Can Russia play a constructive role in the North Korea problem?

Nov 21, 2017 | Naoko Aoki

Experts are divided over whether Russia can play a constructive role in de-escalating tensions over the North Korean nuclear problem. As someone who looks at North Korea, I think Moscow can and should play a role in reducing tensions.  Here is why.

Russia has a variety of economic relationships with North Korea, even if they are a mere shadow of what they used to be during the Soviet era. Moscow exports fuel to North Korea and imports labor from the country. In October, a Russian company started providing Internet connection services to North Korea. China is the only other country North Korea relies on for a connection to the Internet. Moscow has also signed agreements on large-scale projects with Pyongyang, even if they have not proceeded as planned. One such project is the extension of the Trans-Siberian railway to the two Koreas. 

Russia also has political relations with North Korea. It has an embassy in Pyongyang, and its diplomats interact with each other. For example, Choe Son Hui, the head of the North American Division of the North Korean Foreign Ministry, visited Moscow in late September to meet with senior Russian officials.

Economic and political relations mean more communication and leverage. While China has stronger ties with North Korea than Russia does, there is resentment between Beijing and Pyongyang as well, which opens a door to Moscow.

Russia experts do not disagree that Russia has the potential to influence North Korea in some way. What they disagree on, instead, appears to be whether it is willing to do so and how it is likely to influence the North. Some believe Moscow can potentially use its leverage in a way that is not adversarial to U.S. interests. Dimitri Trenin, from the Carnegie Moscow Center, suggests that Moscow can “nudge Pyongyang toward strategic restraint, and help defuse tensions in the meantime, by offering it new economic prospects.” The Royal United Services Institute’s Sarah Lain suggests that Russia can “outline how ‘peaceful’ engagement with Pyongyang could work.” 

Former assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor David J. Kramer thinks the outcome of Russian influence will be to the detriment of U.S. interests: Russia uses its influence “in ways that undermine the international sanctions against the [North Korean] regime."