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Russian Policy and the Korean Crisis

Authored by Dr. Stephen J. Blank. | September 1994

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The crisis ignited by North Korea's nuclear program affects Russia's vital interests. To understand Russian policy in this crisis, we must refer to both those vital geopolitical interests and to the contemporary and bitter domestic debate over Russian policy abroad.

In strategic terms, Russia has fought three wars in or around Korea in this century and a peaceful Korea is an essential aspect of Russian Asian policy. Russia also is determined to remind the world that its vital interests in Asia must not be ignored. It fears the breakdown of the nonproliferation regime and also regards friendship with South Korea as an essential aspect of its Asian policy. Therefore its interests point to support for nonproliferation by the North.

However, Russian objectives go far beyond this. Russia is still stalemated in its relations with Japan and cooperation over Korea between the two states is unlikely given their very disparate interests. Thus, prospects for Russia's proposed 10 power conference (including both Koreas, the five members of the Security Council, Japan, the UN, and International Atomic Energy Agency) are doubtful since a breakdown between at least these two members is likely to occur quite soon. In addition, Russian foreign policy is now a "victim" of the bitter domestic struggle that characterizes Russian politics. The government does not speak with a single voice due to this struggle and it has had to make numerous concessions to the partisans of a rather militarized policy perspective toward Asia.

This line of thought is now ascendant in Russian policy. If one examines Russian policy in detail one finds an unwillingness to accept that North Korea has nuclear weapons or may have them soon, a military unconcern over that fact except for its impact on Japanese and South Korean defense planning, and a desire to regain leverage over North Korean policy to replace what was lost by Russia's unilateral renunciation of its 1961 treaty with North Korea. There is very clearly a right-wing bloc of support in the Parliament and in the military-industrial complex (MIC) for resuming ties with the North Koreans in the belief that Russia can then sell them arms and resume profitable economic exchanges. Thus the military press alleges that the whole crisis has been "cooked up" by Washington and Pyongyang for domestic purposes.

These groups also want Russia to come close to China's position which consistently has been more solicitous of North Korea's interests and perceptions than President Yeltsin's and Foreign Minister Kozyrev's have been. The MIC also seeks to usurp control of foreign policy from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and to push a line at the conference whose aim is the retreat of American military power from the North Pacific and South Korea. It is very unlikely that these objectives either comport with U.S. goals or those of South Korea. Certainly they do not harmonize with Japanese interests. The Russian conference proposal and its suggested agenda of neutralizing Korea and denuclearizing the surrounding North Pacific area evoke old objectives dating back to Brezhnev and reflect a primarily military orientation to the regional security agenda.

An equally important goal of the Russian proposal is that it lead the way to a general acceptance of the importance Russia has for the region, even though it can barely compete there now and has lost much of the goodwill Gorbachev won for it. Certainly there is a considerable disillusionment with Russia in South Korea, especially among business and economic institutions. This proposed conference is seen as a way to recoup Russia's diminished standing in Asia and prove it is still important there. This leads the Russian government to advance long-standing proposals whose relevance to the problem at hand is questionable and whose main purpose is to scale down American power and presence in Asia. For all these reasons the Russian proposal is not particularly helpful or useful to the United States. Indeed, Russian policy represents a significant backtracking from the 1991-93 period when Yeltsin pushed forward the rapprochement with the South and repudiated past arrangements with the North. The pressure to sell arms to both North and South or use arms to reduce the debt to the South indicates the degree to which Russia has failed to advance a nonmilitary agenda in Asia or contribute to Asian security.

Finally, Russia's policy position here reflects the difficulty involved in trying to build Asian security systems above diverse regional subsystems and establish a viable arms control regime at a time when individual states like Russia, China, and Japan, tend to go their own way on this and other issues. In this sense Russia's position on Korean nuclearization and ultimately on the destiny of the two states on the Korean peninsula reflects a deeper Asian tendency. Russian policy on Korea shows us how difficult it will be to construct a Russia that can contribute to Asian security and stability and an Asia that can welcome a reformed Russia into its midst.


The sudden death, on July 8, 1994, of Kim-Il Sung, North Korea's dictator, has not yet (as of September 1994) altered the situation on the ground with respect to Russia. Though Kim's death held up bilateral DPRK-U.S. negotiations for a month, they have resumed and appear to be a serious dialogue. In Russia, if anything, these events have reinforced both the sense of domestic struggle over foreign policy and interest in the 10 power conference. Foreign Minister Kozyrev publicized the struggle raging over foreign policy by denouncing parliamentarians who he claimed were supporting the DPRK. He reiterated his belief that if the bilateral talks break down, there will be no alternative but Russia's plan, despite other states' coolness to the idea.65

Nonetheless, Russia's current policy represents a significant backtracking from its earlier policies in 1991-93. At that time Yeltsin and his emissaries talked publicly of unilaterally abandoning the 1961 treaty with Pyongyang. Now they talk of renegotiating an altered treaty. The same holds true, as we see above, for arms sales to North Korea.66 While efforts to upgrade ROK-Russia collaboration in military technology and arms trade for debt have significantly failed, leaving behind considerable disillusionment in South Korea, Russian interest in selling arms to the North is both overtly expressed and gaining in the government.67 This shift in policy reflects the victory of those favoring the military point of view and the interests of the military-industrial complex that seeks markets abroad to survive, whatever the policy implications of that decision may be. Thus current trends in Russian policy on Korea constitute animportant part of the ascendancy of military-strategic considerations above all else in overall Asian policy.68

It is not surprising that Russian policy is self-serving, ambiguous, conflicted, and even possibly deceptive, if not deceitful, given newly publicized intelligence reports. That is in the nature of things given current Russian conditions and represents, in itself, little advance from past Soviet proposals for regional arms control and security.69 But Russia's posture on this issue is also profoundly significant for what it portends regarding general issues in Asian security.

In the absence of strong regional or subregional systems and where states manifest an asymmetry of interest, multilateral security discussions, let alone regimes, prove to be very difficult to construct. The current Korean crisis is only the most intense instance of this truth. As Edward Olsen and David Winterford have written,

The Asia-Pacific region confronts the problem of simultaneously creating a multilateral security system and building a compatible arms control system. Vastly complicating this situation is the prospect that there will not be one of each, but that the sub-regions will spawn separate versions of each system. The linkages between them (if any) are problematical.70

Russia's example shows that on top of these problems, individual states will continue pushing self-serving and incompatible objectives for both arms control and overall regional regimes, thereby further complicating efforts by the United States and its allies to work constructively for multilateral security in subregions, regions, or across the region.

A second consequence of this ascendancy of the military factor in Russian policy is that it encourages the tendency for Russia to go beyond friendship with China, which is universally supported in Russia, to actual alliance on the basis of an ideological anti-Westernism and anti-Americanism and on the basis of a search for geopolitical revenge that far transcends sound Realpolitik.71That alliance also encourages those in China, e.g., the authors of the book, Can China's Armed Forces Win the Next War?, who clearly articulate the opinion of or policy preferences of key elite constituencies there. They argue that the most significant factor in the expected Sino-U.S. confrontation is the attitude of the Russian armed forces.72 Should a Sino-Russian alliance come about, it would fundamentally derail efforts toward a broader strategic stability in Asia, not just in Korea, but very probably in the South China Sea area, the center of Chinese attention.

In other words, Russia's Korean policy is important for what it tells us about trends at home towards demilitarizing past policy and achieving successful reform throughout Russia and in the central Far Eastern regions. It is also, of course, important as a sign of Russia's willingness to rejoin Asia on a new basis and contribute to peace and security for everyone's benefit. On the basis of what is now transpiring in Russia's Korean and Asian policy, it will become more difficult to create a Russia that can contribute in a positive way to Asian security and stability and an Asia that can welcome a reformed Russia into its midst.


65.Moscow, ITAR-TASS World Service in Russian, July 15, 1994, FBIS-SOV-94-137, July 18, 1994; "Kozyrev Defends Sanctions Against North Korea," and "Izvestiya Interview," REF/RL News Briefs, June 20-24, 1994, p. 1.

66. Blank, Challenging the New World Order, pp. 64-66.

67. Ibid.

68. Ibid.; Blank, The New Russia in the New Asia, pp. 11-30; Vladimir I. Ivanov, "Russia's New Military Doctrine: Implications for Asia," Michael D. Bellows, ed., Asia in the 21st Century: Evolving Strategic Priorities, Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University, Washington, DC: National Defense University Press, 1994, pp. 205-229.

69. Edward A. Olsen and David Winterford, "Multilateral Arms Control Regimes in Asia: Prospects and Options," Asian Perspectives, Vol. XVIII, No. 1, Spring-Summer, 1994, pp. 10-19.

70. Ibid., p. 21.

71. Blank, The New Russia in the New Asia; and Stephen Blank; Moscow, Seoul and Soviet Strategy in the Asia-Pacific Region, Carlisle Barracks, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, 1991, pp. 19-20.

72. Ross Munro, "Eavesdropping on the Chinese Military: Where It Expects War--Where It Doesn't," Orbis, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 3, Summer, 1994, p. 361.