to reach various parts of the globe. The history of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program dates back to the 1960s with assistance from the Soviet Union. Russia, as a succeeding country of the Soviet Union, still plays a major role in this issue today. This essay starts with a description of a dialogue between Russia and North Korea on nuclear issues. Moreover, this essay includes an analysis of two different sources that covers this issue, and also what this dialogue means for U.S. policy regarding North Korea.

A dialogue between Russia and the DPRK on nuclear issues dates back to the 1960s when the Soviet Union sent engineers to assist the DPRK them in starting its own peaceful use of nuclear energy program. Soviet engineers helped finish constructing a civilian nuclear reactor in Yongbyon in 1965. It is significantly challenging to weaponize civilian nuclear technology to a military level (Roblin, 2019). Still, the DPRK decided to embark on a journey to develop its civilian technology to a military level with the intent to develop nuclear weapons. Due to North Korea’s growth in nuclear technology in the 1960s and 1970s, the Soviet Union pressed for North Korea to be monitored by International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). After pressure, North Korea finally joined the IAEA in 1972 and the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in 1985 as a non-nuclear weapon state.

North Korea lost its main economic and political supporters after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. After his election into office, President Yeltsin shifted the Soviet Union’s priorities towards building better relations with the west, dissolving cold-war tensions and developing a new relationship with countries, for example, South Korea, which hasn’t been recognized in the past by the Soviet Union. Therefore, with a weakening relationship between Russia and North Korea, North Korea hastily pursued nuclear weapons to guarantee the regime’s survival.

When Vladimir Putin became the president in 2000, Russia and North Korean relations once again improved. During the Six-Party talks, Russia stood firmly on the North Korean side. In 2012, Russia wrote off 90 percent of North Korean debt and even provided food aid. However, Russia was firmly against NK’s nuclear tests which dated back to 2006. Russia actively condemned them and supported resolutions that would put sanctions on North Korea. Yet unlike the United States, Russia emphatically called for multilateral negotiations and appealed against any military actions. 

In 2018, there was a notion that the North Korean nuclear issue was heading towards a peaceful ending. After an escalation of the situation in 2017 characterized by exchanging harsh statements made from both the leaders of North Korea and the United States, the leaders decided to negotiate a peaceful process of denuclearization of North Korea. First, there were talks in Singapore and then in Hanoi, which  ultimately failed to reach an agreement, symbolized first meeting between a leader from North Korea and the United States in person to date. Russia supported the summit (MID, 2018), and it was followed by a meeting between President Putin and Chairman Kim, which also served as a first-time meeting between them. Chairman Kim had declared that North Korea would “advance towards complete denuclearization” (Kim, 2019) from his new year speech. During the meeting with Mr. Kim, Mr. Putin supported North Korea’s decision to denuclearize itself. However, he did not give a definite answer in relieving the sanctions. The current situation regarding the North Korean nuclear issue is a continuation of these meetings. North Korea has not had their sanctions removed, yet it has not conducted any nuclear tests or ICBM tests yet, and in return the United States and South Korea have been delaying joint drills.

If one wants to understand the geopolitics surrounding the Korean Peninsula, one cannot overlook Russia. Russia has been an active player in the Korean Peninsula starting from the 19th century (Lukin, 2018) and still is a major player surrounding the current North Korean nuclear issues. Why is Russia interested in the Korean Peninsula? What are Russia’s concerns? In a narrower sense, because of unsettled North Korean nuclear technology and proliferation issue, but in a broader sense, because of regional strategic balance and potential economic benefit.

First, Russia is concerned about North Korea handling its nuclear technology, this has less to do with the range of a North Korean nuclear weapon covering eastern Russia, but more so because of a potential nuclear disaster. North Koreans have been developing their nuclear facilities by themselves, without help from other countries that have more advanced nuclear technologies. It is dubious as to whether or not North Korean nuclear facilities adhere to international safety standards that have been toughened after the Fukushima incident (Vorontsov, 2014). Russia is one of the border states of North Korea, thus if there is a nuclear disaster the bordering cities of Russia might be impacted.

If North Korea proves that it has successfully mastered ICBM re-entry technology and SLBM techniques, there will be increased pressure in Japan and South Korea. These countries may decide not to rely on the nuclear umbrella of the U.S., but instead to develop their own nuclear weapons. This consideration has already seen as a viable option for both South Korea (Lee, 2019) and Japan (Fitzpatrick, 2019) in the past. If South Korea or Japan pursue nuclear programs, the NPT regime will be seriously undermined. This inherently goes against Russian foreign policy and will undermine Russian nuclear deterrence in the region. More broadly, the situation in East Asia might become unstable and may lead to an arms race between countries in East Asia. Considering that Russia is still under international sanctions, and its economic development has been slow, Russia is not willing to spend millions on the arms race in East Asia. This is the ultimate reason why it wants to exert influence and maintain strategic balance in the region.

Lastly, there is an abundance of economic opportunity to be made when the situation stabilizes. If North Korea reaches a deal with the U.S., sanctions will most likely be lifted and North Korea will revert to its original peaceful use of nuclear energy program. Similar to the 1994 Agreed Framework, North Korea might demand the construction of light water reactors in the deal and Russia’s Rosatom is a competent candidate to construct these. Rosatom is the world’s leading exporter of nuclear reactors, unlike the U.S., which has not built any nuclear reactors for more than 20 years. Japan, whose reliability is being questioned after the Fukushima disaster is also an unlikely contender. There is also an opportunity to connect the Trans-Siberian railroad with the Trans-Korean railroad, which will increase trade between Europe, Russia and the Koreas. Finally, a gas pipeline between Russia and South Korea through North Korea is a feasible option as well (Vorontsov, 2014). This gas pipeline will enable Russia to sell natural gas to South Korea, which will be a lucrative business for Russia, a path to receive commission for North Korea, and a way to diversify a supply chain for South Korea. Unmistakably, a deal that benefits all countries.

How much influence does Russia have on the Korean Peninsula? Russia, as a succeeding state of the Soviet Union, has a shared history with North Korea from the very beginning. Yet, currently, it is questionable whether Russia has the ability to exert substantial influence on North Korea because Chinese influence on North Korea overshadows the Russian one. In 2018, Russia-DPRK trade volume was $34 million whereas China-DPRK trade volume was $2.4 billion; Russian trade volume with North Korea was 70 times less than the Chinese (Snyder, 2019). Not to mention the Chinese subsidy of one billion dollars every year, which is not affordable to Russia (Lukin, 2019). It is also possible that Russia might not try to gain more influence over North Korea since Russia yielded its influence to China in return for Chinese support over Ukraine and the Middle East, regions in which Russia has a paramount interest (Lukin, 2019).

Russia’s relatively low influence is due to Russia’s inconsistent and conflicting stance on North Korea. When North Korea conducts nuclear tests or missile test, Russia stands alongside with the United States and South Korea in condemning North Korea. Numerous times President Putin, or the Russian foreign ministry, has said that Russia condemns North Korean nuclear tests and will not condone North Korea’s actions. Russia has even supported United Nations Security Council resolutions that call for sanctions on North Korea. However, President Putin also has stated that sanctions are useless (Pinchuk, 2017) and made statements such as “North Korea is required to do so much while the other side does nothing at all” (Kremlin, 2018). Russia is even accused of circumventing the very resolution that it supported. In a United Nations report number S/2019/691, Russia and China are accused by the United States and other member states that both countries are illicitly supporting petroleum to North Korea using a ship-to-ship method. These contradicting stance on North Korea makes Russia’s position inconsistent.

In the North Korean nuclear issue, the United States also plays a major role. What does Russia-DPRK dialogue mean to the U.S. Policy? The United States should acknowledge that decades of pressure, containment and deterrence did not prevent North Korea from developing nuclear weapons, and should include another element to solve this issue: diplomacy. One way of reaching a deal through diplomacy is introduced by Alexander Vorontsov and Georgy Toloraya in the report “Military alert on the Korean Peninsula: Time for some conclusions” by the Carnegie Moscow Center. This method that the authors introduce is “based on a number of interlinked bilateral treaties concluded between the participants in the Six-Party Talks” (Vorontsov, 2014). These multiple bilateral treaties are to ensure the stability of the region by legally binding the rights and obligations of two states, and through monitoring by another state within the Six-Party. For example, a treaty between North Korea and the U.S., monitored by China. This idea comes from a logic that a bilateral treaty between two countries is easier to reach than one multilateral agreement between six countries. However, one has to question its viability and whether this method makes the situation more complex. A dozen multilateral treaties is harder to maintain and monitor than one multilateral treaty. Also, North Korea had already proclaimed that it prefers bilateral agreements only with the U.S., which has been proven by the resolution of the Agreed Framework in 1994. The U.S. should decide whether to engage in a bilateral treaty only with DPRK, one multilateral treaty or multiple bilateral treaties suggested as above.

Russia/Soviet Union has always been a stakeholder in the North Korean nuclear issue. It helped North Korea from the very beginning, giving technology and assistance that became the groundwork for its nuclear program. There have been ups and downs between Russia and North Korea. Russia always disapproved in North Korea possessing nuclear weapons, yet it also advocated for lenient sanctions and peaceful process towards denuclearization, though sometimes giving critics impression of inconsistency. Although Russia currently has less influence than China, in the future, if sanctions on North Korea are lifted, Russia will have many renumerative opportunities. This means that Russia will continuously seek a peaceful solution in solving the North Korean nuclear issue.