China Russia

Russia Is Quietly Playing Three Roles in the Korean Drama

Though it rarely makes the news, Moscow has a critical part as a behind-the-scenes negotiator, spoiler, and unholy ally.

In the context of resolving the North Korean nuclear challenge, Russia rarely makes the news. South Korea is the reverse image; China is the enabler; the United States is the tough guy; and Japan is a one-man band seeking the return of its abductees. What role, then, does Russia play? In fact, Russia plays a critical role as a behind-the-scenes negotiator, spoiler, and unholy ally. It is not front and center, but it is central.

The Negotiator: Moscow’s greatest strength is its relatively equal relationship with both North Korea and South Korea. While the United States, Japan, and China maintain closer ties with one side of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) or the other, Russia has maintained steady economic and political relations with both sides of the DMZ. Over the years, as journalist Samuel Ramani has noted, Moscow has sought to carve out its own unique role in the negotiation process, encouraging inter-Korean diplomacy as the primary means of resolving the conflict. Like China, Russia has called on South Korea to downgrade its military relations with the United States, advocating that Seoul reject deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile system and referring to it as a threat to Russian security. At the same time Putin has publicly proclaimed North Korea’s nuclear program a “threat to security in North-east Asia” and has urged the DPRK to refrain from provocative actions. While there is no evidence that Russia’s negotiation efforts have proved decisive at any juncture, at the very least, it appears to have the ear of both parties.

Read more at Defense One

About the author

Elizabeth C. Economy

Elizabeth Economy is the C.V. Starr senior fellow and director for Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.