On Russia's Role in Resolving the North Korea Crisis: Q&A with Gary Samore
North Korea conducted its first tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles this summer, stirring up worries that it could hit U.S. targets in Guam or Alaska and that its nuclear-weapons program was advancing at a dangerously rapid pace. In response, on Aug. 5, the U.N. Security Council unanimously passed new sanctions against Pyongyang, putting Russia and the U.S. on the same side of a major international security issue despite the current low point in bilateral ties. At the time of this interview, tensions between the U.S. and North Korea were running high, with both sides issuing implicit or explicit threats of war.
For insights on the implications of North Korea’s missile-program advances, U.S. policy on North Korea and Russia’s role in the stand-off, Russia Matters spoke to Gary Samore, executive director for research at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and former presidential advisor on arms control and nonproliferation. Dr. Samore has worked on issues of nuclear security, strategy, terrorism and proliferation, in and out of government, for some three decades. In 1995, he received the Secretary of Defense Medal for Meritorious Civilian Service for his role in negotiating the 1994 North Korea nuclear agreement.
RM: Let’s start by “zooming out”: There’s been plenty of debate in the pundit class about responses to North Korea’s latest tests related to nuclear weapons. What are the main reasonable lines of thought in the U.S. policymaking establishment about what should be done? How close is this establishment to consensus?
GS: I think there is general agreement that eliminating North Korea’s nuclear weapons is not a realistic goal for the time being, perhaps as long as the Kim dynasty rules in Pyongyang. Military options to destroy North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile force are impractical and run a high risk of sparking a broader conflict, which would be very costly and dangerous to the U.S. and its Asian allies. Regime change is not possible without Chinese cooperation and Beijing is deeply reluctant to apply economic pressures that could destabilize North Korea. Hence, diplomacy (backed by sanctions) is the only option to limit and delay North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs in the near term, even though it will not result in denuclearization. Because prospects for diplomacy are so uncertain, there is general agreement in Washington on the need to enhance military cooperation with South Korea and Japan to strengthen deterrence and defense, including missile defense.
RM: Is Russia critical to this effort? Does it, for example, have sufficient leverage vis-à-vis North Korea to convince it to abandon or freeze its nuclear or missile program?
GS: Compared to the U.S. and China, Russia is a relatively secondary player because it has little leverage with North Korea since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of large-scale aid and military assistance to Pyongyang. Nonetheless, Russian cooperation is necessary to make the diplomatic option effective. In particular, Moscow can play the spoiler and reduce pressure on North Korea to negotiate if it blocks U.N. Security Council sanctions resolutions or expands trade with North Korea to replace trade between North Korea and China.
Beijing is warning Kim Jung Un not to conduct further ICBM tests or else face additional economic sanctions. At the same time, it's trying to reduce the risk of destabilizing North Korea.
RM: This month’s unanimous U.N. Security Council vote to impose new sanctions on North Korea was hailed as an example of consensus among the disparate, powerful actors on the Council, with China, Russia and the West able to agree on something. What do you think it took to achieve that unanimity behind the scenes? Do you think Russia’s vote came easily or did it require arm twisting?
GS: As with previous resolutions on North Korea, agreement on UNSCR 2371 was fundamentally a negotiation between Washington and Beijing. Previously, China was only willing to support broad economic sanctions against North Korea in response to nuclear tests, most recently UNSCR 2270 and 2321 in 2016. In the case of UNSCR 2371, China for the first time was willing to support broad economic sanction against North Korea in response to ICBM-range missile tests. In essence, Beijing is warning Kim Jung Un not to conduct further ICBM tests or else face additional economic sanctions. At the same time, Beijing is trying to limit the extent of sanctions to reduce the risk of destabilizing North Korea or provoking Kim Jung Un to take some rash action. For the most part, Russia has supported China’s approach to increase but limit sanctions, including sanctions that directly affect Russian economic interests. For example, the sanction on North Korean guest workers was limited to a cap at current levels rather than a complete ban, which directly affects Russia because it has the largest number of North Korea guest workers after China. My impression is that Russia’s vote came easily once the U.S. and China agreed on the resolution.
Compared to the U.S., Russia places less emphasis on coercive pressure like sanctions and tends to emphasize the importance of incentives.
RM: At least one respected analyst has pointed out that Russia has four main national interests in North Korea: nuclear security, military security (including no beefed-up U.S. military presence on the peninsula), prestige (as an indispensable player in the international community) and economy (growth in trade with the DPRK and trilateral projects involving both Koreas). At least two of those—military security, as Russia sees it, and economy—seem potentially out of sync with America’s goals and interests in Korea. Moreover, despite its support for sanctions, Moscow may be skeptical of their efficacy. In this context, what possible “collision points” do you see in the paths the U.S. and Russia are taking (or want to take) to reduce the nuclear risks emanating from North Korea?
GS: I think Russia and the U.S. are basically on the same page in favoring a diplomatic solution to the North Korean nuclear threat, even though there may be some tactical differences. Compared to the U.S., Russia places less emphasis on coercive pressure like sanctions and tends to emphasize the importance of incentives, such as security assurances to North Korea, including limits on U.S. military presence and exercises in the region. Russia, for example, has joined China in supporting a “freeze-for-freeze” deal (suspension of nuclear and missile tests in exchange for suspension of U.S.-South Korean military exercises) and in opposing the deployment of the THAAD missile defense system in South Korea. In the end, however, Russia will support any deal that emerges from U.S.-North Korea negotiations.
In theory, Russia could subvert U.S. efforts to increase economic pressure on North Korea, but in practice Russia is not likely to go against a Chinese decision to support increased sanctions.
RM: How would you guess U.S. officials working on the Korea issue are viewing Russia right now: as an important partner? A major obstacle? A nuisance? Or some combination? You mentioned before that Moscow could play the spoiler and relieve some of the pressure on North Korea.
GS: My impression is that U.S. officials working on North Korea see Russia as a relatively minor player, certainly compared to China. In theory, Russia could block or subvert U.S. efforts to increase economic pressure on North Korea, but in practice Russia is not likely to go against a Chinese decision to support increased sanctions. Of course, Moscow would like to get credit in Washington for helping to address the North Korean problem (including eventual easing of Ukraine sanctions), but officials in Washington don’t seem to feel we “owe” Russia any favors for its actions on North Korea.
Pyongyang has always tried to turn to Moscow when its relations with Beijing are strained.
RM: Could Sino-Russian alignment on Korea advance some sort of closer strategic alliance between the two? Are there worries about this in Washington?
GS: Sino-Russian alignment on Korea is part of the broader strategic alliance between Beijing and Moscow. On Korea, Russia is the junior partner, just as China was the junior partner on Iran. However, there are limits to the partnership on Korea. Pyongyang has always tried to turn to Moscow when its relations with Beijing are strained. And China is very sensitive to any effort by Russia to reassert its influence in East Asia. For China, North Korea is primarily viewed through the lens of its broader relationship with the U.S., especially because President Trump has made clear to President Xi that the U.S. will soften economic demands on China if China helps to pressure North Korea and that the U.S. will be tougher on economic demands if China doesn’t help on North Korea.
RM: Russia has been calling for a new security architecture in Northeast Asia. Is this a realistic prospect?
GS: No. The fundamental security differences and underlying conflicts among countries in Northeast Asia (such as China and Japan, Korea and Japan and North and South Korea) make a serious regional security architecture impossible.
There’s no doubt that North Korea’s missile program is based on Soviet-era missile technology. However, I am not convinced that Ukraine’s Yuzhmash plant provided actual engine motors to North Korea in recent years.
RM: This month we’ve heard troubling news that the engine used in one of North Korea’s latest test launches may have been smuggled from Ukraine’s Yuzhmash plant. What concerns does that raise for you about the bigger nuclear-security picture? Are international regimes such as the Missile Technology Control Regime adequate for stopping the smuggling of ICBM components and know-how? If not, then what should and realistically could be done?
GS: There’s no doubt that North Korea’s missile program is based on Soviet-era missile technology, including engine technology that North Korea obtained from Russian and Ukrainian scientists over the years. However, I am not convinced that Ukraine’s Yuzhmash plant provided actual engine motors to North Korea in recent years. I hope these reports will be thoroughly investigated by the Ukrainian government. In any event, the effectiveness of international regimes like the MTCR depends on the willingness and ability of individual governments to establish and enforce effective export-control systems. Ukraine’s export-control system (like most of its governmental functions) is weak compared to other European countries.
RM: Some analysts believe that Kim Jong Un has been most successful in implementing Nixon’s madman theory. Do you agree?
GS: Not really. For all his noisy threats and bluster, Kim Jong Un has been very careful to avoid actions that could cause a conflict with the U.S. Unlike his father Kim Jung Il, Kim Jung Un has been much more aggressive in advancing North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs and much more willing to risk angering China. But this approach has also come at a price because it has forced China to support more economic sanctions than it would have otherwise, if Kim Jung Un had been more patient and cautious. Whether this strategy works in the end is too early to say.
Photo credit: Wikicommons photo by Stefan Krasowski shared under a CC BY 2.0 license.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.