Targeting North Korea, Scratching Russia: HR 1644
The end of May saw interest in Russia-DPRK relations briefly surge with news that two North Korean migrants — both men and both living legally outside the DPRK — had been found dead in a Moscow accommodation block. Details of the case continue to be in short supply, but the two appear to have died of acute heart failure; an extraordinary turn of events given that one was only in his late 30s and the other just 22 years old (seven more individuals, at least two of them North Korean, reported symptoms).
The deaths highlight how in recent times the role of North Korean labor in Russian industry has grown, transcending a modest base of Siberian logging camps that date back to the 1960s. Indeed, on June 4 the investigative reporting spotlight fell upon the involvement of North Koreans in construction projects connected with next year’s prestigious FIFA World Cup, notably the impressive Zenit Arena in St. Petersburg.
Predictably, Russia’s increasingly varied economic interactions with North Korea are attracting the attention of the United States. Last month the US Treasury sanctioned a number of Russian companies and individuals — to by no means universal acclaim — and for all its well-documented (and still mostly just alleged) links to the Russian government, the Trump administration has taken to articulating a degree of dissatisfaction at Russia’s (non-)contribution to the enforcement of international action against the Kim Jong-un regime. Also in May, a new sanctions-related bill emerged from the US House of Representatives that targets both labor exports and the activities of North Korean vessels using third-country (including Russian) ports. Once again, Russia is not exactly pleased. Anthony Rinna looks at the implications. — Christopher Green, Co-editor
Targeting North Korea, Scratching Russia: HR 1644
by Anthony Rinna
On May 4, the US House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee passed the Korean Interdiction and Modernization of Sanctions Act (House Resolution 1644). An official House blog on HR 1644 states that continuing North Korean missile tests prove the failure of the US policy of “strategic patience,” and that while “diplomacy can work,” first the United States must gain greater leverage over North Korea through sanctions.
To this end, the resolution extends the scope of US action beyond North Korea, taking aim at the country’s economic activities on the territories of third states. The full HR 1644 introductory text stipulates that reports be submitted to Congress on commercial activity by North Korean entities at Russian ports near the DPRK, which mostly means Nakhodka, Vanino and Vladivostok, as well as at Chinese ports including Dalian and Dandong (Title I, Section 104). The resolution also includes provisions on the employment of North Korean labor abroad, and while this part of the proposal (Title 2, Section 201) does not mention Russia or Russian entities directly, there can be little doubt that with the number of North Korean workers in Russia rising, the US has taken into account the function of those workers in the application of economic pressure on the DPRK.
For Russia: A Different Type of Western Interference | The inclusion of Russian ports in the legislative proposal has, understandably from the Russian perspective, drawn an unfavorable reaction. RIA Novosti reported the news with the allegation that the US was trying to control Russian ports in Primorsky Krai. Ranking members of the Russian parliament expressed dismay, stating that the American proposal constitutes a violation of Russian sovereignty.
The bill’s high-level detractors include Viktor Ozerov, the chairman of the Russian parliament’s upper house defense and security committee. Ozerov, a member of the ruling United Russia and someone who has been outspoken against US policy toward North Korea, called the legislative move “absurd.” He stated that Russia would not yield control over its ports or even territorial waters, and insisted that Russia has been enforcing UN sanctions. Aleksey Pushkov, a legislator who sits on the defense committee of the Russian parliament’s upper house, condemned the US bill as a violation of international norms.
The latest evolution of the United States’ approach to sanctions against North Korea means two significant things for Russia’s position in multilateral attempts to resolve the North Korean security crisis. The first is the shifting relationship between Russia and the US over North Korea. For Russia and the United States, North Korean security has, since the DPRK’s nuclear breakout, been an issue on which Moscow and Washington have shared a common goal (a secure, denuclearized Korean Peninsula) but held divergent positions on how best to achieve it. This most recent bill marks a step away from potential Russia-US cooperation over North Korea.
At the same time, the legislation clearly demonstrates that the United States cannot afford to ignore the role of Russia in resolving the North Korea crisis. While Russia may not have the same level of influence over the DPRK as China or even the US itself, through its specific inclusion of Russia in the proposed sanctions, Washington is essentially sending Russia a clear message: “We believe that you have a role to play.” It is not clear whether the message is a call for help or a threat that if Russia doesn’t enforce sanctions, the US will force its hand. That is mostly up to the Russians to decide, at least for the time being.
The second important aspect is the implication of the legislation for Russian economic security in its eastern regions. Russia has always been concerned about the articulation of US power on its borders, mostly in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Yet, seemingly not content with encircling Russia along its own borders, HR 1644 would allow the US to take actions inside those borders. The US is sending Russia the message that the US believes it has the right to involve itself in Russia’s dealings with at least one pertinent third country; North Korea. Given the assumed importance of Russia’s port infrastructure to the future prosperity of the Russian Far East, Russia may view this not only as a violation of its sovereignty, but also as a threat to its economic security.
Of course, we should not lose sight of the fact that HR 1644 is first and foremost about North Korea. Nevertheless, given the tense state of Russia-US relations, the inclusion of Russia in the legislation, even if only as a third party, serves to promote the view that the US is actively violating Russian economic security in one of Moscow’s most vulnerable regions.
China and Russia: Shared Views, Limited Interoperability | As Russia and the United States diverge on the use of sanctions and degree of diligence required to enforce them, Russia may see an impetus for closer cooperation with China. An early sign of this came in April 2017, when Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi met with Russia’s deputy foreign minister Gennady Gatilov. The two parties agreed to continue cooperation over North Korean security in the UN Security Council. In particular, they vowed to continue enforcing sanctions against North Korea.
Russian expert Georgy Toloraya recently said that China and Russia both wished to focus on using diplomacy to resolve the crisis, rather than attempting to force change through sanctions. Indeed, ahead of the May 2017 meeting between Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, Russia’s ambassador to China, Andrei Denisov asserted that China and Russia are both interested in a diplomatic solution to the North Korean security crisis, and that sanctions threaten to have a negative effect on efforts to achieve a peaceful resolution, as well as hindering the provision of humanitarian aid to North Korea.
However, even as the Russian and Chinese positions coincide, it is difficult to say with any conviction that China and Russia will manage to actually cooperate in practice. Andrei Lankov believes that while China and Russia have similar views on the importance of the Korean Peninsula to their respective strategic imperatives, China places more importance on Korea than Russia does. Therefore, China’s priorities regarding North Korea may not be the same as Russia’s, including when it comes to enforcing sanctions. Nevertheless, if the US groups China and Russia together as parties-by-association in enforcing North Korean sanctions, then this could serve to push China and Russia closer together in cooperating over North Korea in a way that is detrimental to US interests.
Aside from uncertainty over China and Russia’s willingness or ability to cooperate over sanctions is the issue of whether or not Russia is even a worthwhile target of Washington’s North Korea sanctions strategy. Robert Einhorn of the Brookings Institution asserts that Russia has taken a back seat to China over North Korean disarmament, and that even as China-DPRK ties deteriorate, Russia cannot serve as a substantive alternative political or economic supporter for the DPRK. Thus, even if Russia enforces sanctions against North Korea of its own accord, or does so in response to US intervention, there is some doubt as to how effective this will actually be in modifying North Korean behavior.
Conclusion | The new legislation indicates that the United States views Russian economic ties to North Korea as a problem for the US and its North Korea sanctions policy, and has therefore decided to act unilaterally to defend its interests. While the specific targeting of key Russian maritime infrastructure does not mean that Russia, in the American view, is a full-fledged North Korean partner, it nevertheless reveals that Washington is increasingly skeptical about Russia’s willingness to act as a constructive interlocutor in curbing North Korean security provocations through economic means. For Russia, this serves as support for the already exceedingly widespread notion that the US has little regard for Russian sovereignty.
HR 1644’s inclusion of Chinese ports as subjects of American monitoring may also send the message that the US has little faith in China’s willingness to assist. Unilateral US actions of this nature risk pushing China and Russia closer together over the Korean security crisis. This will ultimately not serve the US’ best interests, in all likelihood perpetuating the regional standoff between the US, China and Russia over a wealth of issues, including how best to solve the North Korean security crisis.