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Andrey Kortunov

Ph.D. in History, Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council, RIAC member

It turns out that Pyongyang is emerging victorious from the years-long confrontation between North Korea and the international community on the nuclear issue, while everyone else is left on the losing side. The sooner the major players realize that they have to conduct a dialogue with North Korea from a position of weakness, not strength, the greater their chances will be to turn the tables in the future. Or at least force a tie.

When defining a strategy for the settlement of the Korean crisis, the international community must rely on two basic principles. First, peace on the Korean Peninsula is more important than the North Korea’s nuclear disarmament. Second, the complete rejection of Pyongyang as a full-fledged member of the “nuclear club” does not necessarily mean a similar refusal to negotiate with North Korea as a de-facto nuclear power. This is a long-term task. And any step in the right direction, no matter how modest, will contribute significantly to stabilizing the situation on the peninsula. Any kind of halfway, short-term tactical agreement with North Korea is greatly preferable to nuclear war or persistent tension in Northeast Asia.

What are the current possibilities for compromise?

  • The starting point of the Russia–China Roadmap is the “double freeze” – that is, North Korea suspends its missile launches and nuclear tests while the United States and South Korea put military exercises in the region on hold.
  • Various confidence-building measures on the Korean Peninsula, including the exchange of information, observer visits, military contacts, etc. would help overcome the crisis.
  • International cooperation to trace possible cases of nuclear and ballistic missile technology being transferred to third countries needs to be stepped up.
  • Maximum efforts must be exerted to build multilateral cooperation on missile defence in Northeast Asia.
  • Everything possible must be done to preserve, unconditionally, the multilateral agreement on the Iranian nuclear dossier.

It would be best for Russia to play the role of “honest broker” in this conflict. In a sense, Russia’s relative weakness in Northeast Asia is actually an advantage for Moscow as a channel of cooperation with Pyongyang.

The crisis unfolding before our very eyes with regard to North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs did not appear today, or even yesterday. Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions did not come out of nowhere. They are natural, and in a sense logical, reaction of the North Korean leadership to the deepening economic and technological gap between the two Koreas. It was some 40 or 50 years ago that the top brass in Pyongyang were forced to come to the inevitable, albeit unpleasant conclusion, that a balance in terms of conventional arms with South Korea would be impossible to maintain in the long run. An asymmetric response to the ever-growing economic and technological superiority of the South, reinforced by the overwhelming military might of the United States, was needed. Their response was to develop nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.

For decades, these programmes had their ups and downs, increased their speed and slowed down. But the overall course of the North Korean leadership remained the same, as did the international community’s outright refusal to acknowledge North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. The arrival of the Donald Trump administration, with his harsh rhetoric and tendency to flex his country’s military muscles, has only triggered the crisis to move a latent confrontation to an escalation.

Putting the emotions aside, the obvious must be stated here: it turns out that Pyongyang is emerging victorious from the years-long confrontation between North Korea and the international community on the nuclear issue, while everyone else is left on the losing side. And now dialogue with the North Korean leadership has to be conducted from a position of weakness, rather than one of strength. The sooner the major players realize this depressing reality, the greater their chances will be to turn the tables in the future. Or at least force a tie.

Recognizing that Impossibility of Disarmament

Is it possible to achieve the full and unconditional nuclear disarmament of North Korea? Let us note here that there are practically no examples in history of a nuclear state voluntarily giving up its nuclear arms. Major successes in terms of non-proliferation concern the earlier stages of nuclear programmes implemented by countries aspiring to join the “nuclear club” (South Africa, Argentina, Brazil, Egypt, Libya, etc.). Voluntary or even forced “disarmament” of an established nuclear state has never been done. The renunciation of nuclear weapons by former Soviet states (Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus) can hardly be seen as a precedent for North Korea: in the early 1990s, it was a matter of the fate of the Soviet Union’s strategic legacy, not that of hard-won national nuclear programmes. And the process of nuclear “disarmament” in the post-Soviet space proceeded in parallel with that of the formation of new states, and probably overtook it altogether.

International community thus faces a serious challenge when it comes to North Korea. Three approaches to resolving the issue are currently being discussed: the military approach, the economic approach and the diplomatic approach. The first approach involves “surgical” military action against North Korean nuclear and missile facilities. The second concerns stepping up international economic sanctions designed in the long run to force Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons and their delivery systems. And the third approach assumes the creation of a system of international guarantees with regard to North Korea’s security that would make nuclear weapons unnecessary for Pyongyang – even in the eyes of the North Korean leadership, which is extremely sensitive to real or perceived security threats. Sometimes it is proposed to combine elements of the second and third approaches, with the threat of resorting to the first.

When looked at closer, none of the three approaches stands up particularly well to criticism. Or, to put it another way, none of them is convincing enough for Pyongyang. A “surgical” strike on nuclear facilities in North Korea would almost certainly lead to an immediate full-scale war on the peninsula. Even if it were possible to preventively disable all nuclear missile facilities in North Korea (and it is far from clear that this would be the case), Pyongyang’s response with conventional weapons would inevitably lead to escalation, with catastrophic consequences for the people of both North and South Korea. U.S. troops stationed in South Korea would also be under attack. If the White House has any doubts about this, then the Pentagon should not. Moreover, this kind of “solution” will not be met enthusiastically by the South Korean leadership, and it could cause doubts in the strength of the United States – South Korea alliance.

Experience has shown that economic sanctions rarely bring the expected results. In the case of North Korea, the international sanctions may only prove effective in a hypothetical situation where all the major players are prepared to take the sanctions as far as they can possibly go – including instigating a total collapse of the North Korean economy, followed by the breakdown of the political regime in Pyongyang and the state of North Korea as a whole. Such scenario, however, does not sit with North Korea’s neighbours, namely China and Russia, but also South Korea. We are not just talking about abstract humanism here; the manifold consequences of the North Korea collapse will have to be disentangled – not by the United States or even Japan, but by the country’s closest neighbours. Of course, Pyongyang also understands this difference in approaches very well. This is why the North Korean leadership is in no hurry to surrender its positions on the nuclear issue under the threat of a further increase in economic pressure. It is also worth adding that the North Korean strategy of “self-reliance” does produce results, and it is far better equipped to deal with economic isolation than it was in 1995–1997.

A political and diplomatic approach to the problem would be quite possible 15 or 20 years ago. An intensive multilateral dialogue on the North Korean nuclear programme was ongoing at the turn of the century, and Russia played a significant role in its advancement. Few people today will remember the breakthrough “two Kims” Summit (the North Korean leader at the time was Kim Jong-il, and the South Korean President was Kim Dae-jung) in early 2000, or the subsequent visit of Vladimir Putin to Pyongyang, or the talks between U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and the North Korean leadership in the autumn of that year. All of these steps gave hope that the North Korean nuclear programme could be “intercepted” at a relatively early stage of its development.

Alas, this once-in-a-lifetime chance was lost forever. And it is pointless today to talk about who is most to blame for this failure. You could point the finger at the North Korean leaders, whom the West have always accused of being insincere and concealing their ongoing nuclear missile efforts. Or you could blame the George W. Bush administration, which opted to exert ever-increasing pressure on Pyongyang, rather than make diplomatic concessions. One thing is clear, however: there is no going back to 2000. The North Korean nuclear missile programme has advanced too far in almost two decades that have passed since then. And the history of what happened as the world moved further into the 21st century proved to be a lesson learned for North Korean strategists: the tragic fates suffered by Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi once they abandoned their nuclear projects surely had an impact on the current North Korean leadership. The attitude of the Donald Trump administration to the agreement on the Iranian nuclear dossier signed by his predecessor is all the more likely to discourage Pyongyang from relying on international security guarantees. What is the point of negotiating with the Americans if, whenever a new administration comes into power, any agreement – including those signed under the auspices of the United Nations – can suddenly turn into a blank piece of paper?

Peace over Nuclear Disarmament

It is well known that experience is what you get when you didn't get what you wanted. Having thus far failed to achieve nuclear disarmament of North Korea, the international community has accumulated a wealth of experience in its interaction with the North Korean leadership, which allows it to predict Pyongyang’s actions and assess its motives and the limits of possible concessions it could make. What realistic goals can be set with regard to the North Korean issue at the present time?

It would seem that the international community must rely on two basic principles when elaborating a real strategy to settle the Korean crisis. First, peace on the Korean Peninsula is more important than the nuclear disarmament of North Korea. Any other stance is not only irresponsible and immoral, but is simply criminal and should be rejected out of hand.

Second, the complete rejection of Pyongyang as a full-fledged member of the “nuclear club” does not necessarily mean a similar refusal to negotiate with North Korea as a de-facto nuclear power. The goal of turning the Korean Peninsula into a nuclear-free zone does not need to be taken off the agenda; however, one should realize that this is a long-term objective, and it could take several decades to come to a solution. It is also important to understand that even very modest steps in this direction will significantly contribute to the stabilizing the situation on the peninsula. The “all or nothing” approach needs to be abandoned because, as we noted above, the international community is not in a position to give an ultimatum to Pyongyang.

What possibilities for compromise exist at present? First, if the North Korean leadership is not willing at the present moment (or in the foreseeable future) to agree to unilateral nuclear disarmament, this does not necessarily mean that it cannot be persuaded to suspend nuclear and ballistic missile tests. If reasonable steps are taken by the United States and South Korea, of course – for example, with regard to the bilateral military exercises that have been getting on North Korea’s nerves for a long time now. This idea is suggested by Russia–China Roadmap, whose starting point is a so-called “double freeze,” according to which North Korea would suspend its missile launches and nuclear tests in exchange for the United States and South Korea putting their military exercises in the region on hold. Such proposal is unlikely to be rejected outright by the North Korean leadership, since Pyongyang itself voiced similar ideas in January 2015 and January 2016. Although it will, of course, be difficult in current conditions to return to the situation of January 2016, as Pyongyang has continued to score points over its opponents in the last two years and its negotiating positions will likely only get tougher.

Second, everyone understands that the main threat for all potential participants in the conflict at the present time is the possibility that the situation could escalate for no apparent reason, or that the sides could misinterpret each other’s actions or intentions. For example, a conflict could arise from accidental clashes between North Korean and South Korean soldiers in the Demilitarized Zone. Consequetly, various confidence-building measures on the Korean Peninsula would help overcome the crisis, including the exchange of information, observer visits, military contacts, etc. Among other things, such confidence-building measures would gradually involve cooperation on the part of Pyongyang’s military elite, as sustainable peace on the peninsula is unlikely without it. The need to create channels of high-level political interaction is just as obvious. Such channels could be set up in the form of a “crisis management centre” involving North Korea, South Korea, China, the United States, Japan and Russia.

Third, the international community is within its rights to demand a guarantee from Pyongyang that North Korea will not pass on its nuclear and ballistic missile technologies to third countries, thus demonstrating a willingness to act as a responsible player in global politics. Accordingly, it is necessary to step up international cooperation in this area. As far as we can tell, the proliferation of nuclear weapons and missile technologies is not national idea or strategic goal of North Korea. Rather, it pursues mercantile economic interests. If this is the case, then a well-thought-out system of positive and negative incentives (from cooperation in the peaceful use of atomic energy to targeted sanctions) could prove reasonably effective.

Fourth, maximum efforts must be exerted to build multilateral cooperation on missile defence in Northeast Asia. At present, the deployment of the American Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-ballistic missile defence system in South Korea is a powerful incentive for Pyongyang to continue developing its nuclear and missile potential. It also raises serious concerns in Moscow and Beijing. This, in turn, further complicates any consistent multilateral efforts to contain North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. If all the players share a common concern with regard to Pyongyang’s nuclear programme, what is stopping them from agreeing to coordinate efforts on missile defence? Ideally, it would be wise to raise the question of creating a multilateral sectoral missile defence system in Northeast Asia, with responsibility for security being distributed by sector among Russia, China, the United States and South Korea. It is common knowledge that Russia presented its plan on missile defence in Europe to NATO back in 2010. Due to several reasons, the idea ultimately did not work in Europe. But that does not mean it could not be implemented in Northeast Asia.

Fifth, everything possible must be done to preserve, unconditionally, the multilateral agreement on the Iranian nuclear dossier. The unilateral withdrawal of the United States from the agreement, or attempts to retrospectively revise its main provisions will, among other things, send an obvious negative signal to North Korea, the importance of which cannot be overstated. A less obvious but still very important negative signal would be a complete collapse of the Russia–United States strategic arms control regime (the withdrawal of one of the sides from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or the refusal to extend the START III Treaty).

The question arises: What will happen if North Korea continues to play the now-familiar double game and starts to create various pretexts for shirking its commitments? These risks will, of course, continue for the foreseeable future – although they can be limited. First of all, the refusal to demand unconditional and immediate nuclear disarmament should reduce the level of paranoia in Pyongyang and promote North Korea behaving more openly and responsibly. As mentioned above, various confidence-building measures should help here too. Moreover, assuming that North Korea plays its usual double game, it is all the more imperative to establish effective cooperation among the intelligence services of Russia, China, the United States, South Korea and Japan. Today, such cooperation, if it even exists, is clearly not up to the challenge: judging by numerous “intelligence leaks,” even the most general assessments of the state and prospects of North Korea’s nuclear programme by the relevant agencies in Russia, the United States and other countries differ greatly.

It is equally important increase the effectiveness of cooperation to prevent North Korea from gaining access to modern nuclear and missile technologies. According to most experts, Pyongyang has made significant strides in the past two to three years in its nuclear programme, which is unlikely to have been possible without having obtained critical technologies from abroad. We can argue until the cows come home about the countries where these technologies were obtained and who specifically is mostly responsible for the large-scale leaks. But the fact is that international organizations and national intelligence services clearly have work to do.

Let us stress once again: the steps proposed here will not lead to a “final” solution of the Korean nuclear issue and the transformation of the Korean Peninsula into a nuclear-free zone. Setting this as an attainable goal today would mean denying the realities of the situation that has developed on the peninsula, and it would also block any progress made in reducing tension in the region. The international community as a different immediate goal, and that is to steer the situation out of the impasse in which it currently finds itself. Any kind of middle-of-the-road, short-term tactical agreement with North Korea is greatly preferable to nuclear war or persistent tension in Northeast Asia. The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step, and trying to cover this distance in a single jump is a hopeless affair.

And the Last will Finish First?

In the West, Moscow is traditionally seen as a purely secondary player in the complex game surrounding North Korea. Many western experts and politicians flat out refuse to acknowledge that Russia might have an independent role in the matter, the argument being that the Russian leadership is forced in one way or another to follow China’s policies. And if Russia is seen as having an independent role, then it is usually that of “spoiler” striving under the conditions of its geopolitical conflict with the West to undermine the unity of the “Big Five” and in one way or another sabotage the sanctions regime against Pyongyang. More radical statements can occasionally be heard to the effect that Moscow deliberately provokes military conflict between the United States and North Korea in order to divert the international community’s attention away from the Ukrainian crisis and surreptitiously “seize Ukraine.”

We can agree that it is Beijing and not Moscow that holds the key to resolving the Korean nuclear problem. And we can accept that negotiations between China and the United States should play a decisive role in the settlement of the crisis and that any efforts by third parties in this connection cannot replace direct dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang. Of course, Moscow would never risk serious damage to its relations with China because of North Korea – the stakes are too high to succumb to the temptation of adopting a “special position” with regard to the Korean issue. As far as we can judge, Russia and China have an unspoken agreement that Moscow plays the leading role in the Russia–China tandem in the Middle East, while Beijing is the principal actor in Northeast Asia.

Nevertheless, the rapidly deteriorating relations between Beijing and Pyongyang mean that Moscow finds itself in the unique position of enjoying better relations with North Korea than any other power in the region. And this means that Russia is better placed that anyone else to play the role of “honest broker” in the conflict – if one is needed.

In a certain sense, it is the relative weakness of Russia’s positions in Northeast Asia that actually turns out to be an advantage for Moscow as a channel of cooperation with Pyongyang. It is unlikely that North Korea sees Russia as an ambitious regional hegemon, much less a global one. For all their complexity and ambiguity, the history of Russia–Korea relations are still not as drawn out, dramatic and explosive as the history of Korea’s relations with other North Asian states.

In order to play “honest broker,” however, Moscow would need to receive the blessing of the “Big Five” countries – and from the United States first and foremost. But such a mandate cannot be achieved while the Donald Trump administration continues to call for the full, and wholly unrealistic, nuclear and ballistic missile disarmament of North Korea, and without considerable concessions from the American side and its allies in the region. This positing of the task narrows the field for diplomatic manoeuvring, emboldens the more militant factions of the North Korean leadership, brings discord into the already complicated relations among the main players in Northeast Asia and ultimately increases the risk of a large-scale armed conflict on the Korean Peninsula, rather than reducing them.

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