Wither the Wonks? American Think Tank Research on Moscow’s Policy Toward the Korean Peninsula

By | June 25, 2018 | No Comments

Russia’s then-president Dmitri Medvedev visiting the Brookings Institution in 2010. For US think tanks’ robust Russia analysis, it remains unclear how well they can contend with Moscow’s Asia policies | Image: Wikicommons

A rare breed are those analysts and scholars in the West who concentrate their research on Russian foreign policy in East Asia. Fewer still are those whose main scholarly focus is the relationship between the Russian Federation and the Korean Peninsula. From 2017, however, Moscow’s policy undertakings vis-à-vis North Korea have presented new challenges for the US policy community. A case-in-point: in July 2017 Russian officials refused to acknowledge the DPRK had successfully tested an ICBM. This denial from the Kremlin frustrated US efforts at leading the international community in displaying a united front against North Korean provocations. At the same time, renewed interest arose in the possibility that Russian individuals may have assisted in the development of North Korea’s missile program. Washington, for its part, has begun to factor in Russia’s interests on the Korean Peninsula more seriously, as demonstrated by legislative and policy developments aimed at curbing North Korea-Russia ties.

Russia’s increasing salience in the Korea crisis (which the recent summit between Moon Jae-in and Vladimir Putin underscores) raises the question of how well-endowed US policy institutions are to be able to straddle the divide between Korean studies and Russia analysis. To get a picture of the American Beltway’s policy scholar community’s consideration of Russian policy toward the Korean Peninsula, senior editor Anthony Rinna provides a brief snapshot of the output (or lack thereof) covering interactions between the Korean Peninsula and Russia from four major American policy institutes: The Brookings Institution, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), and the Heritage Foundation. This is the first installment of a two-part series on the state of Korea-Russia analysis in major US think tanks.1)This post is inspired by his prior work with the University of Pennsylvania’s Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program, as well as his transition from Eastern European studies to a focus on Korea. — Steven Denney, Senior Editor

Wither the Wonks? American Think Tank Research on Moscow’s Policy Toward the Korean Peninsula

by Anthony Rinna

To assert that policy scholars in the US have not given much consideration to Moscow’s Korea policy because Russia is simply not an important actor in East Asia is perhaps the simplest and even most obvious explanation. The Russian Federation has largely played second fiddle to China in the most important multilateral issues on the Korean Peninsula as far as US interests are concerned. There is, however, yet another reason that has less to do with international politics, and more to do with scholarly analysis itself that may explain a lack of coverage of Russia’s interests on the Korean Peninsula and their implications.

Unlike a great deal of academic research in the relationships between countries, generally located in the discipline of political science, policy analysis on the relationship between countries remains rooted in the academic arena of so-called “area studies”. Area studies, which is essentially cross-disciplinary specialization in a particular region, developed around the time that think tanks began to sprout up in Washington, namely with the onset of the Cold War. Area studies places particular emphasis on language skills and having hands-on regional experience. Nevertheless, as David Ludden argued in 1997, the utility of area studies came under increasing question following the Cold War, namely with the onset of “globalization”.

Ludden was referring to the strictly academic aspect of area studies and its relationship to other disciplines such as political science. Nevertheless, area studies and regional specialization continue to be of particular importance for policy analysis and prescription. In a 2014 interview with Foreign Policy, Stanford University’s Bruce Jentleson, as well as Georgetown University’s James Reardon-Anderson and Robert Gallucci, all highlighted the importance of having area expertise, rather than facility with models and theories, as being of the utmost importance in making policy prescriptions. To this day, the research divisions of major American think tanks usually contain divisions and sub-divisions based on designated regions of the world.

Area division (Asia)Asia and the PacificAsiaAsiaAsia
Area sub-division (Korea)North Korea, South KoreaNone (one scholar, Scott Snyder, serves as CFR's expert on Korea)KoreaNone (one scholar, Bruce Klingner, serves as Heritage's expert on Korea)
Area division (Russia and Eurasia)Russia and EurasiaEurope and EurasiaRussia and EurasiaEurope
Area sub-division (Russia)RussiaNone (articles are divided by single-country and occasionally regional or sub-regional)RussiaRussia

Scholars who work on a particular region of the world have often (or at least hopefully) received training in one or two languages of their region of study, and have usually devoted time to studying specific regional dynamics at the expense of acquiring broader theoretical knowledge that they may apply to regions and situations across the globe. Those dedicated to the study of a particular region or even a single country may occasionally have a chance to conduct research outside of their professional comfort zone. Indeed, among those specializing in Central Asia, it is becoming increasingly impossible to ignore China’s policy actions and interests.

Nevertheless, one of the reasons for a lack of coverage of Korea-Russia ties is that scholars specializing in a particular region tend to keep analysis within their regional expertise, and with good reason. It is unlikely that someone who was trained professionally as a specialist in Russia and Eurasia will also be acquainted with the nuances of East Asian politics, much less Korean peninsula political dynamics. Likewise, it is surely exceptional for a Korea or East Asia scholar to have a thorough or at least respectable understanding of of contemporary Russian foreign policy.

Outreach to Russia has been a key policy for the Moon Jae-in administration. As the ROK-US alliance comes under increasing scrutiny, policymakers will have to contend with how to handle the growing rapprochement between a key US ally and major strategic rival | Image: Wikicommons

Certainly, the last thing policymakers need is advice from someone who has suddenly declared themselves an “insta-expert” on a trendy topic. Unfortunately, this is not simply hypothetical: PW Singer of the Brookings Institution references Kremlinologists who, after the end of the Cold War, supposed they could transfer their expertise on communism and suddenly become China experts.

Policy Analysis of Korea-Russia Ties on the American Beltway | What follows is a brief overview of articles either produced or published (or both) by a select group of major US think tanks covering the relationship between the Russian Federation and the Korean Peninsula. The main criterion used to determine what and how much output US policy institutes have produced on the topic of is to determine of the primary focus of a particular piece was either on Korea (North or South)-Russian Federation ties and Russia’s policy toward Korea as the main subject of analysis. Articles that tangentially mention Russia in a wider regional framework or within the context of a broader sub-topic (i.e. Russia’s policies on sanctions with coverage of Iran and North Korea) were not included.

Data do include guest publications and the works of non-permanent members of a particular organization, but do not include external publications from scholars serving at think tanks (such as op-eds written by senior fellows for mass media outlets or magazines). The number of articles shown is not exhaustive, and was generally taken from the first 50 search results that appeared after typing “russia korea” (sic) in each think tank web site’s general search bar.

OrganizationNumber of Articles

Note 1: The three articles published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies were from the organization’s PacNet program, which is a collection of publications from outside scholars.

Compared with research on the Korea-Russia connection output produced or published by the four think tanks covered in this study, the volume of publications pertaining to China-Korea and Japan-Korea ties is often quite higher. As noted in Figure 1, think tanks often either divide their Asia research division into a Korea sub-division, or have a single scholar who focuses on Korea. Sub-specialization in a particular East Asian country, however, has not prevented scholars from producing analysis on the bilateral relationships between China, Japan and the Korean Peninsula.

OrganizationNumber of Articles (China-Korea)Number of Articles (Japan-Korea)

Note 2: Several articles published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies do not include articles from the organization’s PacNet program. If such articles were included, the figure would be significantly higher.

Balancing Specialization and Rigor with Analytical Rigor | Aspiring foreign policy analysts often hear the refrain of career wisdom that they should choose a region or specialty based on genuine interest, rather than trying to ascertain what the next looming hotspot may be. In a similar vein, it is a fool’s errand to try and speculate to what extent increased coverage of Russia’s Korea policy may be exigent in the American policy analysis community. Nevertheless, we may safely assume that both in the current situation in Korea and the aftermath following whatever may come subsequent the status quo, that Moscow and the Russian national interest will continue to be a viable factor in the US’s Korea policy.

If, however, the brains behind the major Washington think tanks do end up producing more coverage of the Russian Federation’s policies toward the Korean Peninsula, the quantity and quality of their analyses may well depend on a willingness to go beyond their established expertise. This may take the form of individual scholars (and their research assistants) investing time in acquainting themselves with a basic grasp of the dynamics of the side of the Korea-Russia equation with which they are less familiar (i.e. an expert on Russian foreign policy gaining at least a cursory understanding of North Korean foreign policy).

Ever since Vasily Nebenzia succeeded the late Vitaly Churkin (pictured here) as Russia’s ambassador to the UN, Russia and the US found themselves even more frequently at odds over the DPRK crisis at the UN Security Council | Image: CCTV

Beltway scholars may also consider pursuing more collaborative research by playing to each other’s strengths and weaknesses. As a case-in-point, In 2015 CSIS held an event titled: “Russia and the Korean Peninsula: Policy and Investment Implications”, featuring the CSIS Russia and Eurasia Program’s director Andrew Kutchins, which was moderated by CSIS Korea Chair Victor Cha. Also, in November of 2017, the CSIS nuclear network hosted a conference covering North Korea-Russia ties, which featured scholars of both Korea and Russia.

It behooves experts not to stray too far from their areas of specialty. Nevertheless, the rise in questions concerning Russian foreign policy toward the Korean Peninsula demonstrates the potential need for increased policy analysis of a relationship between two countries and regions that have long been covered within the framework of scholarly area divisions. The onus, therefore, is on think tanks to produce sound analysis without attempting to explain phenomena and developments that an individual or group may be ill prepared to explicate.


1 This post is inspired by his prior work with the University of Pennsylvania’s Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program, as well as his transition from Eastern European studies to a focus on Korea.

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