Last week, South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan left to meet his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov to discuss North Korea’s nuclear program.
Coming off recent meetings between the North and South, as well as the North and the U.S., Lavrov expressed his nation’s hopes that six-party negotiations aimed at denuclearizing the regime would soon resume.
But what role will Russia play should they start anew? The North’s one-time ally has had a lower-key presence in negotiations than China or the U.S., probably because it is less clearly identified with either side of the dispute since the Soviet Union fell in 1991. Twenty years since then, Prof. Leonid Petrov told The Korea Herald that opinions within Russia are starkly divided based on how one views post-Soviet history.
“Those who, like former President and current (Prime Minister) Vladimir Putin, believe that the collapse of the USSR was ‘the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century,’ see North Korea as a legitimate state that protects its national interests and maintains its sovereignty,” said Petrov, who teaches Korean Studies at the University of Sydney in Australia.
“Those who value human rights and economic liberalism see North Korea as the last bulwark of totalitarianism based on slavery.”
Kookmin University professor Andrei Lankov said that, paradoxically, regard for the North is actually higher among the Russian public now than it was during the Cold War.
The North was, in fact, the least popular of communist nations among Soviets, he said; an unreliable ally that stole technology and nearly provoked conflict with the U.S. when it seized the USS Pueblo in 1968.
This has changed in the last decade, though, as Russia has taken a more even-handed approach between the two. As accusations and threats between the North and the U.S. have been exchanged, this has aroused support for the North among some Russians, due to “deep anti-Americanism,” Lankov said.
The pro-North crowd in Russia is still a minority, but “it is highly mixed, more than it used to be,” he added.
And in North Korea, the other parties see a threat ― South Korea and Japan are both within range of North Korean arms, China could face an influx of refugees in war or collapse, and U.S. military personnel are directly in harm’s way ― but Russia may see an opportunity.
“In its long-term prospects, (Russia) might become a major player in the region,” Lankov said.
Given the choice, Lankov said Russia would like to see the Korean Peninsula remain divided, because a unified nation would likely produce a pro-U.S. or possibly a pro-China government in Russia’s back yard.
“This is clearly not in Russia’s interests,” Lankov said.
Petrov also said that the most important thing in his nation’s eyes is peace between the two Koreas, as opposed to whether or not they unify.
“Russia, like China, would do everything to avoid the possibility of another war, but unlike China, does not really care about the number of Korean states on the peninsula,” he said.
What is to be done?
It has been speculated that the reasoning behind 2010’s tragedies, the Cheonan sinking and Yeonpyeong shelling, was to drum up support for current leader Kim Jong-il’s son and heir apparent Kim Jong-un. Both Petrov and Lankov minimize succession as a reason for the attacks, however.
“The major motivation was to teach Washington and Seoul a lesson, to show them that if they continue to ignore North Korea, North Korea is not afraid to create a lot of trouble at a very low cost to itself,” Lankov said.
Since Yeonpyeong, Lankov believes that South Korea has been taking the wrong approach to the North. Outraged by the attack, it has called for the North to apologize for both Yeonpyeong and the Cheonan before negotiations can begin.
The problem with this is that Lankov can remember only one time the North has apologized for its past actions: For the purpose of normalizing relations with Japan, Kim Jong-il in 2002 admitted to the abductions of several Japanese nationals from 1977-83.
Following that apology, relations with Japan “essentially collapsed,” Lankov said.
Instead, he feels the South should restart negotiations without preconditions and resume food aid. However, he said the amount of aid should not be large because he has heard from sources inside the country that this year’s famine is no worse than in recent years. He feels that aid and negotiations reduce the chances of additional attacks, but does not expect the North to give up its nuclear program.
“Without nuclear weapons no one will pay them any attention,” he said. “They are a fourth-rate, destitute dictatorship. (The nuclear program) gives them great leverage which they are using with great skill.”
Lankov expects the resumption of the six-party talks at some point, but does not expect a breakthrough for the time being.
“Honestly I would expect a stalemate to continue until the next South Korean (presidential) elections, punctuated by an occasional North Korean attack,” he said.
Petrov believes that the West must choose between providing aid and lifting sanctions against North Korea.
“North Korea cannot feed itself as it has mountainous terrain and a cold, inhospitable climate with a short vegetation period,” he said.
“So, the international community should either remove the sanctions, recognize the DPRK diplomatically, and grant North Korea the status of the most preferred nation, or be prepared to provide the DPRK with humanitarian aid and food relief for the starving population ― the victim of protracted conflict.”
By Rob York (firstname.lastname@example.org)