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Russia takes centre-stage in Korean diplomacy

Moscow hosts senior North Korean diplomat and delegations from both North and South Korea

Though it has gone almost completely unreported, Russia has quietly taken centre-stage in the diplomacy to resolve the Korean crisis.

Russia is in some respects the best placed of the three Great Powers – Russia, China and the US – to do this.

Unlike the US Russia has longstanding relations with North Korea.  It has maintained a continuous diplomatic presence in North Korea ever since the division of the Korean Peninsula in 1945, which is actually for longer than China has done.

The North Korean leadership (though not Kim Jong-un himself) have historically had close personal relations with Russia.  Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-un’s father and predecessor as North Korea’s Great Leader, is said to have been born in Russia (though this is disputed in North Korea) and by some accounts he spoke at least some Russian.  Putin has visited North Korea where he held talks with Kim Jong-il, and both Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-il’s father, North Korea’s first Great Leader and its ‘eternal President’ Kim Il-sung, have both visited Russia.

Moreover over the last two decades it has gradually become clear that North Korea during the Cold War was far more closely allied to the USSR than had previously been realised, and that up to the late 1980s its primary political, economic and military ties were with the USSR rather than with China.

The result is that the Russians and the North Koreans know a great deal about each other, with the Russians being far better informed about the situation in North Korea – and almost certainly having far superior access to North Korea’s leadership – than any Western power, including the US.

At the same time, precisely because Russia only has an insignificant economic presence in North Korea and does not have the millennially long history of intense interaction with Korea that China does, it is not feared in North Korea as a potential overlord in the way that China is.

The result is that the notoriously prickly North Koreans are able to speak to the Russians in a way that they probably feel they cannot do to anyone else.  This has made dialogue between North Korea and Russia possible.

The Russians for their part have facilitated this dialogue by speaking more sympathetically of the North Koreans than almost everyone else including the Chinese have done.

Thus whilst the Russians have made clear their strong opposition to North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programmes, they have also made it clear that they understand and have sympathy for North Korea’s security concerns, which drive these programmes.  They have also spoken out strongly against US attempts to suffocate North Korea economically and have spoken of the need to treat North Korea with respect .

Consider for example these comments of Putin’s about North Korea, made at the BRICS summit on 5th September 2017, which in their understanding tone go beyond anything even the Chinese have said

Everyone remembers well what happened to Iraq and Saddam Hussein. Hussein abandoned the production of weapons of mass destruction. Nonetheless, under the pretext of searching for these weapons, Saddam Hussein himself and his family were killed during the well-known military operation.

Even children died back then. His grandson, I believe, was shot to death. The country was destroyed, and Saddam Hussein was hanged. Listen, everyone is aware of it and everyone remembers it. North Koreans are also aware of it and remember it. Do you think that following the adoption of some sanctions, North Korea will abandon its course on creating weapons of mass destruction?

Russia condemns these exercises on the part of North Korea. We believe they are provocative in nature. However, we cannot forget about what I just said about Iraq, and what happened later in Libya. Certainly, the North Koreans will not forget it.

Sanctions of any kind are useless and ineffective in this case. As I said to one of my colleagues yesterday, they will eat grass, but they will not abandon this programme unless they feel safe.

What can ensure security? The restoration of international law. We need to advance towards dialogue between all parties concerned. It is important for all participants in this process, including North Korea, not to have any thoughts about the threat of being destroyed; on the contrary, all sides to the conflict should cooperate.

In this environment, in this situation, whipping up military hysteria is absolutely pointless; it is a dead end. Besides, North Korea has not only medium-range missiles and nuclear weapons, we know they have that, but they also have long-range artillery and multiple rocket launchers with a range of up to 60 kilometres.

It is pointless to use missile defence systems against these weapons. There are no weapons in the world that can counteract long-range artillery or multiple rocket launchers. And they can be located in such a way that they are virtually impossible to find.

In this context, military hysteria will do no good, but may lead to a global, planet-wide disaster and enormous casualties.

Diplomacy is the only way to solve the North Korean nuclear problem.

At the recent Valdai Forum Putin touched on this issue again, making clear that it is important to speak to the North Koreans with respect and courtesy, and not to hurl abuse and invective at them

Or, take another example – the clinch around the Korean Peninsula. I am sure you covered this issue extensively today as well. Yes, we unequivocally condemn the nuclear tests conducted by the DPRK and fully comply with the UN Security Council resolutions concerning North Korea. Colleagues, I want to emphasise this so that there is no discretionary interpretation. We comply with all UN Security Council resolutions.

However, this problem can, of course, only be resolved through dialogue. We should not drive North Korea into a corner, threaten force, stoop to unabashed rudeness or invective. Whether someone likes or dislikes the North Korean regime, we must not forget that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is a sovereign state.

All disputes must be resolved in a civilised manner. Russia has always favoured such an approach.

North Korean leaders – including almost certainly Kim Jong-un himself – reading these comments will take special note of Putin’s careful reminder – all too often forgotten in the reams of commentary which are written about North Korea – that “the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is a sovereign state”.

If the North Koreans perceive in Russia a country which, if not exactly a friend, is nonetheless at least a country that makes an effort to understand them and to accord them a measure of respect, and to which they can therefore talk to without being threatened or humiliated, for the Russians securing peace on the Korean Peninsula is both a question of vital national security and a matter of great economic interest.

Of the importance for Russia of peace on the Korean Peninsula, there is no need for any lengthy explanation.

Russia is North Korea’s neighbour (the two countries actually share a short common land border) and for the Russians a nuclear war that would devastate North Korea would be a disaster in both national security and humanitarian terms.  If only for that reason the Russians are anxious to do whatever they can to ensure that it doesn’t happen.

Beyond this however is the fact that for Russia peace on the Korean Peninsula opens up tantalising economic opportunities.

As well as its longstanding links to North Korea, Russia has developed extremely friendly relations with South Korea, which has expressed great interest in investing in the Russian economy.

Beyond this however lies the prospect for Russia of Russia building a gas pipeline and railway to South Korea across North Korea, providing South Korea with Russian gas, North Korea with a source of revenue in the form of Russian transit fees, and both Koreas – but most importantly South Korea – a land bridge to Europe.

Realistically this project can only happen if the pipeline and railway cross North Korea, and that in turn requires peace in the Korean Peninsula, which because of the existing tension seems as far away as ever.

However a decade ago there was serious talk of this project being put into effect, which is not surprising given the immense potential advantages it has for all three parties

I would add that it was not only the Russians who were interested in this project.  North Korean delegations visited Russia to discuss it, and the South Koreans were also interested.

During a visit to the contact line between the two Korea which I made from the South Korean side in 2004 I saw that the South Koreans had even built a railway station on their side of the contact line in preparation for the day when trains would criss-cross North Korea and Russia on their way to Europe.

Obviously for the Russians, anxious to develop their economic and political relations with the East Asian nations and seeking investment in their own Far Eastern territories, this is an attractive prospect.

It comes moreover with a political dimension, with the Russians looking forward to a restoration of political links between the two Koreas, possibly in some sort of confederation with each other.  The idea of a confederation between the two Koreas was actually proposed by Kim Il-sung in the 1970s, and though Cold War conditions at that time made it impossible, it may not be so farfetched today.

If the two Koreas – with an aggregate population of almost 80 million people, a highly trained and well-educated population, abundant natural resources, and advanced industries (including some in North Korea) – were ever to come together in that way the result would be an economic colossus, potentially rivalling Japan as the second biggest economy after China in East Asia.

For the Russians – with their good relations with both Koreas – it is a tantalising prospect, especially if they can use the prospect of better economic and political links between themselves and the two Koreas – and between the two Koreas with each other – to distance South Korea from the US, and to draw the two Koreas into closer relations and perhaps in time into full integration with the Eurasian powers (ie. with China and Russia).

That these ideas hover in the background – at least in the minds of some Russians – was confirmed by Putin during his recent question and answer session at the Valdai conference, where he specifically alluded to the project to build railway and pipeline links to the Koreas, linking them to Russia and ultimately – via the Eurasian powers – to Europe.

What role can Russia play? It can act as an intermediary in this case. We proposed a number of joint tripartite projects involving Russia, North Korea and South Korea. They include building a railway, pipeline transport and so on. We need to work. We need to get rid of belligerent rhetoric, to realise the danger associated with this situation, and to move beyond our ambitions. It is imperative to stop arguing. In fact, it is as simple as that.

(bold italics added)

Needless to say the very nature of these Russian plans for the two Koreas guarantees US opposition to them, though on any objective assessment peace in the Korean Peninsula and a wealthy and economically powerful Korean confederation – with which the US would also trade – are in the US’s own interest, even if this does result in closer political relations between the two Koreas and the Eurasian powers.  After all, even if South Korea were to become more distant from the US, it is scarcely conceivable that it would wish to be the US’s enemy.

However the reality of US policy at the moment is that it is narrowly focused on achieving often grandiose geopolitical objectives, even when these are over-ambitious and involve great dangers, rather than on pursuing what on any objective assessment are the US’s real interests.

The result is that because the Russian proposals would require the US to reduce and in time eliminate its military presence in South Korea, and might lead over time to South Korea changing its relationship with the US from that of a subordinate ally to that of an equal economic partner, the US is all but guaranteed to oppose them.

I have always wondered whether the previous failure of the multilateral diplomacy to end the Korean crisis in the form of the collapse in 2006 of the so-called Six Party Talks – which happened because the US completely unreasonably refused to end its financial sanctions on North Korea in return for North Korea ending its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programmes – was caused because of US fears that if the crisis on the Korean Peninsula ended the Russian projects to build railway lines and pipelines across North Korea to South Korea would have gone ahead.

If so then the US deliberately stoked a nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula and put world peace at risk because it thought its pursuit of its geopolitical objectives was being challenged.  No doubt it did so because it underestimated North Korea’s ability to move ahead with its programmes.

However the Russians apparently now see an opening in the latest crisis to put their ideas for the Korean Peninsula back on track, as Putin’s words at the Valdai Forum show.

The result is a flurry of Russian diplomacy, with repeat visits to Moscow of Choe Son Hui, the head of the North American department of North Korea’s Foreign Ministry and one of North Korea’s most senior diplomats.

Choe Son Hui was in Moscow at the end of September where she had talks at the Russian Foreign Ministry which are reported to have gone on for five hours.  Four days ago TASS reported that she was in Moscow again.   Here is a picture of her arriving at the Foreign Ministry in Moscow in September

The Russians have also attempted to use a recent meeting of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) in Moscow – to which both North Korea and South Korea sent delegations – to stage direct talks between the North Koreans and the South Koreans.

In the event, and showing – not for the first time – that North Korea is a difficult country to help, the North Koreans – perhaps because they had no orders to talk to the South Koreans from Pyongyang – refused to talk to the South Koreans directly.  The Russians will however have undoubtedly passed messages between the two delegations, establishing themselves thereby as a potential intermediary.

The fact that the Russians’ North Korean interlocutor is Choe Son Hui – whose area of responsibility is North Korea’s relations with the US – is a sign that for the moment the Russians are involving the US in their discussions.

Indeed it is likely that the Moscow talks between the Russians and Choe Son Hui are part of the ‘backchannel’ between the US and the North Koreans that US Secretary of State Tillerson spoke about early in October, which however was foolishly ridiculed by President Trump on twitter.

However the fact that the Russians tried to set up a meeting in Moscow between the North Koreans and the South Koreans, even if it was unsuccessful, should serve as a warning to the US.

Going back to what Putin said at the Valdai Forum, it is notable how he spoke of “tripartite projects involving Russia, North Korea and South Korea”.  By contrast Putin’s comments about the US role in creating the Korean crisis shows little confidence – to put it mildly – in US diplomacy.

We did agree at some point that Korea would stop its nuclear weapons’ programmes. No, our American partners thought that was not enough, and, a few weeks later, I believe, after the agreement, imposed more sanctions, saying that Korea can do better. Maybe it can, but it did not take on such obligations. It also immediately withdrew from all the agreements and resumed everything it was doing before.

If the US persists in its present posture – saying it is ready to talk to North Korea but refusing to do so, saying it has no plans for regime change in North Korea but refusing to give North Korea any security guarantees, saying North Korea must disarm but ruling out any withdrawal of US troops from the Korean Peninsula, criticising Kim Jong-un for imposing hardships on North Korea’s people and then searching for ways to increase the hardship which is inflicted on them, and demanding that China solve the Korean crisis for the US without the US giving anything in return – then sooner or later the point will come when the Russians will tell the South Koreans that the biggest obstacle to a peaceful settlement of the crisis in the Korean Peninsula is not North Korea but the US.

At that point the Russians will no doubt point out to the South Koreans that they have a far greater interest in a peaceful settlement of the crisis than the US does, since a failure to resolve the crisis is putting the future survival not just of North Korea but also of South Korea and of the whole Korean nation at risk.

At that point the Russians will no doubt also point out to the South Koreans that it is in their hands to end the Korean crisis by coming to terms directly with North Korea, and that they do not actually need the US to achieve this.

It is not after all as if the contours of a possible Korean settlement are difficult to see: a non-aggression pact between the two Koreas, a withdrawal of US troops from the Korean Peninsula, and an agreement by North Korea that it give up its weapons in return for formal security guarantees from the Great Powers (in this case this means the two Eurasian Great Powers, Russia and China).

There is no logical reason why any of this should require the agreement of the US, and if the two Koreas were to agree to this the US would not be in a position to prevent it.

The South Koreans are not ready for this message at the moment, but the Russians – who privately probably already think all these things – may calculate that if they bide their time and wait for the right moment the South Koreans will become more willing to listen as the true extent of US intransigence becomes clear.

That after all is how the big breakthrough came in the Syrian crisis, with Russia and Turkey agreeing a deal with each other after the fall of the Jihadi stronghold in Aleppo, which did not involve the US.

We are some way from this point in the Korean crisis. The North Koreans will need a great deal of persuasion before they are prepared to talk to the South Koreans whose government they consider to be a US puppet.  The South Koreans will need a great deal of persuasion before they are willing to break with the US and are ready to act without the prior agreement of the US.

However given the strong interests all three parties have in a settlement, if the US is not careful it may not be so long before it comes to that.

In that case we could see Russian diplomats in Pyongyang and Seoul, and North Korea’s and South Korea’s leaders – Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in – in Moscow, with the US completely cut out of the talks – brokered by China and the Russia – for a comprehensive settlement of the Korean crisis, which would be going ahead without them.

It goes without saying that China will be involved every step of the way.  Indeed the Russians are undoubtedly informing the Chinese in advance about every step they are taking, just as Iran was kept informed and was involved in every step the Russians and the Turks took together towards bringing the Syrian crisis to an end, and has been made a co-chair of the Astana talks.

China’s involvement and agreement is in fact essential.  Ultimately, because of the history of mistrust between the two Koreas, China as well as Russia will almost certainly have to act as a co-signatory and guarantor of whatever agreement the two Koreas finally agree with each other.  Almost certainly that will require China and Russia giving formal security guarantees not just to North Korea but probably to South Korea as well.

Whilst this outcome objectively speaking would not be contrary to US interests, for the “indispensable nation” which “can see further” than all the others such an outcome would qualify as a total humiliation.  That however is the most likely outcome to which US intransigence on the Korean issue is leading.

The US still has time to avoid this outcome, and there are some people in Washington – Secretary of State Rex Tillerson probably being one – who are prepared to take the necessary action to do so.  However there is little sign of their opinions prevailing at the moment, if only because few people in Washington seem to recognise the danger.,

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