BEIJING – With the United Nations Security Council scheduled to meet on February 23 to discuss the North Korean nuclear issue, including recent revelations of its uranium-enrichment program, Washington and its allies in Seoul and Tokyo are increasingly placing their hopes on China, oops! rather, Russia.
That’s an unusual development in the 20-year saga of North Korea’s nuclear program, as Russia has been largely “invisible” in the six-country consortium that heads international efforts to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.
During previous rounds of the six-party talks in Beijing – they were last held more than two years ago – international media outlets, even though hungry for scoops, spared their journalists from going to the Russian delegation, reflecting the former “empire’s” limited influence in regional security affairs and in particular its greatly reduced clout over Pyongyang. Furthermore, China has replaced Russia as the main Cold War benefactor of Pyongyang.
Yet, China pretends it doesn’t have influence on North Korea, while Russia pretends it has. The reality is the opposite. As one Chinese scholar put it, “We Chinese say we don’t have influence on North Korea. We say North Korea is a sovereign state and it makes its own decisions. But everybody knows that we have the influence.”
Leonid Petrov, a Russian expert on Korean affairs at the University of Sydney, says, “Russia lost its leverage on North Korea in 1991 when the Soviet empire collapsed”.
During the Cold War, Moscow was Pyongyang’s guardian in its “struggle against American imperialism”. Soviet records confirm that current North Korean leader Kim Jong-il was born in the village of Vyatskoye, near Khabarovsk, in Russia in 1941. However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the cash-stripped Russian government demanded that Pyongyang pay back in hard currency the money it owed the Kremlin, which soured the Russo-North Korea relationship.
Russian interest as well as influence in North Korea steadily declined in the 1990s, especially after Moscow established diplomatic ties with Pyongyang’s rival, Seoul, making North Korea feel betrayed. The relationship was partly restored in 2000 when Vladimir Putin, the current premier who was then president, visited North Korea, the first trip of its kind by a top Russian leader.
That, however, does not mean today’s relationship is back to where it was. “The two countries used to be allies, but now they are neither friends nor foes,” said Yoichi Funabashi, a Japanese security expert on East Asia in his book The Peninsula Question. During the Cold War, Russia and China competed fiercely for leverage over the North, now China has gained the ascendency…
…”Russia is noticing the chasm between Washington and Beijing and seeing its own chance to enhance its international leverage,” said Lee Sang-soo at the Institute for Security and Development Policy in Stockholm.
While Russia supported China’s call for the resumption of the six-party talks, unlike China, Moscow condemned North Korea following the shelling of the island of Yeonpyeong. “In many ways, Russia’s views on global affairs are different from China’s,” said Zhang Liangui, a professor of international strategic research at the Party School of the China Communist Party Central Committee in Beijing.
At the UN Security Council meeting later this month, Washington is expected to push for a statement of condemnation on North Korea’s uranium-enrichment program, while China is likely to block the effort. It will instead seek to restart the six-party talks first. When Washington and Beijing are at odds, Russia’s role is crucial, and it could use its veto powers.
“Russia will support the US move,” said Zhang in Beijing, adding that Russia believed North Korea’s nuclear program was a threat. Petrov, the Russian scholar in Australia said, “Russia also firmly supports nuclear non-proliferation [more so than China.]”
According to Zhang, North Korea’s nuclear program is more dangerous than Iran’s. “It’s a more serious issue. Iran has not conducted nuclear testing. So, its claim [that its program is] for peaceful purposes for nuclear power has merit. But North Korea is different. It has already conducted nuclear testing, twice. So, its claim that its nuclear use is for peaceful purposes doesn’t hold ground.”
With Russia’s role “once lost, but now found”, it is no wonder that recently there have been increased flights to Moscow by envoys from concerned countries, in addition to visits to Beijing.
So, it is more than coincidence, for example, that South Korea’s chief nuclear envoy, Wi Sung-lak, is visiting Beijing on Thursday, while Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara is visiting Moscow on the same day. This comes on the heels of US Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg’s Asian swing just two weeks ago. “Washington and its allies will increasingly turn to using the Russian card,” said Zhang in Beijing.