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Russia and North Korea: What Kind of Alliance?

By Alain Guidetti, Senior Diplomatic Advisor
7 June 2019
The Presidential Press and Information Office
Caption: The Presidential Press and Information Office,

Russia and North Korea: What Kind of Alliance?

By Alain Guidetti, Senior Diplomatic Advisor

Many in the West anticipated the resurgence of a possible alliance between Russia and North Korea on the eve of the first summit between V. Putin and Kim Jong Un, held in Vladivostok in late April 2019. A Kremlin eager to jump into the Korean conundrum, to impede the US strategy of "maximum pressure" and to display its influence and pretence as a great power seemed a predestined scenario. Yet what happened was instead a modest encounter: a few hours of talks without substantial or unexpected announcement. 

It is no real surprise that the summit was more in symbolism than in substance, as many observers noticed. Short of a military or economic assistance that Moscow could hardly promise given its obligations under the UNSC sanctions regime that it helped shape, there is little that Russia could do to help Pyongyang in the current circumstances - a modest humanitarian assistance was announced, but only in the aftermath of the summit. Furthermore, Moscow is a marginal economic partner for North Korea – except perhaps in its hosting of thousands of migrant workers (in contrast, China covers 90% of North Korean trade).

The North Korean leader may have expected an overture in terms of some easing of sanctions or economic cooperation, but V. Putin doesn’t seem to have immediately responded, or at least nothing concrete has transpired from the summit. Instead, V. Putin, who knows that he has no chance to mediate between Washington and Pyongyang, preferred reiterating its long-stated position on sanctions - that they can’t solve the nuclear issue - and on the negotiation process – that a progressive approach is required for it to have any chance of success - a position that is largely shared within the international community, apart from the US and Japan. Whether the North Korean leader was satisfied with that outcome remains an open question.

Thus, the summit focused on the political and symbolic dimensions that both sides could take advantage of. Russia was arguably content to use this opportunity to show it has a role, even though limited, in the Korean game and therefore in the East-Asian security, while Pyongyang could demonstrate that it can count on other supportive partners than China. That is particularly important in the context of the current stalemate in the negotiation process with the US and the increasing political tensions, where Pyongyang is eager to demonstrate it doesn't fear isolation. Furthermore, the North Korean leader could confirm in Vladivostok that he is further extending the network of his relationships with leaders of the US and North-East Asian community – a symbol of prestige at home and recognition abroad that shouldn't be underestimated. The remaining exception is Japan, whose Prime Minister Abe has recently expressed, without success, eagerness to meet the North Korean leader. His strong support for “maximum pressure” may not be unrelated to the current snub from Pyongyang.


The China factor

If little beyond political gestures and symbols came out of the summit, it is also that the margin of manoeuvre is particularly narrow for the Russian leader. The larger picture shows that the increasingly deepening partnership between China and Russia in their struggle against US dominance (now at the level of a “comprehensive strategic partnership”) is constraining Russia to essentially align with China on the Korean - and other East-Asian – issues. That is particularly noticeable in the respective positions on the sanctions regime, as exemplified by the consensus on the UNSC resolutions, yet at odds with Moscow’s fervently claimed opposition to sanctions as a tool of political coercion. Even though Moscow and Beijing have repeatedly argued for a relaxation of the sanctions regime, neither has so far substantially departed from its UN obligations (even on the return of migrant workers).

The same goes for the negotiation methodology. Moscow has aligned with Beijing on the demand of a resumption of direct negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang; a step by step approach of the denuclearization process; a relaxation of sanctions, and broader security supervision through the Six-Party framework (though Beijing favours a Four-Party format: both Koreas, China and the US). Besides, Moscow supports Chinese expectations of a US military withdrawal from South Korea – and ideally North-East Asia - in the context of a possible peace settlement.

Unsurprisingly, neither China nor Russia is uncomfortable with the current situation, provided that there is no development conducive to a possible military conflict. In their strategic calculations both Beijing and Moscow place their priority in securing stability in the region and maintaining the status quo. Nuclear disarmament comes as a secondary factor, out of a perception that a nuclear North Korea is, like Pakistan or Israel, of little direct risk (except in the improbable case of a North Korean first strike against the US using the Russian space), as long as tensions with Washington don’t threaten the regional stability. Even though Moscow supports China’s position on denuclearization, it might nevertheless consider a fiercely independent North Korean junior nuclear state as a convenient deterrent against both Washington and Beijing.


“Security guarantees”

The notion of “security guarantees” also came out of the Vladivostok summit, before the Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov raised it to the press. Accordingly, Russia and China would be ready to “provide security” to North Korea in the framework of a peace settlement. This also illustrates Moscow’s alignment with Beijing. Seen from a Russian perspective, the idea clearly departs from the current situation where Russia and the DPRK are bound by the 2000 “Treaty of Friendship, Good-Neighborliness and Cooperation,” which excludes military assistance. Furthermore, the notion of “security guarantees” that could be jointly provided by China and Russia has little chance to be deemed attractive by a North Korean leadership that is so focused on national independence and self-reliance. Pyongyang would hardly like to trade the burden of American threat with the political cost of any Russian and Chinese security umbrella - especially since it now possesses the nuclear deterrent.

Thus, the initiative, whatever rhetoric, may primarily be aimed at Washington, with two purposes in the mind of its authors. First, it may help demonstrating the potential new dimensions of the Russo-Chinese strategic partnership, by reinforcing the perception - or the illusion - that new undeclared alliances are in the making in North-East Asia, between China and Russia, and possibly between both and North Korea. Whereas the former idea is very much a work in progress, the chance of the latter to translate into reality remains dim. In both cases, the outcome will highly be influenced by the behaviour of another, unpredictable, actor: the United States.

The timing of this initiative indicates that it may be, as a second purpose, designed to put pressure on the US-DPRK negotiations. Observers speculate that Pyongyang may have shifted its negotiation strategy from aiming at sanctions relief towards aiming to security guarantees (both are core North Korean demands), as a consequence of the failure of the Hanoi summit between D. Trump and Kim Jong Un. The Russian initiative would therefore boost the North Korean position by suggesting that progress in denuclearization could indeed be achieved by addressing the security expectations of the DPRK instead of sanctions relief.

This idea would surely meet Chinese and Russian interests. But it would be ill-advised, since the provision of large-scale security and military guarantees – possibly including a withdrawal of US military presence from the RoK - is likely to be a much more difficult issue for the US to consider than some sanctions relief (except for the hawks that abhor both), especially as long as Pyongyang can prevail itself of its nuclear deterrent. A shift of the negotiation towards the provision of large-scale security guarantees could therefore be the surest ways to perpetuate the deadlock in the US-DPRK negotiation, while increasing the risk for both to move back towards confrontation.

The prospect of a possible negotiation shift towards security guarantees does not bode well for Seoul. A further stalemate in the US-DPRK dialogue would reduce hope of further progress in the North-South cooperation and normalisation process, while undermining the South Korean strategy of enhancing the denuclearization process by advancing North-South cooperation.

Whatever the current direction of the US-DPRK negotiation, the security issue will re-emerge at some point as a primary concern for Pyongyang. It is unlikely that it will be solved by any new kind of alliance, but it hints at this evidence: in an East-Asia now dominated by China, an alliance with the DPRK, whatever improbable, could not be a Russian only one.

Alain Guidetti, a former Ambassador and Swiss career diplomat for more than twenty years, is currently Senior Diplomatic Advisor at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP).

Before starting at the GCSP in May 2011, Alain Guidetti had been working for the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA) since 1989. His first assignments were in South Africa and then, in 1991, to the Swiss Mission to the International Organizations in Geneva, in charge of political, human rights and humanitarian affairs. In 1996, he was appointed as Deputy Head of Mission to the Swiss Representation to the Council of Europe in Strasbourg.

In 2000, he received an assignment in Bern at the Political Directorate, Division for Human Security, in charge of humanitarian and migration affairs. Then, in 2002, he was appointed as Minister and Deputy Head of Mission to the Swiss Embassy in Beijing, in charge of political affairs for China, North Korea and Mongolia.

In 2006, he was tasked to open the Swiss Embassy in Baku, Azerbaijan, and became in 2007 the first Swiss Ambassador in situ to Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, with a particular focus on regional security, energy and development.

Alain Guidetti was born in Geneva, where he completed his studies at the University of Geneva (Diploma in History). After his studies, he became a journalist and editor at the then Journal de Genève, before joining the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs.