The Russian Sanctions Policy: Reflecting the Long View

By | July 10, 2017 | No Comments

North Korea-Russia Friendship Bridge in the distance. No matter the state of relations between Moscow and Pyongyang, the need to maintain access to the Korean peninsula is a constant. | Image: Wikicommons

North Korea’s unforeseen, successful test launch of a projectile that most experts agree looks a lot like an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) has again thrust Russia-DPRK relations into the limelight, and not only because the Russian Federation’s man in New York, Vladimir Safronkov stymied UN Security Council action on July 5 with a counter-narrative consisting of technical monitoring data showing a medium-range ballistic missile launch. Michael Elleman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies alleges that, yes, the launch was of an ICBM, and that it shows not only that Pyongyang has a more extensive procurement network in Russia than was previously thought, but also that the DPRK’s infamous team of missile scientists could have been in possession of Russian missile engine designs — if not actually working with Russian missile scientists — for quite a while. 

The truth of the matter will not emerge any time soon. However, it is already clear that North Korea is, alongside protracted wars in Ukraine and Syria, plus the erratic and possibly treasonous behavior of the US’ commander-in-chief vis-a-vis his Russian counterpart, an ever sharper thorn in the side of bilateral relations between Washington and Moscow. Which is all the more reason to pay attention to Sino-NK Russia and Eurasia Analyst Anthony Rinna’s analysis of the shifting nature of Russian foreign and security policy on its far eastern flank. — Christopher Green, Co-editor

The Russian Sanctions Policy: Reflecting the Long View

by Anthony Rinna

International concern over the perceptible progress of North Korean missile technology has led to loud calls for a stricter (and more strictly enforced) sanctions regime against the DPRK. North Korea’s successful launch on July 4 of what may be an ICBM certainly raises the stakes. Both the North Korean leadership and the US Department of Defense have said that the missile was an ICBM. The United Nations Security Council, however, was not capable of speaking with a single voice on the issue, as Russia objected to that designation.

Disagreement over such a major issue may seem strange given the technical differences between an ICBM and missiles of shorter range. There is nothing particularly odd, however, about Moscow’s apprehension at admitting that what North Korea had tested was a step up from all the other missiles that the DPRK has previously test-fired. Russia has, on several occasions, insisted that North Korean rockets don’t threaten Russia. Likewise, Russia has often been hesitant among its fellow UN Security Council permanent members to impose sanctions on the DPRK, at least until the Russian Foreign Ministry representatives at the UN can confirm that the provisions of each UN resolution do not infringe upon the interests of the Russian Federation.

It is possible, then, that Russia is delaying acknowledgment that North Korea did indeed successfully test an ICBM because doing so would lend extra urgency to the US agenda of cracking down economically on North Korea. Even as the effectiveness of sanctions is called increasingly into question, one might expect that a consensus among UN Security Council members would lead to another round of punitive economic measures against Pyongyang. Of course, UN sanctions cannot come into effect without Russia’s approval. Stringent economic and financial measures against the North, however, run the risk of undermining Russia’s designs for economic cooperation with North Korea.

Sanctions have already drastically reduced certain areas of trade between the DPRK and other countries, such as the coal industry. And now, as the screws threaten to tighten in the wake of the ICBM test, Moscow risks losing even more opportunities for trade cooperation with Pyongyang. The United States, for its part, has found Russia to be more of a nuisance than a potential partner in advancing a solution to the Korean security dilemma.

Russian president Vladimir Putin meets senior North Korean lawmaker Kim Yong-nam in Sochi in 2014. Image | Rodong Shinmun

The US View: Russia as a Lackluster Sanctions Partner | After a period of relative neglect of Korea questions during the Yeltsin presidency, Vladimir Putin has made North Korea an important issue in Russian foreign policy. The US, however, is increasingly wary of Russia’s role in helping to ameliorate the security situation on the Korean Peninsula. US sanctions policy toward North Korea has, in fact, recently begun to impact North Korea’s economic ties to Russia.The US recently sanctioned Russian companies that are alleged to have links with North Korea’s missile program. A bill that is currently making its way through the US legislative system, House Resolution 1644, calls for US authorities to monitor North Korean commercial activities at Russian ports such as Vanino and Vladivostok.

It is not only US lawmakers who have taken issue with what they see as Russia’s failure to implement sanctions and otherwise cooperate with the US over North Korea in a manner that suits Washington. Senior US diplomats have, at least implicitly, expressed the same feeling. The US ambassador at the UN, Nikki Haley stated back in May that the US was working with China, Japan and South Korea over sanctions against North Korea. The fact that she did not mention Russia – the only other country besides the DPRK that participated in the Six-Party Talks – should not be lost.

The biggest point of departure between Russian and American sanctions policies is that while the US is concerned with the short- to medium-term goal of North Korean disarmament, Russia has long been planning for a post-division Korea. Moscow wants to be primed to take full advantage of the prospect of unification. Thus, while North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs have been a feature of Russia-US relations for no more than 25 years, the roots of Russia-US discord go back to well before the United States was a major power in Northeast Asia. At the heart of Moscow and Washington’s failure to see eye-to-eye on Pyongyang is geopolitics; more precisely, Russia’s unwillingness to impose sanctions that could undermine its geopolitical interests in Korea.

Geopolitics: Behind Russia’s Sanctions Policy | Russia has had interests in Korea for almost as long as it has had a presence in East Asia. Russia first established itself in the area following the Beijing Convention of 1860, in which Qing China ceded a large part of what is today Russia’s Primorsky Krai to the Russian Empire. The Russian Empire subsequently pursued interests in Korea during the twilight of the Joseon Dynasty, when Korea’s independence was slowly eroded by the interventions of foreign powers. Specifically, Russia sought a number of advantages in Korea, such as forestry and mining concessions as well as the right to build a naval installation near Busan.1)Paine, Sarah CM. The Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895: perceptions, power, and primacy. Cambridge University Press, 2005. These interests brought Russia into conflict with the Japanese Empire, and played a role in igniting the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905.

Today, Russia is not in direct geopolitical competition with another country or group of states for primacy over Korea. But geopolitics affects Russia’s position on sanctions toward the DPRK. A case-in-point is the role of infrastructure in trade in the Russian Far East. Russia has the potential to develop infrastructure-related projects in North Korea, including electricity supplies, trans-Korean energy pipelines and railway systems that could yield commercial returns for both North Korea and Russia. The primary reason why Russia enjoys economic benefits from its ties with North Korea is not the DPRK-Russia trade volume, which according to a report from Russia’s federal statistical service is relatively small. Rather, it is the access that adjacent North Korea offers Russia to markets in the Asia-Pacific, specifically via the port of Rason.2)Rail infrastructure has always been an important aspect of Russian geopolitical maneuvers, exemplified by the construction of the Tashkent-Orenburg rail line in Central Asia during the Great Game of the 19th century. Russia is already connected to North Korea by rail, and Russia is a latent bridge between other countries and North Korea. Mongolian and North Korean officials, for example, have discussed the idea of a rail line connecting the two countries that would traverse Russian territory.3)Бураев, Дмитрий Игнатьевич, и Юлия Евгеньевна Крупенникова (Burdaev, Dmitry Ignatievich, and Yulia Yevgenievna Krupennikova), “Визит Ким Чен Ира в Россию в свете российско-корейских отношении (о роли России в АТР по материалам южнокорейских СМИ) [Kim Jong-il’s visit to Russia in light of Russo-Korean relations (on Russia’s role in the Asia-Pacific based on South Korean media)],” Вестник Бурятского государственного университета (Buryatia State University Herald) 8 (2013). Increasing and improving Russian infrastructure interoperability with North Korea also means that goods from Japan and South Korea could be transported through North Korea and then Russia to Western markets.4)Chang Kyoo Park, Er-Win Tan, and Geetha Govindasamy. “The Revival of Russia’s Role on the Korean Peninsula.” Asian Perspective 37, no. 1 (2013): 125-147.

Going back as far as the late imperial era of Russian history, infrastructure been an important part of Russia’s foreign and economic policies in East Asia. | Image: Wikicommons

Following Moon Jae-in’s victory in South Korea’s recent presidential election, Russia has expressed hope for trilateral economic projects with North and South Korea. One specific example is the potential construction of a gas pipeline across the Korean Peninsula that would connect to Russia’s Trasnssib pipeline, for which Moon recently voiced support. The idea of building a trans-Korean pipeline connected to Russia dates back several years, and at this point is a long way from conceivable. Nevertheless, it shows where Russian interests lie.

UN resolutions from 2016, including 2270 and 2321, prohibit the sale of North Korean coal under most circumstances. However, Russia made sure that it would still be able to utilize Rason for its own purpose of selling coal to international markets. While past sanctions did not specifically ban North Korea from participating in infrastructure projects, no amount of infrastructure between North Korea and Russia is going to yield a return for either country if the sale of goods or services requiring solid logistics support end up under sanction. A more extensive prohibition on North Korean trade in specific goods that it may wish to sell with via Russia-backed infrastructure would undermine Russia’s incentive to pursue infrastructure projects with North Korea, undermining Russian opportunities for connection to the Korean Peninsula.

Conclusion | Russia’s policy position on sanctions against the DPRK can be understood in terms of geopolitics, although not necessarily in terms of a direct rivalry between Russia and the United States. Rather than direct, overt geopolitical wrangling between Moscow and the West in Europe and Central Asia, in Korea the Russia-US geopolitical discord is subtle and indirect. Specifically, the geographic proximity of the Russian Far East to Korea means that Russia has interests in Korea that long pre-date the division of Korea, and will remain an integral part of Russian foreign policy for years to come. The United States, on the other hand, is not concerned with the economic side of Korea’s geopolitical role. Washington is interested in the near-term security implications that North Korea presents to the US, and little more.

The future of the Korean Peninsula is of course anybody’s guess. Yet there is a good chance that Russia is planning for a reunified Korea. However far off that may be, it makes little sense for Russia to divest itself of substantive economic ties to the entire northern half of the Korean Peninsula at the request of the United States. What Putin and his government most likely fear is that additional sanctions will cut Russia off from a long-term presence in a reunified Korea.

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1. Paine, Sarah CM. The Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895: perceptions, power, and primacy. Cambridge University Press, 2005.
2. Rail infrastructure has always been an important aspect of Russian geopolitical maneuvers, exemplified by the construction of the Tashkent-Orenburg rail line in Central Asia during the Great Game of the 19th century.
3. Бураев, Дмитрий Игнатьевич, и Юлия Евгеньевна Крупенникова (Burdaev, Dmitry Ignatievich, and Yulia Yevgenievna Krupennikova), “Визит Ким Чен Ира в Россию в свете российско-корейских отношении (о роли России в АТР по материалам южнокорейских СМИ) [Kim Jong-il’s visit to Russia in light of Russo-Korean relations (on Russia’s role in the Asia-Pacific based on South Korean media)],” Вестник Бурятского государственного университета (Buryatia State University Herald) 8 (2013).
4. Chang Kyoo Park, Er-Win Tan, and Geetha Govindasamy. “The Revival of Russia’s Role on the Korean Peninsula.” Asian Perspective 37, no. 1 (2013): 125-147.