Russia’s ‘pivot to Asia’ hinges on the Korean Peninsula


Russia’s President Vladimir Putin in Sochi, Russia, on October 12, 2017 PHOTO/Reuters/Maxim Shemetov

Russia expert James DJ Brown believes Moscow genuinely supports ‘denuclearization’ but has an overriding fear of a disorderly collapse of Kim Jong-un’s regime

Russia expert James DJ Brown believes Moscow genuinely supports ‘denuclearization’ in North Korea but has an overriding fear of a disorderly collapse of Kim Jong-un’s regime.

“I think that the worst scenario for them [Russia] is definitely regime collapse and the chaos that leaves, so I think that if it comes down to a choice they’re willing to live with a fully nuclear-armed North Korea – in part because they believe in the rationality of the North Korean regime,” said the associate professor at Temple University Japan in a phone interview.

The United States has sought to ratchet up pressure on North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program and recently won backing from Russia and China for tougher sanctions at the United Nations security council. But Moscow and Beijing favor dialogue to resolve the standoff and oppose the deployment of US missile defense systems to Japan and South Korea, both American allies in the region.

US president Donald Trump said last weekend that he wanted Moscow’s help to rein in North Korea, although he admitted to feeling constrained by US domestic pressure. In contrast to the US intelligence community’s assessment that Russia meddled in the 2016 election, Trump seemed to dismiss the alleged interference as an “artificial thing” that was impeding bilateral ties.

“If we had a relationship with Russia, that would be a good thing … because he [Vladimir Putin] could really help us in North Korea,” Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One while traveling to Vietnam for a regional summit on Saturday.

“You’re talking about millions and millions of lives. This isn’t baby stuff. This is the real deal. And if Russia helped us, in addition to China, that problem would go away a lot faster.”

Economic enabler or bargaining chip?

Asia Times turned to Brown, a Tokyo-based academic who specializes in international relations and Russia’s foreign policy, to provide insight into Moscow’s motivations when it comes to resolving the North Korea crisis.

During a presentation at Temple University Japan last week and a follow-up interview this week, Brown noted a recent uptick in economic ties between North Korea and Russia. He attributed this partly to “small-scale opportunism by Russian firms” in combination with Moscow’s desire to prevent regime collapse.

Bilateral trade more than doubled in the first quarter of this year to US$31.4 million. This year a ferry service began running between Vladivostok and the North Korean port of Rajin. Separately, media reports have highlighted cases of North Korean ships leaving Russia after loading up with fuel and then changing their stated destination mid-course, raising concerns about sanctions compliance.

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