(Project of the Kajima Institute of International Peace)

North Korean Denuclearization and Russia

By Nobuo Shimotomai
Professor, Hosei University

The North Korean nuclear crisis took a dramatic turn, resulting in the US-North Korea Joint Statement in Singapore. On the other hand, the role of Russia seems to be a secondary topic in considering this crisis. However, in order to better understand the North Korean security problem or the reason the North covets a regime guarantee, we are required to retrace the historical relationship between the former Soviet Union and North Korea. Due to space limitations, we will discuss the North Korean security problem as a "thesis."

1. North Korea was established as a state following of the anti-Japan warfare of the Soviet Red Army (the 25th Division) and the occupation of North Korea, the Korean Peninsula north of the 38th parallel. Kim Il-sung was then a Soviet army captain from the 88th sniper brigade, stationed in a suburb of Khabarovsk, consisting of anti-Japanese guerrilla troops that had fled to the Soviet Union since1940. He was initially an interpreter for the Soviet occupation army. Kim became a temporary prime minister in February 1946 and founded the DPRK in 1948.

2. The Korean War was initiated on June 25, 1950 by Kim Il-sung with the approval of Stalin and Mao Zedong. He had been encouraged by the Chinese Revolution. Kim retreated when the United Nations army entered the war, but the participation of the Chinese People's Volunteer Army transformed the fighting into an international civil war. Since the Soviet Union did not participate directly in the war, it did not become a signatory country for the ceasefire agreement. An underlying cause for Russia playing an insignificant role at the outset of the process of arriving at a solution to the current nuclear crisis is to be sought in this historical fact.

3. The Soviet Union had the intention of acquiring uranium resources in North Korea that were then in short supply at home. North Korea was involved in the Soviet nuclear development program. Since the 1950s the North had participated in research on the peaceful use of nuclear power promoted by the Soviet Union, and also attended the Pugwash Conferences in the late 1950s.

4. Kim Il-sung and his group, which was the smallest faction in the Korean Workers' Party, succeeded in eliminating the influence of opponents inside the party through the Korean War and was able to seize power. The largest obstacle for Kim were the pro-China elements within the party. These elements who were influenced by criticism of Stalin attempted to oust Kim ("August Faction Incident" 1956). China and the Soviet Union, surpprised by the turmoil in East Europe beginning with the October 1956 Hungarian Uprising, did not engage in this attempt to oust Kim. Kim, who barely maintained power, achieved the monopoly of power by purging pro-China elements, concurrently with the withdrawal of the Chinese army from North Korea, and established a nationalistic "Juche" power.

Against this backdrop, the relationship between North Korea and China is asymmetric both historically and in terms of realpolitik. Kim Jong-un still harbors a deep distrust against China. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the relationship with China, which was becoming a superpower, has been a grave concern for North Korea. The excuse used when Kim Jong-un purged his uncle, Jang Song-thaek, who was supposedly advancing pro-China reforms, was that Jang was "factious." (Ra Jong-yil)

5. After the downfall of the Soviet Union, China and the Soviet Union recognized South Korea. However, Japan and the United States did not agree to a cross-recognition of North Korea. Moreover, as the then Yeltsin administration adopted a pro-South Korea policy, the North resorted to the development of nuclear weapons and missiles at the expense of everything else. This eventually led to a nuclear crisis in 1994. It is reported that 600,000 to 2 million people starved to death in North Korea during those years.

6. Subsequently, Russia came to advocate a North-South balance of power in the Korean Peninsula, and concluded with the North a Good-Neighborly Friendship, Cooperation Treaty in 2000, to replace an alliance treaty that had already expired. President Putin's debut on the international stage was his attendance at the G7 Summit in Okinawa in July 2000. On that occasion, Putin paid an official visit to North Korea as the head of the Russian state for the first time since the Soviet era. As one of the P5 supporting the nuclear nonproliferation regime, Russia would not recognize North Korea's possession of nuclear weapons. As Russia takes the position that the North Korean nuclear crisis cannot be solved by military threats, it consequently welcomes the US-North Korea reconciliation.

7. The historic transformation of the India-Pacific region symbolized by Russia's eastward shift and China's "One Belt, One Road Initiative" represents fundamental changes in the world politics and economy. Particularly, China's ascendancy to superpower status is a threat to many countries in the region, and it is worth noting that Russia heightened its eastward shift after the 2004 border demarcation with China. With the new trend of energy development encouraged by the warming of the Arctic Ocean, "a major, arterial sea road of peace and prosperity" (Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum in May 2018) is being conceived, ranging from the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District, potentially rich with LNG, via the Bering Strait, through the Sea of Okhotsk and the Indian Ocean in the future. North Korea is well aware that the redevelopment of Vladivostok will be a centerpiece in this concept.

8. Seeing that the United States would not exclude military options from its responses to the North Korean nuclear crisis, China and Russia have jointly proposed a step-by-step solution and called for the resumption of the six-party talks (July 2017). The six-party talks will be restarted following the US-North Korea summit talks. It should, however, be clearly realized that the six countries will adopt different modes of participation. The following facts are to be considered: (1) the relations between North and South Koreas as stated in the Panmunjom Declaration in April 2018; (2) the nature of the involvement of the superpowers --- the United States and China --- as described in a passage in the same declaration: "trilateral meetings involving the two Koreas and the United States, or quadrilateral meetings involving the two Koreas, the United States and China", and (3) the roles of Japan and Russia. As mentioned earlier, the historical fact that neither Japan nor Russia participated in the Korean War has reduced the range of the contribution of these two countries for the inter-Korean summit and the US-North Korea talks.

9. Now that the United States and North Korea have agreed in Singapore to the complete denuclearization of North Korea, the next step will be CVID (complete, verifiable, irreversible, dismantlement) of North Korea's nuclear program --- verification of nuclear warhead dismantlement. On the other hand, it will be necessary for the international community to provide economic aid for North Korea. In such a situation, Russia's involvement will be meaningful, for she is not a stakeholder in the recent agreement. Russia may be able to play an important international role in, among other areas, the control of warheads. The framework of economic cooperation agreed upon in the Japan-North Korea Pyongyang Declaration will be of importance for Russia to become involved in the solution of the North Korean energy problem and in the reconstruction of the North Korean economy.

10. If it becomes possible for Japan to be involved in pipeline transportation of energy resources (in the Korean Peninsula) that is Russia's specialty and North-South Korean cooperation in the railway project, Japan will contribute to the rapid elimination of the North-South gap and the development of infrastructure such as railroads, ports and harbors. If such economic cooperation from Japan is realized, it will be a great contribution for Putin's eastward shifts, now suffering from a shortage of labor force, which constitutes a bottleneck for the development of the Far East. Another challenge is also the lack of foreign investments due to economic sanctions imposed by the United States and Europe. If the denuclearization of North Korea becomes a reality, it will provide a strong leverage for future difficult arms control and disarmament negotiations between the United States and Russia, as well as for nuclear talks at the global level involving nuclear powers like India and China.

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