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Understanding Russia's N. Korea Mediation Offer

  • Samuel Siskind
  • Dec 27, 2017 6:03PM

In a surprising development in the seemingly never-ending brawl between North Korea and the United States, Russian officials have offered to act as mediators to help cool the tensions between Washington and Pyongyang.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told US media sources that “Russia’s readiness to clear the way for de-escalation is obvious.” The offer comes on the heels of the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announcement of further sanctions imposed on North Korea. This time the Department has targeted two individuals involved in North Korea’s nuclear program and missile delivery systems for these weapons. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has called recent sanctions of the US an “act of war.”

This is not the first time the Kremlin has voiced its opinion on the conflict. Russia has long been calling for the two nations to come to the negotiating table over the past several months, a period marked by some heavy-handed rhetoric and threats emanating from both sides.

But this is different. Russia is now offering to become actively involved in sorting out the tensions between two nations. This is a most intriguing move for Russia, who typically finds itself opposing US interests in different regions of the world.  

There are two important things to consider following this Russian offer.

First is the basic question: Is there any reason to think Russia can actually be of any help?  

The US administration has sought the assistance of other nations to pressure North Korea. Trump has repeatedly turned to the more obvious option, China in this regard. China is by far the largest trading partner of the North Koreans, with over 80 percent of its exports and imports traversing via Chinese territory. In this way, China could exert - at least potentially - enormous influence on North Korea policy. With recent reports, however, indicating that China may be completely undermining UN sanctions on North Korea by delivering oil products to the country, it is becoming more and more doubtful whether China can be relied on by the US to utilize this influence against Pyongyang.

Despite being lower on the list of trade partners, Russia does have at least some leverage on North Korea from an economic angle. Russia delivers $78 million in energy products to the North Koreans every year. Russia could come to the negotiating table with at least some weight behind its demands for cooperation.

There is another point though about Russia’s recent mediating offer that begs questioning, the answer to which might be a bit unsettling: Why does Russia care to help the US sort out its diplomatic issues?

Russia’s interests in the US-North Korea conflict can be understood by examining Russia’s broader strategy in how it collects allies. Russia tends to seek out weak, and even unstable friends in order to use them as pawns in keeping other powers off balance. Like other smaller countries Russia has reached out to over the years, their goal in maintaining a relationship with North Korea is to keep the West, and the US specifically, politically distracted. As William Courtney, a fellow at the RAND Corporation, and former ambassador to Georgia and Kazakhstan put it, Russia “has had an intention, for a long time of supporting, even at some financial cost, a bunch of countries that… keep the US tied down.”  

From this perspective, it can be readily understood why it is in Russia’s best interests to stave off a conflict on the Korean Peninsula. Despite any havoc they may wreak if the current crisis escalates to actual violence, North Korea will almost certainly be defeated and the regime overthrown in such a scenario. This would spell a reunified Korea under the patronage of the US, the South already being a strong US ally. Russia would really like to avoid this. The mitigation offer, may be nothing more than an attempt by Russia to maintain the beneficial status quo.

In the end, however, regardless of Russia’s motivations, it may be in the best interests of the US to accept Russia’s offer. While the US wants to avoid a shooting conflict for completely different reasons, primarily to keep its Japanese and South Korean allies safe, both Russia and the US do share a common concern. Hopefully, this mutual interest can produce a useful tool in diffusing the tension threatening the region.