Russian President Vladimir Putin has held a phone call with Donald Trump on the possibility of joint negotiations with North Korea. While few details have emerged from the conversation, the office of the Russian President has stated that Trump expressed his willingness to support Russian efforts to establish a multi-lateral dialogue with Pyongyang.
The US President is quoted as saying,
“We would love to have his help on North Korea. China’s helping, Russia’s not helping. We’d like to have Russia’s help, very important”.
While Trump’s remarks will be welcomed by many as they indicate a shift away from Washington’s position of threatening to “destroy” North Korea, Trump’s assessment is factually untrue.
Over the last several months, Russia has intensified its diplomatic contacts with officials in Pyongyang, in an effort to try and reach an acceptable understanding with all sides, in-line with the joint Chinese-Russian Double Freeze peace proposals, which mandate that the DPRK cease its weapons tests while the US, South Korea and Japan simultaneously cease their military drills in the region.
Additionally, Vladimir Putin has proposed a tripartite economic cooperation scheme which would see South and North Korea cooperating with Russia over joint economic, trading and energy ventures. Both the South Korean President and North Korean officials have expressed interest in the proposals. Such a scheme, if implement could then be easily integrated into China’s existing One Belt–One Road initiative.
I recently wrote the following about Russia’s position as a a natural peace broker over matters concerning North Korea.
“During debates over whether the US will ever be willing to approach North Korea and request a good faith dialogue to calm tensions in the region, one cannot help but think there is a certain useless quality to such questions. How can the US be ready for dialogue with another country when the US appears not even to fully listen to what North Korea says very clearly in public? Forgetting North Korea, when the US doesn’t even listen to North Korea’s neighbours China and Russia, one must come to terms with the impossibility of the US as a good faith dialogue partner.
North Korea’s position vis-a-vis its contemporary weapons programme has always been clear. One needn’t be a spy or have secret drones flying over Pyongyang to ascertain this. One only needs to use the internet to read official statements from the DPRK and listen to what its diplomats say at places like the UN.
North Korea’s current position can be easily defined as follows:
The DPRK will not negotiate the state of its weapons programme until such a time that the DPRK achieves nuclear parity with the United States.
In this context, parity does not mean the same number of nuclear bombs and nuclear warhead capable missiles as the United States. It would take decades for North Korea to reach such a parity. Instead, North Korea seeks to achieve the ability to deliver a nuclear weapon to US soil, just as the US can do the same in respect of North Korea (and the rest of the world).
North Korea’s latest missile test which saw the launch of the Hwasong-15 ICBM, is, according to North Korea itself, the crowing achievement of this parity. Unlike previous missiles launched by the DPRK which were medium range, the Hwasong-15 is almost certainly a fully-fledged ICBM. According to North Korea, it is capable of delivering a nuclear payload without breaking up upon re-entering earth’s atmosphere. There is of course only one way to know if this is entirely true and that would be if North Korea launched a nuclear weapon using the missile. Thus, such a question is not meaningful as the only way to find out of North Korea is bluffing is by running the risk of what is statistically known as a megadeath.
While North Korea’s previous missile launches were called ICBM launches by Washington, Russia had been quick to point out that they were in fact medium range missiles. This time, the global consensus is that the new missile is the real deal. No one thus far has challenged any of North Korea’s scientific claims in respect of the Hwasong-15. By contrast, many in the weapons watching community are amazed that North Korea was able to achieve such a feat in such a short period of time and without any meaningful outside help.
If one accepts that North Korea has then reached nuclear parity with the US, the next logical question ought to be, is North Korea bluffing in respect of having a willingness to enter discussions with outside powers now that parity has been reached?
The answer which has come from the only major power to have anything approximating healthy relations with North Korea is that North Korea is ready, if the nature of the discussions does not seek to threaten the DPRK’s own security concerns.
Russia has recently sent a delegation to North Korea as part of a highly under-reported diplomatic initiative by Moscow to reach a respectful understanding with North Korea about the current situation in the region. At the same time, Moscow is developing ever closer ties with South Korea. With relations between Seoul and Moscow at an historic high, it would be completely wrong to say that Russia is playing favourites between the Korean states as one could have said during the Cold War.
According to Alexei Chepa who formed part of the Russian delegation to Pyongyang,
‘They (North Korea) expect that the Hwasong-15 ICBM will put them on par with the US and guarantee them peace. This is their position: they wanted to demonstrate what they are capable of.
After this launch, North Korea will probably be ready to talk on new conditions’.
Other members of the delegation stressed that at this time, the existance of North Korea’s weapons programme is non-negotiable but that if talks begin now, the DPRK will be willing to entertain long-term de-escalation plans if its security concerns are met by all major regional and global powers. Because Russia accepts North Korea’s totally legitimate security concerns, Russia is a natural mediator of such would-be negotiations. This is especially true as relations between North Korea and China have plummeted in recent years, for reasons that were initially unrelated to Pyongyang’s weapons programme. The governments of Xi Jinping and Kim Jong-un simply do not see eye to eye. Russia, as a closer partner of China, is however in the position to help reduce this tension and unlike the US, China would readily welcome such a thaw.
Kazbek Taisayev, the head of Russia’s legislative delegation who regularly corresponds with his North Korea counterparts has said,
‘We discussed this initiative of ours… They are ready for a dialogue,’ he said. ‘They are ready for talks. But they obviously mistrust everyone, except for Russia. My impression is that only Russia could act as a guarantor in such talks… They deem the US impossible to negotiate with’.
Vitaly Pashin who also formed part of the Russian delegation to the DPRK stated,
‘We suggest a road map, so that in the future, not now, North Korea could give up on its nuclear program. We have discussed this issue with our colleagues, but they replied by saying that ‘we will never give up on the nuclear program amid the current situation’.
They say, we [North Korea] have launched a ballistic missile… intentionally to be sure that we are safe’.
As the Russian President himself stated publicly, following from the precedent of the US attacking Libya and Iraq, countries which did not have a nuclear deterrent, it is only natural for North Korea to want what amounts to a geo-political insurance policy.
Russia is aware that South Korea, Japan and even China are either worried or irritated by North Korea’s nuclear weapons, while also being aware that North Korea is frightened that if left defenceless, the US could do to it, what the US did during the Korean War. During that war, Pyongyang was entirely destroyed and 600,000 North Koreans were killed. As this happened in the lifetime of many older citizens of the DPRK, it really is not surprising that Pyongyang seeks to arm itself at a time when the US threatens to “destroy” North Korea a second time, as both Donald Trump and his UN Ambassador Nikki Haley have threatened many times.
By entering into negotiations without preconditions, Russia and both Korean states could eventually reach an accord, one that would likely be in line with the tripartite economic cooperation proposals which Vladimir Putin introduced in September of this year.
At the time, South Korea said they are ready to discuss such plans now and North Korea said they will be ready in the future.
Now that North Korea has achieved its much coveted nuclear parity, the time for such discussions to being will be soon according to Russia. This is of course entirely consistent with North Korea’s public statements.
Of the many differences between the US and Russia, one key difference is that while Russia listens to every country on earth, including the United States, the United States appears only to listen to itself. Is it any wonder that such a country is seen as a poor negotiating partner? Just ask Iran who agreed to de-escalate its own weapons programme, only to be continually threatened by the US and its Israeli partner, a country whose own illegal nuclear weapons are hardly ever discussed, even though it has been at war with every single one of its neighbours and continues to occupy both Syria and Palestine”.
While China seeks to peacefully integrate East Asia into the One Belt–One Road trade and commerce initiative, because of the strained relations between China under President Xi and North Korea under Kim Jong-un, it has largely fallen on Russia to be a reasonable mediator as China, in spite of its reasonable proposals regarding the Korean peninsula, has grown increasingly exacerbated with Pyongyang dating back to the ascension of the current North Korean leader.
Ultimately, any would-be peace process on the Korean peninsula will have to be instigated by Russia, as Russia has the best relations with Pyongyang of any of the superpowers, while Moscow continues to build highly important economic ties to Seoul.
If Russia can convince both Korean states to come to the table, it is almost certain that at that point China would happily join, as Chinese officials have said on multiple occasions.
At such a juncture, the United States would either have to accept a compromise authored primarily by Russia, China and the two Korean states themselves, or otherwise walk away from the table as Washington did during previous negotiations in 2009.