Russia’s East Asian Strategy: The Korean Challenge

The following is a translation of the article which originally appeared in Russia in Global Affairs.

The situation on the Korean Peninsula has changed radically since the end of 2006. Although these changes are not irreversible, they have laid the groundwork for a new geopolitical reality in which Korea will play a greater and a much different role than it has done in the past.

The North Korean nuclear test on October 9, 2006 did produce one result. In spite of sanctions imposed by the UN, Washington made direct contact with North Korea – something it had rejected before – at the end of the same month. A secret bilateral meeting between the North Koreans and the U.S. in January 2007 in Berlin, resulted in working out the main details of a mutual compromise. The six negotiating countries “ratified” the accords in a public statement on February 13, 2007.

The agreement stipulated that all nuclear facilities known to exist in North Korea be disabled and the disclosure of all nuclear programs by Pyongyang, while the opposite side agreed to move toward normalizing diplomatic relations and economic aid. There are pitfalls and difficulties, but North Korea started disabling its nuclear facilities with U.S. aid in 2007, while Washington promised that it would drop North Korea from its list of countries that sponsor terrorism and exempt it from the Trading with the Enemy Act. (North Koreans consider the latter, perhaps mistakenly, a sign of future normalization and the possibility to get access to international financial resources, which is more important for them than energy aid. It is not so big as to solve country’s energy problem.)

Where DID the Breakthrough Come From?

Why did the peace process suddenly change after fifteen years of stalemate, especially since 80 percent of the current plan of action was featured in the framework agreement that the Clinton administration and the North Korean government signed back in 1994? It broke down in the 1990s due to the U.S.’s inaction in implementing vital parts of it and suspicions of North Korea’s nuclear activity. The Bush administration classified Pyongyang as part of the “Axis of Evil” and wanted to isolate and pressure the country. Events concerning the nuclear issue could be described as a series of failure in attempts to ensure security and the status quo on the Korean Peninsula using non-military means including muscle-flexing and blackmail – by the weaker party in this case.

Paradoxically, one must admit that the situation eventually improved thanks to Pyongyang’s offensive and often provocative policies toward the world’s only superpower.

The situation has several main specific features:

· North Korea has obtained a de facto nuclear status. It has not been recognized by the world community, but exerts influence on political processes and decisions;

· In many ways this is the cause for an about-face in U.S. policy that ranged from pressure and attempts to topple the North Korean regime to engagement. The causes of this lie at the surface. Washington badly needs achievements in foreign policy against the background of growing problems in Iraq and Iran and the intensifying internal political struggle. The normalization of relations with Pyongyang does not threaten U.S. interests in any way, except for stirring ideological idiosyncrasies;

· After the stereotypes were discarded, U.S. and North Korean diplomats easily reached an agreement on the terms for halting Pyongyang’s nuclear program in exchange for security guarantees (including the normalization of bilateral relations) and economic aid, as this formula was agreed on long ago;

· There is no confidence at this time that the pivot in U.S. policies, which was borne out of tactical, transitory and personal factors, is irreversible. Progress in this sphere actually hinges on the persistency of the President and the Secretary of State and especially Assistant Secretary. There are well-grounded doubts as to whether influential forces in Washington have fully renounced the strategic goal of replacing the North Korean regime, albeit by milder methods rather than through the use of force. Yet the existing reality obstructs the materialization of such aspirations – over the short term at least. This will help consolidate positive tendencies;

· The emergence of grounds for peaceful coexistence between North and South Korea has proven to be a tangible factor and the inter-Korean summit of October 2007 provided a graphic illustration of this. Pyongyang and Seoul reached a consensus on building separate statehoods simultaneously with a growing economic and, at a later date, cultural integration of both countries. South Korea has assumed the role of a self-styled sponsor of and a counselor to North Korea in the international arena, pushing China aside in this traditional capacity. South Korean economic aid has turned into the main factor for North Korea’s survival. The conservative Lee Myong Bak administration will most likely not change the basics of this set up, as it corresponds to the ROK’s own long-term national interests;

· The steady progress of the Six Party Talks builds up the potential for transforming them into a permanently functioning mechanism for peace and stability in Northeast Asia.

All of these factors inspire hope that, regardless of internal political changes such as the advent of a new and conservative Lee Myong Bak administration in the ROK and prospects for a Democratic administration in the U.S, a tense confrontation will not happen. It looks like the pragmatic part of the political elite in the West, to say nothing of South Korea, has developed a clear realization of the catastrophic aftermaths (ranging up to a civil war) that cataclysms in North Korea might have for the entire region. Additionally, rising awareness in Seoul that a North Korean collapse and the subsequent need to shoulder responsibility for the neighbor (the cost of restoring the North Korean economy could run over $1 trillion) would undermine South Korea’s successful model of economic progress as a country integrated into the global economy.


Finding a solution to the nuclear problem will be the most crucial factor for political processes both inside and outside of North Korea. The following scenarios are possible in this regard.

Scenario 1. The talks are successful, Pyongyang discloses and dismantles all nuclear facilities and programs and, most importantly, signs an agreement to destroy its stocks of fissile materials and nuclear devices. This lays the basis for the normalization of North Korea’s relations with the U.S., if only the U.S. would agree to a reasonable degree of verification (or risk stalemate). The Six Party Talks lay the foundation for a multilateral maintenance of peace, while other countries refrain from interfering in Pyongyang’s internal affairs. The world community provides large-scale aid to Pyongyang. One touchy problem may be the construction of a light water nuclear reactor (something that was promised to North Korea in the statement of September 19, 2005). A reduction in external threats and interaction with the world economy (especially with South Korea) may prompt Pyongyang to try an introduction of market economic levers that will be handled by the existing political elite.

It remains to be seen whether such impressive results can be achieved before the 2008 presidential election in the U.S. The new administration might not feel that it has to fulfill the agreements reached by its predecessors, all the more so that a legally binding and verified plan of action has not emerged so far. If the Democrats win the White House, the fear of rebukes for liberalism might restrict their freedom to make concessions to countries like North Korea, especially if new grudges against Pyongyang are voiced, including claims that it ostensibly handed over nuclear technology to third countries (Israel bombed a facility in Syria in September 2007 that supposedly was a nuclear power unit being built with North Korean assistance).

Japan, which is concerned about the fate of its citizens kidnapped by North Korea in the past, is also standing in the way of normalization between the U.S. and North Korea and Washington cannot ignore the interests of its closest ally.

Scenario 2(most realistic). North Korea maintains the status of a country having limited nuclear potential. The world community may reconcile itself to this fact and grudgingly admit it has no means for full denuclearization. However, a tacit understanding is reached that Pyongyang is supposed to abstain from perfecting the nuclear weapons it already has, increasing their stockpiles, resorting to nuclear blackmail or proliferating nuclear technologies, the latter being the most important. Dismantling nuclear facilities and programs should be a precondition in this case.

If the international community begins to accept Pyongyang’s “Indo-Pakistani” status, this will result in highly deplorable international echoes and will impact the non-proliferation regime. That is why the halfway-solution may be disguised in a continuation of talks on North Korea’s final nuclear disarmament or on the country’s reverting to the format of the non-proliferation treaty as a non-nuclear state. The fruitlessness of these negotiations will slow normalization of relations with the West, but will not stop it altogether. Displays of “dignified” conduct on the international stage will enable Pyongyang to continue receiving economic aid even in the absence of visible changes inside the country. However, the liberalization of the regime will continue in one form or another.

If a changed North Korea manages to ensure its external security through diplomatic methods, it will not need weapons of mass destruction in a more distant future and will give them up voluntarily (remember South Africa destroyed its nuclear arsenals). This is far from the worst scenario and it will eventually bring a solution to the problems of the Korean Peninsula. Implementing this scenario depends on the continuity of U.S. policies toward a dialogue with North Korea, on the one hand, and on the North Korean leadership’s self-restraint and readiness to avoid provocation.

Scenario 3. One cannot rule out a possible deterioration in the situation due to conflicts, for instance, involving North Korea’s ambitions to keep nuclear weapons or ways of suspending the nuclear program or over the problem of providing a nuclear power plant to North Korea. This may be fuelled by a range of circumstances, such as the success of U.S. troops in Iraq, an unexpected untangling of the Iranian nuclear issue, internal political grappling in the U.S. during the election campaign, a tougher approach toward the North on the part of the new South Korean president or Pyongyang’s own reckless actions.

Scenario 4. A reverting to forceful methods is not totally excluded – it may be caused by a crisis inside North Korea, for instance, in case of Kim Jong Il’s departure from power and the subsequent fight for “succession to the throne,” or by popular unrest, or by a collapse of the system of government. However, this scenario is not very likely and, if it ever happens, does not necessarily imply a re-emergence of attempts to implement a forceful solution. China and South Korea are the two powers that have paramount interest in preventing military intervention in North Korea and they will attempt to use all possible measures (including economic ones) to minimize the risks of a U.S. incursion.

In the short term, non-dramatic and step-by-step developments around the North Korean nuclear program with very gradual positive trends seem to be quite a realistic prospect. All the main actors are interested in this, but everyone should be ready for possible new breakdowns, pull-backs, crises, and nerve-wracking tactics Pyongyang will yet use in a chase for maximum concessions. However, if the efforts prove successful, conditions will appear for the modernization of the country with support from other states and for its opening to the outside world, while the ruling leaders will keep their hands on the levers of power.

Russia’s interests would benefit from this course of events, too, and Moscow can step up its role in the Korean settlement process, including economic projects, in order to consolidate its positions in Asia, especially in the light of the growing competition on “the Korean front.”

Long-term prospects conceal far more serious strategic challenges. It is important to weigh now what the future geopolitical layout of Northeast Asia will be like after the ongoing processes would follow their logic of development. For the first time after the Korean War the geopolitical balance in the region will experience a major change.

How could North Korea Change?

Possible changes inside North Korea and in its interaction with the outside world are the most important factors for regional security and development. The economic bankruptcy which is inevitable should the current economic policies be conserved would make the totalitarian regime unstable. However the current improvement in the country’s international standing and economic situation has already sparked attempts by North Korean leaders to crack down on “petty proprietary instincts,” “bourgeois showings,” and “penetrations of alien culture” (coming from South Korea). Conservatives and officials from institutions of power continue to have a large influence on the political elite and young cadres are still being recruited in those milieus.

Yet there are quarters in Pyongyang that want change. There is growing dissatisfaction among the population and an increasing external influence. This is a natural result of a partial withdrawal from self-isolation and the looming normalization of relations with the West and will push the country’s leadership toward a tough choice – between a collapse and an all-embracing systemic transformation. The problem is whether the political elite will be able to lead the transformation or will act as a diehard and watch the country disintegrate.

It looks like the North Korean leadership has recognized that it would be impossible to escape that choice and it is readying itself for reforms, apparently hoping that this will help prop up the regime and avoid collisions. The main condition here is one hundred percent external security. However, guarantees of security should not become a mandate for Pyongyang to hold onto the system. On the contrary, the international community should precondition guarantees to the North Korean state by the latter’s “drift toward the norm” (or ‘conventionalization’).

Some innovations in the North Korean economy show that changes are budding. They are emerging in the form of a paradigm that has been tested many times in transition economies. It would be appropriate to make references to China here, as well as to Vietnam and Russia.

North Korea’s command-and-control system of the distribution of commodities and finances virtually collapsed in the 1990s. The abrupt ending of aid from Socialist countries and isolation ignited an economic crisis and caused a massive famine, which forced the North Koreans to engage in simplest forms of bartering to survive. The process of marketization has already become practically irreversible and the North Korean economy has become a multi-sectoral one. Market economy outlets – retail trade, shuttle traders, joint ventures and free economic zones – coexist with a practically dysfunctional state sector. A shadow (criminalized) economy also exists.

Ownership relations are also showing signs of change. One should not exclude the emergence of semi-state-owned – and eventually privatized by the political elite – conglomerates like the South Korean chaebol amalgamations. But these processes are gradual and hidden from view, as their failure may not only cause a change in the regime, but also destroy the North Korean statehood as such.

Change is creeping into ideological priorities at the same time. Communist phraseology is step by step giving way to the nationalistic one, and growing cooperation with South Korea plays a noticeable role in this process. The Korean nation in the North and the South may quite possibly consolidate around the idea of winning a worthy place in the world for itself. This fits perfectly into the North Korean Juche (Self-Reliance) mold, which incidentally were invented in Korea long before the import of any Communist theories.

The North Korean regime has a chance to survive if it conducts a cleverly thought-out policy and simultaneously improves the living standards of its citizens. We may see a totally different North Korea in fifteen to twenty years – an authoritarian (not totalitarian) country with a market (or quasi-market in the beginning) economy and tight links to South Korea. Similar countries exist and if North Korea’s confrontation with the West and especially with the U.S. and Japan ends, there will be no reason anymore for assigning the ‘rogue status’ to Pyongyang.

Nationalistic moods in the North strike home to the South Koreans and the emergence of new generations of leaders may lead to a re-evaluation of the problem of Korea’s reunification. Seoul has realized that the two Korean states must work toward a long-term peaceful coexistence for a start. The most sagacious South Korean politicians espouse rather egotistic considerations, suggesting that only the maintenance of North Korea’s independence in one or another form can prevent a spread of its problems to the rest of the nation and thus avert the outbreak of a sweeping political, social and economic crisis.

It can also not be ruled out that a confederation coupled with a significant regional autonomy will prove the most viable form of state organization in the future. This formula was de facto coordinated by the leaders of the North and South at their first summit in 2000. Their agreements indicated that the processes of national reconciliation and rapprochement should develop in an evolutionary way beginning with non-political spheres, and should take account of the integration experience of nations in other parts of the world.

The reunification of the two countries is a distant prospect. The two countries should first level out their development and overhaul their relationship before practical discussions of this issue can begin.

Six-Party Talks and the RegionAL ARCHITECTURE’s Future

The process of bringing the peace to the Korean Peninsula started with a search for solutions to the North Korean nuclear problem, but the success of this process looks problematic without the adoption of broader principles of interaction between the countries involved. The system of confrontation between blocs that guaranteed the status quo in Korea in the past should be replaced by a new foundation of security. This is critical especially in the light of a nascent standoff between China, on the one hand, and the U.S. and Japan, on the other, which both sides would like to avoid in principle. All these factors lay the groundwork for a broader mandate to the six-nation process and would be essential for actual implementation of the possible the agreements to be reached, as well as for coordinating economic aid to North Korea. The experience the six negotiating countries have gained could lead to a gradual expansion of the scope of the problems discussed.

The growing internationalization of economic life, the cross-border nature of the new challenges and threats, and the current migration in Northeast Asia require an instrument of interstate coordination that would function irrespective of the Korean problem. The idea of institutionalizing the six-party mechanism (up to creating an Northeast Asian Security and Cooperation Organization) has for some time been a subject of discussions.

What mandate could such a multilateral organization have in the Northeast Asian region?

· A search for approaches to forming a collective and comprehensive security system. For this purpose, the sides should begin designing trust-building measures for the prevention of maritime and air incidents, notifications about military exercises and inviting observers to monitor them, annual reviews of defense doctrines (The White Books), etc. Ensuring security of maritime communication lines in northeast Asia and to the south of it may also be relevant;

· Elaboration of countermeasures to non-conventional threats and challenges – assistance during natural calamities, as well as fighting epidemics, environmental problems, cross-border crime, drug trafficking, and illegal migration;

· Discussion of multilateral economic projects and coordination of regional economic policies, particularly laying out common approaches to setting up new zones for free trade and reforming existing ones. Russia is particularly interested in the latter as an intensification of regional integration may otherwise leave it on the sidelines;

· The setting up of an infrastructure for inter-civilizational and inter-ethnic contacts and rapprochement in the region where historical ethnic strife exists. It is important to develop joint projects in culture, science and education and to stimulate multilateral humanitarian exchanges with due account of experience gained at bilateral negotiations.

This multilateral process is relevant – in one degree or another – for most countries in Northeast Asia, and especially for China as the “host” of the six-party diplomatic process. Beijing is obviously inclined to turning the six-nation talks into one more international organization under its auspices (considering its experience in the formation of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization). The Chinese would like to consolidate their influence in the region and on the global plane, and “soft adhesion” to U.S. policies in Northeast Asia through such an organization might be instrumental in this sense.

The U.S. is usually pessimistic about such regional associations, but it has recently shown interest in this particular opportunity. Washington typically regards multilateral formats as tools of China’s deterrence and a chance to strengthen its own position in the region.

Seoul wants to turn the Korean Peninsula into the economic center of the region. South Korea is positioning itself as a counterweight and a go-between middle power that could have mediatory functions precisely in the format of the multilateral mechanism.

North Korea is currently undecided, but its apprehensive attitude toward organizations that “restrict sovereignty” is well known. Nonetheless, Pyongyang might become interested in the opportunities offered by an international structure committed to observing North Korea’s legitimate rights in the international arena, as well as in access to resources.

Russia has traditionally spoken in favor of a multilateral system of security in Northeast Asia, although the specific advantages of Russia’s participation in an association of this kind have not been clearly stated so far. Given the relative weakness of Moscow’s positions in Northeast Asia, engagement in a multilateral mechanism would presumably empower Russia to play a full-fledged role in decision-making. The multilateral format also has significance for Russia’s equitable presence in the Far East and thus avoids the slide into the position of a resource vault for Northeast Asia’s economic growth.

If the processes described above continue developing, they will kick off sizable geopolitical shifts. A decrease in the U.S. role in Korea may bring about a de-facto relocation of the line of China’s deterrence eastwards to Japan. Until fairly recently it was impossible to consider that American troops would pull out of the Korean Peninsula, but this is very possible to imagine today. A deeper integration between the two Koreas will put China’s ambitions to “global domination” in the face of powerful counteraction. Japan, too, will see its field for maneuvering shrink, as the two Korean states will then play a much more independent role in regional and global affairs.

Russia’s Interests and Policies

How will all this affect Russian policy and interests in the region? It appears that the possible benefits outweigh the hypothetical problems.

· There are not many disagreements between Seoul, Pyongyang, Washington and Beijing and Moscow on matters concerning regional stability. A deepening of coordination depends first and foremost on Russia’s readiness to render it more attention and resources.

· Good-neighborly relations with both Koreas would help Russia use the Korean factor to balance off the influence of China and Japan in the region and vis-à-vis the U.S. All the more so that the Koreans would need a counterbalance as they build more independent relations with the centers of global power. Russia is quite suitable for this. In this light the progress of relations with both Koreas not only has a value per se, but also has a broader political significance;

· Russia successfully avoided being drawn into the inter-Korean confrontation on either side in the 1990s and now it can get some of the political and economic dividends. Incipient trilateral projects in railway transportation and in the energy sector seem to be particularly promising. Russia may become a “Eurasian bridge,” which will speed up the development of its Far Eastern regions and facilitate its deeper integration in the Asian economic space;

· Moscow should make its interest in North Korea’s denuclearization more pronounced, show its readiness to assist this process, and take part in providing economic aid to Pyongyang in the framework of multilateral agreements. This is necessary for a deeper understanding with other parties to the peace process (and China and the U.S. in particular), as well as to ensure that Russia does not have any hidden agendas and its increasing presence in Korea will not damage other players. It is inadmissible to let Russia’s role in regional processes slide into a situation where it can often be criticized for its inactivity. The maintenance of that role needs political will backed up by resources. This in turn will require the elimination of inter-departmental disunities and the coordination of efforts at the political level;

· Participants in multilateral processes can promote their interests through a search for compromise rather than through face-to-face collisions (the way it has happened in the past). This means that an institutional affirmation of the Northeast Asian security and cooperation mechanism does not run counter to Russia’s interests at least. It might play an important role in a changeover from contentions based on mutual deterrence to a system of cooperation/competition grounded in the balance of interests, i.e. in a ‘concert of powers.’

· There is no direct opposition to Russian leadership in designing Northeast Asian security and cooperation concepts, all the more so that, as shown by past experience, other parties to the six-nation process do not object to ceding this role to Moscow.

Washington and Beijing would obviously like to avoid confrontation around a problem that does not translate into practical policies yet, and hence they have taken a wait-and-see stance. Japan is fixed on narrower problems and it has not formulated the basic ideological parameters of its positioning in the region so far. South Korea, in spite of all its ambitions, will scarcely have enough vigor to claim the role of a regional leader for integration, although its resources can be drawn in for this purpose.

Russia now has a chance of getting an attractive niche in Northeast Asian affairs now – peacefully, without uselessly irritating its partners and avoiding considerable costs. The Russian position in the region may in some measure resemble (although with a much smaller military element) the one that Russia had in post-Versailles Europe, when the absence of conflicts with other major players allowed it to play a balancing role.