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Russian Nonproliferation Policy and the Korean Peninsula

Authored by Dr. Yong-Chool Ha, Dr. Beom-Shik Shin. | December 2006

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Russia is one of the members of the six-party talks on North Korean nuclearization, but its views on how to deal with this problem do not agree with those of the U.S. Government. This signifies a gap between Moscow and Washington over the proper way to deal with proliferation and represents a change from the earlier pattern of bilateral cooperation in 1987-96 that led to significant achievements in the field of arms control and nonproliferation.

We may attribute the major differences between Moscow and Washington to several factors, but two stand out here. One is that Moscow prefers a different model of resolving proliferation issues than Washington apparently does. Moscow?s preferred option is the so-called Ukrainian model, whereby the proliferating state is induced to relinquish its pursuit of nuclear weapons through a multilateral negotiation in which it receives both economic compensation and security guarantees from its partners. This is what happened with regard to Ukraine?s inheritance of thousands of Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) after 1991. The second model, apparently preferred by the United States, is the so-called Libyan model which is based on the experience of unrelenting coercive diplomacy, including sanctions and possible threats of actual coercion, until the proliferating state gives in and renounces nuclear weapons in return for better relations with its interlocutors.

In the case of North Korea, Moscow believes that the Ukrainian model is the way in which the negotiators must proceed if they wish to bring this issue to a successful resolution. Seen from Moscow, the United States appears to be more inclined to choose, instead, the Libyan model based on its policy of threatened regime change, coercion, sanctions, etc. This disparity between Pyongyang?s intransigence and America?s inclination to coercion, which reinforces the Democratic People?s Republic of Korea?s (DPRK) stance, is viewed as a major reason for the current stalemate.

The second explanation for the gap between the Russian and American posture on this issue is that Russia has arrived at a definition of its interests in Korea generally, and even more broadly in Northeast Asia, that is premised on a formally equal relationship and engagement with both Korean states, even though obvious economic considerations lead it to be more involved with the Republic of Korea (ROK). This effort to achieve balanced relations also is connected to the idea that such a stance enhances Russia?s standing in the Korean question in particular and more generally throughout the region, and the most important goal for Russia is to be recognized as a player with legitimate standing in any resolution of Korean security issues. After that, it is important to prevent a war from breaking out, as well as the nuclearization of the Korean peninsula. And beyond these considerations of status, prestige, security, and interest, comes the fact that Russia wants very much to play a major economic role with both Koreas in regard to transport networks, provision of energy, and overall economic development of both states. Indeed, Russia has offered to provide North Korea with nuclear and other energy sources once it gives up its weapons program as part of a multilateral agreement.

These considerations lead Russia to oppose much of the U.S. position in the six-party talks and to incline towards China and South Korea, which is trying to maintain and extend its sunshine policy towards the DPRK. Taken together, the impact of differing interests and perspectives with regard to the best way to deal with proliferation explains, to a considerable degree, the divergence between the Russian and American positions in these talks, and why Moscow has taken the stands that it has in those negotiations.


After the Joint Statement of September 19, 2005, the United States started to press North Korea through financial sanctions, freezing North Korean accounts at Banco Delta Asia. Against this measure, North Korea resisted opening a new round of the six-party talks, officially pronounced its possession of nuclear weaponry on February 10, 2006, and launched a missile test again on July 5, 2006. However, the United States did not cease its financial sanctions, and North Korea ventured on with a nuclear test on October 9, 2006, as a sign of crossing the ?expected? red line. On the initiative of the United States and Japan, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1718 on October 14, 2006, which involves nonmilitary sanctions. This move initially made the prospects for the resumption the six-party talks very dim.

Russia once again moved quickly, as it did at the first stage of the second North Korean nuclear crisis, dispatching Vice-minister of Foreign Affairs Aleksandr Alekseev to North Korea. After his visit to Pyongyang, he stressed that possibilities still exist for political resolution, and that Russia strongly opposed military sanctions. Owing to the opposition from Russia, along with China, the application of military means was excluded from the UN resolution. But Russia cannot help taking part in nonmilitary sanctions toward North Korea. This kind of Russian ?dualistic? position, as was elaborated in this monograph, still seems to continue without serious changes.

As the Russian special envoy had predicted the possibility of six-party talks reopening, North Korea agreed to return to the talks on October 31, 2006. In spite of the significant change of the situation after the nuclear test, a long and tiresome tug-of-war between North Korea and the United States seems to be in line. Russia can play its role of ?honest broker? as long as North Korea does not cross the ?real? red line, even though we cannot be convinced of its boundary, for example, transferring nuclear technology and materials to terrorist groups or other rogue states.