Moscow-Seoul cooperation scrambles to resolve NK nuclear crisis

By Chen Xu Source:Global Times Published: 2017/9/10 22:08:39

South Korean President Moon Jae-in met with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin Wednesday on the sidelines of the Eastern Economic Forum (EEF) in Vladivostok, Russia.

The meeting demonstrated the importance of Russia-South Korea coordination regarding the North Korean nuclear issue, which is reaching the tipping point after Pyongyang successfully detonated a hydrogen bomb recently, the sixth nuclear test by the country so far.

Seoul and Moscow have strongly condemned the latest nuclear test and expressed their willingness to beef up strategic communication with Pyongyang.

However, Putin has rebuffed the demands raised by the US and South Korea to cut off crude oil supplies to and labor export from North Korea, reiterating his opposition to all-round sanctions on North Korea and the significance of resolving the North Korean nuclear crisis in phases through political and diplomatic means.

The Russia-South Korea meeting has shown the two nations only reasserted the principled consensus and expressed a long-term vision for the North Korean nuclear issue, but failed to make substantial progress in actually solving it.

Due to historical and current factors, Russia still carries a certain sway in North Korea. Russia sends 40,000 tons of crude oil to North Korea and recruits about 30,000 North Korean workers annually.

The two countries have maintained a strong relationship for the sake of port renting and electricity exports. Russia is one of the very few channels for North Korea, which has been inflicted by stringent UN sanctions, to gain foreign exchange.

As North Korea becomes more closed off and isolated from the international community, Russia's influence on North Korea is valuable, thus serving as an important foothold to compete with the US on tackling the issue and to take initiative in coordinating with South Korea.

Russia's initiative in its coordination with South Korea derives partly from its advantages in the North Korean nuclear issue.

On the front of security interests, managing the North Korean nuclear crisis is crucial to South Korea's domestic and diplomatic affairs, but only matters to the security and development of Russia's Far East.

Due to its tight alliance with the US, South Korea must follow the US' words and deeds.

By contrast, Russia is flexible in its North Korea policy as it has not only maintained its clout in North Korea, but also freed itself from the then Soviet Union-North Korea alliance. Russia can either choose to slap sanctions on North Korea by cutting off its sources of survival, or to rebuild its ties with North Korea and increase its influence on the Korean Peninsula.

The scope of Russia's cooperation with South Korea will not go beyond its strategic confrontation with the US and strategic coordination with China.

Russia will not follow the requests from the US and South Korea to stop using North Korean laborers and halt fuel supplies to Pyongyang, nor abandon its influence on North Korea as a bargaining chip.

As Russia's global strategic partnership of coordination with China goes further and guarantees th country's core interests, Russia's coordination with South Korea is unlikely to transcend its cooperative framework with China regarding North Korea's nuclear issue.

Nonetheless, China should be vigilant toward the potential risks posed by Russia-South Korea cooperation, such as a possible divide in Sino-Russian relations, and ramp up bilateral ties with Russia in regard to the THAAD and North Korean nuclear issues.

As Beijing-Pyongyang relations are cooling down, Russia-North Korea rapport since 2012 has echoed the situation in which North Korea swung between China and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Strengthening China-Russia coordination will reduce North Korea's interference between the two countries.

As Russia complied with UN sanctions on North Korea, North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency has expressed a rare criticism on Russia's denial of the progress made by its ballistic missile tests, indicating Pyongyang's displeasure of Moscow.

Ultimately, China should work with Russia to strengthen their cooperation with North Korea in order to ease the tension on the Korean Peninsula.

The author is an associate research fellow at the Center for Northeast Asia Research, Shandong University.


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