Why Isn’t Russia Worried About Kim Jong Un’s Nukes?

As the Trump administration heads toward a showdown with Pyongyang, Vladimir Putin sees strategic advantage to be gained.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during his annual press conference in Moscow on December 23, 2016. / AFP / Natalia KOLESNIKOVA        (Photo credit should read NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/Getty Images)
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during his annual press conference in Moscow on December 23, 2016. / AFP / Natalia KOLESNIKOVA (Photo credit should read NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/Getty Images)

July 4 was a bad day for Washington’s North Korea policy and not just because of Pyongyang’s successful launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile. There was also a meeting that day in Moscow between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, at which they jointly declared their support for a deescalation of the Korean dispute that would couple a freeze on North Korean nuclear and missile development with a hold on large-scale U.S. and South Korean military exercises.

Washington continues to insist on a different approach. It has spent the past several months ratcheting up rhetorical pressure on Beijing to help defuse North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. Last week, after the Donald Trump administration began to conclude that China acting on its own couldn’t, or wouldn’t, resolve the nuclear standoff, Washington slapped sanctions on several Chinese individuals and firms alleged to be doing business with the North.

The Trump administration, however, has also made efforts to involve Russia in the search for a solution. After a North Korean missile landed off the coast of Russia’s Pacific port of Vladivostok in May, the administration released a statement declaring: “With the missile impacting so close to Russian soil — in fact, closer to Russia than to Japan — the President cannot imagine that Russia is pleased.”

In fact, Moscow is not very worried about North Korean missiles, though it would prefer to see a denuclearized Korean Peninsula. Russia believes the only solution to the Korean dispute is negotiations with Pyongyang that result in security guarantees for the Kim Jong Un regime. Moscow supports placing limitations on the North’s nuclear program but is wary of sanctions and resolutely opposed to regime change. That puts it at odds with the United States — and acts as a fundamental roadblock to international efforts.

One reason that Russia prefers a more conciliatory policy toward Pyongyang is self-interest. In May, during the same week that Pyongyang launched a missile vaguely in the direction of Vladivostok, North Korea also launched a new ferry service to the port city.

Despite Pyongyang’s ideological preoccupation with autarky, there are a surprising number of economic ties between North Korea and Russia. The two countries trade products such as coal and oil, which are particularly valuable for energy-poor North Korea. Though statistics are murky, there are many North Korean students in Russia, and thousands of low-skilled laborers, particularly in the Russian Far East. The volume of economic ties today is limited, though some experts hope that trade with North Korea could grow if U.S. sanctions are lifted and Pyongyang decides to open its economy.

The main reason that Russia has adopted a more conciliatory stance toward North Korea, though, is that the Kremlin interprets Pyongyang’s behavior very differently than does Washington or its allies. Russia has long held a far more sanguine view of North Korea’s ruling Kim dynasty than the United States, despite sharing a small border with the country. In the early years of the Cold War, Pyongyang and Moscow shared a belief in communism, but the days of ideological solidarity are long gone.

The Kremlin believes that the Kim dynasty is strange, to be sure, but also rational. True, Kim Jong Un has nuclear weapons. But Russian analysts think that Kim knows that any offensive use of these weapons would result in a nuclear counterstrike by the United States, killing him and destroying his country. From the Russian perspective, the logic of mutually assured destruction that staved off nuclear weapons use during the Cold War is equally effective in preventing an attack from Pyongyang. Thus, many Russian analysts argue that North Korea’s nuclear program helps stabilize the situation, by giving Pyongyang more confidence in its security and by deterring the United States from launching a military strike.

Russia’s government has other reasons for staking out a different position from Washington on the North Korean question. Like Beijing, Moscow has no interest in seeing the North Korean government replaced by a unified Korea allied with the United States. Along with China, the Kremlin has vocally criticized U.S. missile defense deployments in South Korea. And so long as Washington is focused on East Asia, it has less attention to devote to disputes in the post-Soviet space, which remain Moscow’s highest priority. On top of this, it is easy for Moscow to take a position contrary to the United States on North Korea, because China will bear the brunt of most American frustration about Kim’s intransigence.

Indeed, in Russia’s view, the United States deserves at least as much blame for tensions on the Korean Peninsula as Pyongyang does. In this view, the Kim dynasty’s weapons programs are primarily about self-defense. “Pyongyang usually takes reactive rather than proactive steps,” leading Russian foreign-policy analyst Fyodor Lukyanov wrote. “Knowing what happened to Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, whose fates are proof that bluffing is not a wise policy, North Korea has created a nuclear and a missile program.… [T]heir very presence makes the price of potential foreign interference unacceptably high.” If only Washington had not threatened regime change, many Russian analysts argue, North Korea would not have felt it necessary to build nuclear weapons in the first place.

Thanks to Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons, not to mention its many conventional weapons already within range of Seoul, Russia thinks that Trump’s threats of a U.S. military strike on North Korea are as dangerous as anything that comes from North Korea. Even sanctions, in Russia’s view, are unlikely to change the logic behind Pyongyang’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, though they may play some role in freezing testing or further development. The North has already proved it can survive mass famine and economic devastation. Why, Russian analysts ask, do Americans think that tighter economic sanctions will convince Pyongyang to give up its nuclear program, the only ironclad defense it has against a U.S. strike?

That puts the burden for action on Washington. The United States has not signed a peace treaty ending the Korean War, Russians note, and continues to threaten Pyongyang militarily. After the North’s missile test this week, Putin refrained from criticizing Pyongyang and backed China’s call for both Pyongyang and Washington to change course.

Frustrated with China’s unwillingness and inability to pressure Pyongyang to change course, Washington is casting about for other options. Letting North Korea continue to develop and test missiles that could hit the United States is unappealing, particularly after Trump promised that a North Korean nuke capable of reaching America “won’t happen!” A military effort to take out Pyongyang’s nuclear forces would risk sparking a wider war including South Korea and Japan.

If Washington moderated its aims in the Korean Peninsula, accepting Pyongyang’s nuclear program and offering security assurances to North Korea, Moscow might participate in pressuring the North to stop weapons testing and missile development. But so long as Washington insists that a military solution or regime change is still on the table, the Kremlin will keep working to pin the blame not just on Kim Jong Un but on Donald Trump.

Photo credit: NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/Getty Images

Chris Miller is an assistant professor at the Fletcher School, the Eurasia director at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and the author of Putinomics: Power and Money in Resurgent Russia. Twitter: @crmiller1