War Stories

How Kim Lost the Russians

Is this the end of North Korea’s diplomatic games?

Kim Jong-il
Kim: Playing Russian roulette?

In the latest sign that the North Korean nuclear crisis might be on the verge of settlement, Russia has embarked on a joint, 10-day naval exercise with South Korea and Japan. In addition, this Saturday, 30,000 Russian soldiers will carry out a drill simulating a response to a massive flow of North Korean refugees that might take place as a result of a war or a collapse of Kim Jong-il’s regime.

The significance of these events, both reported in Tuesday’s New York Times, is potentially staggering. Russia (which has long been one of North Korea’s chief allies and suppliers) has never taken part in naval exercises with South Korea and Japan (which have long been North Korea’s chief foes). Add to that the border drill—which suggests that Russia is figuring out how to deal with, but not necessarily to prevent, the possibility of Kim’s downfall—and the “Dear Leader” of Pyongyang must be getting a tad nervous.

These developments come on the eve of six-power talks concerning North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program, to take place Aug. 25-27 in Beijing, involving the two Koreas, the United States, China, Japan, and Russia.

In previous multilateral negotiations—for that matter, throughout its half-century history—North Korea has played other, larger powers off one another, often quite shrewdly. A “shrimp among whales,” a nation founded on guerrilla tactics at the height of the Cold War, North Korea sees this sort of manipulation as essential to survival.

The importance of Russia’s unprecedented involvement in this week’s military exercises—the signal that it appears quite pointedly to be sending—is that Kim Jong-il will no longer, or at least not so easily, be able to play this game. At this negotiation, on this issue, Russia stands aligned with all the other foreign powers.

While tensions have occasionally seeped into Russian-North Korean relations since the end of the Cold War and Moscow’s subsequent recognition of South Korea, Kim Jong-il still clearly values Russia as an ally (one of its very few). In 2000, the two governments signed a treaty of friendship and cooperation. In 2001, while on a train ride through Russia (one of his favorite summer-vacation activities, until this year), Kim dreamed up the idea of building a Russian Orthodox Church in Pyongyang. As recently as May 2002, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, in a meeting with his North Korean counterpart, praised the “dynamic development of relations” between the two countries. Earlier this year, Kim reached out to Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, to help break the stalemate with Washington over the whole nuclear issue.

In other words, Russia’s latest movements must constitute, in Kim’s eyes, a huge obstacle to his traditional diplomatic MO.

Putin has tangible reasons for taking these steps. First, no Russian leader, even going back to Soviet days, has wanted a neighboring country to possess nuclear weapons. This has to do, in part, with the traditional desire for centralized control and, in part, with simple security. Earlier this year, the administration in Russia’s Prymorie region—an eastern section, near the Korean peninsula, which includes Vladivostok and Khabarovsk—conducted a civil defense exercise to determine the effectiveness of the nuclear fallout shelters that had been built in the region decades ago. The results, as the Bangkok Post reported, were “not reassuring.”

Second, Putin seems very keen on re-establishing a special relationship with the United States. (Russian security officials and the Moscow press made a very big deal over the recent joint sting operation against an arms dealer who was seeking to sell anti-aircraft weapons in Newark, N.J.) What’s more, the desire for this relationship goes both ways. The Russia specialists in Bush’s National Security Council—not least the national security adviser herself, Condoleezza Rice, who used to be a Russian-studies scholar at Stanford—reportedly believe that many of today’s knottier international problems can most easily be solved with cooperation from Russia.

There is much basis for this view—not because Russians possess some special diplomatic brilliance or offer some unique material lever, but rather because, by joining America’s side on a crisis, Russia declares that it will not be helping the other side. Consider the war over Kosovo: NATO dropped a lot of bombs trying to coerce a surrender from Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian leader. But the war didn’t end until Boris Yeltsin sent an emissary to tell Milosevic that Russia was withdrawing its support.

Russia has been instrumental in other crises, as well. Russian special forces trained the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan well before U.S. troops arrived and provided crucial intelligence when the war got underway. During preparations for the expansion of NATO, Moscow at least remained neutral, when its opposition could have put the plan in serious jeopardy. In the mid-’90s, Moscow stopped selling India gyroscopes—which could have been used for nuclear-warhead guidance systems—when the Clinton administration offered to revitalize Russia’s own space industry by arranging to let Russian rockets launch American satellites.

It may well have been Russia’s belated involvement in North Korean negotiations that persuaded Bush, via Rice, to get the United States involved, too. Last April, Kim dropped his demands for strictly face-to-face talks with the United States and acceded to the idea of multilateral, five-power talks. Late last month, Putin proposed six-power talks, which would include Russia. Only at that point did Bush say the negotiations would take place and even accepted a North Korean demand for informal bilateral side-talks during the session.

So, next week’s talks begin on a clear note. That does not mean the peace will proceed in fine harmony. First, never underestimate the ability of North Korean diplomats to wreak great havoc. Kim may comprehend the unusually united front he faces; that doesn’t mean he’ll bow down before it. Second, the Bush administration is still divided between those who want to solve this crisis through diplomacy and those who want to solve it by getting rid of Kim, through either military force or economic pressure. The talks are taking place at all, in part, because even Bush’s hawks realize that the military options are too risky and economic pressure takes too long. North Korea has said it needs economic assistance and a non-aggression pact in exchange for giving up its nukes. The question for Bush to decide—and that next week’s talks may reveal—is whether he wants a deal.