Dealing with the Russia factor in North Korea negotiations

Dealing with the Russia factor in North Korea negotiations
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A second summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un could happen, but whether this negotiating process makes any headway in North Korea’s denuclearization depends, in part, on the actions of other states such as Russia and China.

Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to be an integral part of any comprehensive agreement on the Korean Peninsula. He recently invited Kim to visit Moscow, and pledged to raise the issue of easing sanctions against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Like China, Russia already helps the Kim regime to violate sanctions — a not-so-subtle message to the United States that Russia wants in.  

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Given that Russia shares a border with North Korea, making it difficult to detect sanctions-evasion assistance, and that it could intervene militarily to disrupt U.S. objectives, as it did in Syria, the United States should continue to punish Russia for illegal acts but also carve out a limited role for Moscow that doesn’t alter the U.S.-dominant balance of power on the Korean Peninsula.

Russia typically defers to China with regard to North Korea, attempting to form a united front, where possible. Russia does not desire a nuclear-armed DPRK. There is no current threat to Russia from North Korea, but the risks associated with nuclear proliferation are of genuine concern, and a nuclear North Korea reduces Russia’s comparative military advantage in the region and lessens its own nuclear deterrent.

That said, the United States must take care since Russia seeks an active role in multilateral negotiations to allow it to better pursue its goal of erasing the U.S. military presence on the Korean Peninsula and reestablishing itself as a global superpower able to challenge NATO and the U.S.-led world order. Acting as chief arbiter and guarantor of high-stakes peace agreements is one component in restoring Russia’s prestige in the international community.

Putin is deftly warming Russian ties with South Korea, as evinced by Republic of Korea (ROK) President Moon Jae-in’s trip to Russia in June, during which Moon stressed trilateral cooperation between Russia and the Koreas in economic and security spaces. Moon and Putin are emphasizing peacemaking initiatives on the Korean Peninsula, while the Trump administration concentrates on denuclearization.

Russia and China support dual-track negotiations — one aimed at denuclearization and a parallel process that would formally end the Korean War and establish a peace treaty. Russia’s unique position as a state with relations with both the North and South (a policy sometimes referred to as “equidistance”) renders it a mutually trusted party in the context of inter-Korean diplomacy.

The peace mechanism would be protected and enforced by the global powers involved — China, Russia and the United States. A regional security architecture would serve Russia’s interests by cementing its status as an indispensable party in Korean Peninsula affairs and integrating its military, as an effort in hard-power projection, into resolving the conflict.

Washington must adapt its peninsular policy to ensure that America’s united front with stakeholder allies such as South Korea and Japan, where Putin also is making inroads, is not threatened by Russian patronage. Full, vocal support of Moon’s diplomatic efforts with Kim would alleviate some of the pressure on Moon to endorse President TrumpDonald John TrumpCNN's Camerota clashes with Trump's immigration head over president's tweet LA Times editorial board labels Trump 'Bigot-in-Chief' Trump complains of 'fake polls' after surveys show him trailing multiple Democratic candidates MORE’s more antagonistic stance and stem South Korea’s drift toward Russia’s orbit on peninsular issues. Acknowledging and supporting the productive role that Russia could play in inter-Korean rapprochement also could benefit the negotiation process.

With respect to China, President Trump’s economic warfare in the form of tariffs serves to strengthen ties between Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping, contrary to U.S. interests on the Korean Peninsula. President Trump should incentivize China to rein in Russia; the future of the Korean Peninsula is of far greater importance to China than it is to Russia, and Russia traditionally has accepted this reality. Furthermore, China historically has favored a U.S.-led dialogue on denuclearization.  

Calming tensions with China would serve U.S. interests as it negotiates with the Kim regime. Chinese influence is unparalleled, given that China accounts for over 90 percent of DPRK trade and provides crucial energy and food aid to North Korea. One first step to bring China into the equation that could simultaneously reaffirm America’s commitment to South Korea and undercut Russia, would be to heed Seoul’s request for the United States and China to formally end the Korean War.

At the Singapore summit, President Trump reportedly promised to do so, an unkept promise that has exacerbated North Korea’s distrust of American intentions. Other carrots, in the form of trade talks and limited concessions regarding the THAAD missile defense system now deployed in South Korea, could be complemented by the soft stick of reminding Xi that destabilization on the Korean Peninsula would have immediate ramifications for China — and that the United States will hold China to task more aggressively for helping the Kim regime to evade sanctions.

Moving forward, the United States should reorient China to a prominent role in negotiations with North Korea, albeit one that is subordinate to that of the United States. Russia could play a secondary role that provides it with some limelight in exchange for help in securing inter-Korean peace. Russia should neither be part of any regional security mechanism, nor be in any way responsible for verifying disarmament of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal.

These recommendations should all be viewed through the lens of disallowing Russia the opportunity to gain any competitive advantage over the United States during the North Korea negotiations. U.S. hegemony in the region is non-negotiable, and we must preserve the status quo balance of power.

Nicholas Saidel is a fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Law School’s Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law (CERL). He previously was associate director of the university’s Institute for Strategic Threat Analysis & Response. Prior to joining Penn, he was an associate at the law firm of Wolf, Block LLP, a legislative aide to Congressman Robert A. Brady (D-Pa.), and a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.