Russian Responses to the North Korean Crisis

Cristina Chuen
August 24, 2010

Russian responses to the crisis in North Korea (DPRK) have ranged from strong concern about proliferation of nuclear weapons to sympathy for the North Korean viewpoint. After a slow initial reaction that included suggestions that the United States was partially responsible for the crisis, the Russian government became more engaged after North Korea announced its withdrawal from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) on January 10. The Russian executive branch sees an opportunity to show Russia’s relevance in a major international crisis, and increase its involvement in northeast Asia. Although Russia’s direct influence over the DPRK is limited, the Russian government is keen to broker a resolution to the crisis. Toward that end, it has developed a “package solution” that calls for guaranteeing the security of the DPRK and providing aid while ensuring that the Korean Peninsula remains free of nuclear weapons. Russia has spoken out against the imposition of any sanctions or taking up the issue in the United Nations Security Council, calling both moves excessively provocative. Efforts by the Russian executive branch to broker a solution are motivated by a desire to maintain Russia’s role as a global power and by real concerns over the prospect of a nuclear DPRK, but other government actors such as the Ministry of Atomic Energy hope to gain economic benefits from increased international assistance to North Korea. Russian officials are united in the view that negotiations rather than confrontation are crucial to resolving the issue, and that the Korean crisis is not sufficiently urgent to warrant other solutions such as sanctions or the use of force.

Russia’s Official Views and Actions

Despite some sympathy for the North Korean point of view, the Russian executive branch recognizes its own security concerns and has opposed a nuclear DPRK. On January 10, Russian President Vladimir Putin reaffirmed Russia’s position in favor of a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula and for maintenance and reinforcement of the nonproliferation regime, saying that “our position on this issue is steadfast and unchangeable.”[1]

The Russian government, however, does not share Washington’s views on how to ensure that the Korean Peninsula is free of nuclear weapons. It sees the crisis as an opportunity to make itself relevant internationally by helping broker a solution. This follows the pattern of Russian actions in the last decade: Moscow has been quick to offer its services as a mediator in global crises. Russia has tried for several years to ingratiate itself with North Korea and to become more involved in northeast Asia. At the same time, the Russians genuinely believe that the U.S. approach to Pyongyang is self-defeating. According to Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Losyukov, “history has shown that pressure on North Korea has pitiful results, rather than solving a problem.”[2] He later added, “You cannot achieve anything through accusations, pressure, or tight demands, not to mention threats. That will only make it worse. The situation that has taken shape is not just a technical issue, it is a political issue, which must be first and foremost resolved by political and diplomatic means.” [3] The Russian government is sympathetic to North Korean security concerns, referring elliptically to U.S. forces in South Korea in statements such as “third countries are present in South Korea, and North Koreans regard the possible presence of, say, nuclear weapons as an obstacle in the settlement” of the crisis.[4] Similarly, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Ivanov said on January 6 that “subtle diplomacy” was needed, and that North Korea should be given “unambiguous and strong guarantees of security.”

The official Russian position is that at present North Korea does not possess nuclear weapons. Echoing the typical official line, Losyukov said that nuclear programs did not necessarily imply weapons programs, and that “nuclear energy, especially in North Korea’s circumstances, is a matter of life and death, a matter of survival,” because “North Korea does not have other energy resources.”[5] Russia’s past cooperation and continuing contact with North Korea would suggest that Russian intelligence regarding North Korean weapons programs is probably quite good. Russia may have made a political decision to disavow any knowledge of a North Korean weapons program. However, Russia appears to have followed the Korean program closely. The New York Times reported on January 20 that Russian intelligence placed nuclear detection equipment inside the DPRK at the request of the CIA in the 1990s to help track the North Korean nuclear weapons program.[6] The Russian foreign intelligence service quickly issued a denial that Russia had spied against North Korea, but a spokesman neither confirmed nor denied the existence of nuclear monitors in the Russian embassy in Pyongyang.[7]

Most Russians believe that the current crisis is largely the result of actions taken (or not taken) by the Bush administration. Russian officials point to delays in the construction of light-water reactors in the DPRK (but fail to note that problems with Japanese funding and North Korean requirements for the project slowed construction more than U.S. delays). Many Russians feel that the United States has pushed North Korea into a corner. Instead of continuing the Clinton policy of gradually lifting economic barriers and improving political relations, the Bush administration branded the DPRK a member of the “axis of evil,” undermining those in North Korea that wanted reform. If Pyongyang’s actions were partly to blame, the Russian official position has yet to acknowledge this.

Russia’s official position towards the DPRK did harden after the January 10 announcement that the country was withdrawing from the NPT. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement “expressing the hope that Pyongyang will listen to the unanimous opinion of the world community… and make a choice in favor of the observance of the international obligations assumed in the area of nonproliferation….” The statement said that the DPRK announcement “aroused deep concern” in Moscow.[8] Nonetheless, Putin noted that “the DPRK leadership is leaving the door to negotiations open,” emphasizing the Russian position that the crisis could be resolved peacefully.[9] The exact role of Russian state actors in brokering a solution to the crisis remains unclear, as the Russian Foreign Ministry has said that it would pursue diplomatic efforts to promote dialogue “on a multilateral and bilateral” basis (the latter refers to U.S.-Korean talks), but that it did not intend to act as a mediator between North Korea and the United States.[10] This supports North Korea’s insistence on direct talks with the United States and statements that it did not wish to speak with mediators about the nuclear issue.

Nevertheless, Losyukov traveled to Pyongyang on January 16 to present North Korean leader Kim Jong-il with a “package solution.” Russia’s proposed solution to the crisis was reportedly discussed by Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, the U.S. Secretary of State, and the foreign ministers of China, France, and the Republic of Korea during the second week of January. The package includes maintaining the nuclear-free status of the Korean Peninsula, strict observance of the NPT, and fulfillment of Agreed Framework promises; conducting bilateral and multilateral talks with North Korea that would produce security guarantees, and resuming humanitarian and economic aid programs in North Korea.[11] According to Losyukov, Kim “was interested … and would study” the Russian proposal, and would likely “find something he could use in the plan.”[12] Not all Russians agree on the desirability of this solution. Some Russian scholars suggest that North Korea is in fact developing nuclear weapons, while others argue that Moscow’s efforts amount to an appeasement of North Korea that would leave the world open to further “nuclear blackmail” in the future.[13]

While Russia has promoted direct U.S.-North Korean talks, Moscow has opposed bringing the issue to the Security Council. Russia has been particularly concerned that the United States might propose the imposition of U.N. sanctions against the DPRK.[14] U.S. Undersecretary of State John Bolton stated on January 22 that the issue would be brought before the Security Council by the end of the week, but the United States appears to have privately assured China and South Korea that it would not seek sanctions. Russia had yet to issue a response to Bolton’s proposal.

Other Russian Views

Most Russian parliamentarians are worried about the Korean crisis, but have also questioned U.S. actions. Deputy Chairman of the Duma Foreign Affairs Committee Konstantin Kosachev called North Korean plans to revive a nuclear program extremely dangerous, but cautioned that one should not “become too emotional… the most promising response, in my view, is patient, consistent, and persistent work with Pyongyang,” explaining that “further intensification of the conflict is unproductive,” [15] and suggesting that the United States was intensifying the crisis. Duma Speaker Gennadiy Seleznev stated that “the United States itself is at fault” for the North Korean resumption of work on its nuclear power reactor. According to Seleznev, the United States had failed to meet its Agreed Framework commitments, since construction of a light-water reactor in the DPRK had not yet been completed.[16] Similarly, leader of the Narodnyy deputat (People’s deputy) parliamentary group Gennadiy Raykov believes that “this is all North Korea’s business, and, besides, the USA has not fulfilled its obligations,”[17] while right-wing State Duma Vice Speaker Vladimir Zhirinovskiy said that the DPRK, as an independent country, has every right to develop any industry, and “nobody can forbid them to do it, every country is acting on its own authority.” [18] Most recently, on January 20, State Duma Vice Speaker Vladimir Lukin said that the United States was “partially responsible” for the “DPRK decision to withdraw from the NPT.”[19]

On a somewhat different note, Dmitriy Rogozin, chairman of the Russian Duma’s International Affairs Committee, argued that North Korea had made a mistake in demanding a security guarantee from the United States, calling it a “propagandistic threat” and suggesting that the United Nations should be the forum for such a guarantee.[20] In a similar vein, Lukin called the withdrawal from the NPT a “strategic mistake” on the part of North Korea, and suggested that if North Korea did not soften its position, Russia, China, South Korea, Japan, and the United States should meet to coordinate their positions on the issue in order to bring the DPRK back into the system of international controls on nuclear weapons.[21]

The Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy has followed its bureaucratic interests by soft-pedaling the crisis. Although the ministry should have inside knowledge about North Korean nuclear capabilities, Minister of Atomic Energy Aleksandr Rumyantsev has declared on several occasions that the DPRK has no nuclear weapons, argued that the United States has provoked North Korea, and suggested that Russia could take over the construction of the nuclear power reactors in the DPRK. On December 27, the minister stated that the crisis concerning Korea’s nuclear facilities “emerged 10 years ago and has now reached its logical conclusion,”[22] explaining the North Korean action by saying that “… work on the construction of light-water reactors has hardly been conducted.”[23] On January 10, Rumyantsev said that North Korea was 50 years away from creating nuclear weapons, and later reiterated that “as far as we know the situation with the nuclear program in North Korea, there are no weapons technologies there.”[24] Rumyantsev has pointed out that North Korea has declared that its nuclear program is directed to peaceful purposes. [25] U.S. estimates, on the other hand, suggest that North Korea may already have one or two nuclear weapons and could produce five or six more within six months.[26] On January 9, U.S. Ambassador to Moscow Alexander Vershbow said that Russia is in denial about the dangers posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.[27]

When asked about prospects for cooperation with North Korea in the nuclear sphere, Rumyantsev noted on December 27 that “Russia is always interested in broadening its presence in the international market.”[28] On January 13, he added that “North Korea has the right to invite other countries to build a nuclear power plant on its territory… [and] Russia may be among these countries. It will be able to build a reactor on a turn-key-basis within seven years.”[29] The minister suggested that Russian construction of nuclear power reactors might stabilize the situation.[30] Russia has been interested in constructing a reactor in the DPRK since the 1994 agreements, and has regarded U.S. criticism of Russia’s construction of a nuclear power plant in Iran as a particular affront given the light-water reactor deal with the DPRK. If construction of nuclear reactors resumes in North Korea, Russia clearly hopes to be involved. It is unclear, however, who might fund such a venture, or if Russia could join the South Korean firms already working on the KEDO project.

Looking Ahead

Russia’s future policy toward North Korea will continue to emphasize the importance of a peaceful resolution of the crisis and the importance of a nuclear-free peninsula. Although it is promoting direct U.S.-Korean talks, Moscow will try to maintain its role as a mediator, even if it does not use that term. Russia will try to persuade Pyongyang to reach an agreement, but is unlikely to use its limited leverage over North Korea openly. As noted above, Moscow believes that this would be counter-productive. Instead, Moscow will push Washington to tone down its rhetoric and offer North Korea diplomatic cover for backing off its present position. If Washington offers assurances that it will not push for UN sanctions against the DPRK, Moscow is likely to acquiesce to a Security Council discussion of the crisis, and may take up Rogozin’s call for a UN role in guaranteeing North Korean security, a variant on the current “package solution” Russia is promoting.

[1] Interfax, January 10, 2003.
[2] Interfax, December 16, 2002.
[3] Interfax, December 26, 2002.
[4] Interfax, December 16, 2002.
[5] Interfax, January 6, 2003.
[6] James Risen, “Russia Helped U.S. on Nuclear Spying Inside North Korea,” New York Times,, January 20, 2003.
[7] Andrey Lebedev, “Razvedka velas dlya TsRU, a ne protiv KNDR,” Izvestiya,, January 21, 2003.
[8] Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Daily News Bulletin, January 10, 2003.
[9] Vladislav Vorobyev, “Sushi mnogo ne byvayet,” Rossiyskaya gazeta,, January 13, 2003.
[10] Interfax, January 16, 2003.
[11] Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Daily News Bulletin, January 13, 2003.
[12] “Aleksandr Losyukov: ‘Osnovaniya dlya optimizma yest,'”, January 21, 2003.
[13] See, for instance, Vasiliy Mikheyev, “Kim Chen Ir podstavil Putina,” Vremya novostey, January 10, 2003, p. 5, in Oborona i bezopasnost, January 13, 2003.
[14] Aleksandr Samokhotkin, “Litsom k litsy Pkhenyan ne uvidat,” Vremya novostey,, January 22, 2003.
[15] ITAR-TASS, December 23, 2002.
[16] “Gennadiy Seleznev: SShA sami vinovaty, chto KNDR vozobnovlyayet yadernuyu programmu,”, December 23, 2002.
[17] ITAR-TASS, December 23, 2002.
[18] ITAR-TASS, December 23, 2002.
[19] ITAR-TASS, January 20, 2003.
[20] ITAR-TASS, January 22, 2003.
[21] Ibid.
[22] ITAR-TASS, December 27, 2002.
[23] ITAR-TASS, December 27, 2002.
[24] Channel One TV, January 10, 2003, in “Russian Minister says North Korea ’50 years’ away from creating nuclear weapons,” FBIS Document CEP20030110000360; German Solomatin, “Russian atomic energy minister: N. Korea has no nuclear weapons technology,” ITAR-TASS, January 13, 2003, in FBIS Document CEP20030113000302.
[25] Anatoliy Yurkin, “KNDR deklariruyet tolko mirnuyu napravlennost svoyey yadernoy programmy, zayavil ministr RF po atomnoy energii,” ITAR-TASS, January 13, 2003.
[26] American intelligence officials, as cited in Steven Lee Myers, “Moscow is Negotiating with North Korean Officials in Quiet Effort to Defuse Tensions,” New York Times,, January 12, 2003.
[27] Myers, “Moscow is Negotiating with North Korean Officials in Quiet Effort to Defuse Tensions;” Barry Schweid, “US Ambassador Says Russia is ‘in Denial’ on North Korean Threat,” Associated Press, January 9, 2003.
[28] Interfax, December 27, 2002.
[29] German Solomatin, “Russian atomic energy minister: N. Korea has no nuclear weapons technology,” ITAR-TASS, January 13, 2003, in FBIS Document CEP20030113000302.
[30] Yurkin, “KNDR deklariruyet tolko mirnuyu napravlennost svoyey yadernoy programmy, zayavil ministr RF po atomnoy energii.”

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