Moscow’s Korea Policy: Priorities and Trends in the Think Tanks

By | July 16, 2018 | No Comments

Vladimir Putin speaking at the influential Valdai Club. Moscow-based think tanks have not simply been sources of information for the Russian government, they have also allowed the Kremlin to communicate its interests to the world | Image: Wikicommons

While think tanks in the West continue to search for an ideal role amid fluctuating circumstances, think tanks in more autocratic states have fewer such problems. The most influential Russian think tanks make no secret of their connections to the Russian central government. As for China, the sheer amount of money sloshing around thanks to the “Belt and Road” Initiative means that one has to read foreign academic or “expert” commentaries about Chinese policy with extreme prejudice, if not total skepticism. Within the PRC, no one ought to be under any illusions about the independence of Chinese think tanks even as they expand their global reach. Indeed, independence can have negative consequences, as one Chinese policy institute recently learned the hard way.

Senior Editor Anthony V. Rinna brings us back to an analysis of data offered by Russian think tank coverage of the Korean Peninsula. That data, he argues, offers insights into the Kremlin’s interests in and policies toward Korea, as well as how Moscow engages with the wider international community in terms of its Korea policies. One of the more interesting points brought to light by Rinna has to do with Moscow’s relative lack of interest in disarmament issues and their overshadowing, in terms of think tank output, on economic issues. Although Rinna does not pivot to bring this conclusion around to Russian pressure to relax sanctions on North Korea in the aftermath of the short but intense Trumpian “maximum pressure” era, it does lend weight to the idea that North Korea’s nuclear status may indeed be seen in Moscow as a fait accompli. — Adam Cathcart, Senior Editor

Moscow’s Korea Policy: Priorities and Trends in the Think Tanks

by Anthony Rinna

In my previous essay, I demonstrated that coverage of Korea-Russia relations from a policy perspective in the US was quite limited when set against analysis concerning Beijing and Tokyo’s relations with and policies toward the Korean Peninsula. The explanation offered for this unsurprising discrepancy was that, rather than Russia simply being unimportant for analysis of the Korean Peninsula, scholars of either Korea or Russia tended to keep their analyses within the framework of East Asia and the post-Soviet space, respectively.

Its seems only appropriate, however, to take a moment to consider what Russian think tanks themselves are producing regarding the Korean Peninsula. This brief study began with the hypothesis that Russian policy coverage of Moscow’s interests on the Korean Peninsula would be significantly higher than that produced by American think tanks. The justifications for this hypothesis were based on the idea that policy wonks in Moscow would likely take a keener interest in analyzing and commenting on their own government’s policies toward Korea.

The findings of this research more-or-less coincide with the original hypothesis. There are, however, two characteristics of Russian think tank coverage of the Korean Peninsula that were nevertheless noteworthy. The first was the heavy focus of Russian policy research on economics (as opposed to security), hinting (though by no means concretely proving) that trade issues constitute Moscow’s top priority in the Korean Peninsula. The second factor of note was the volume of research and commentary in English (both productions as well as translations), indicating a desire for Russian scholars to reach a broader audience outside the Russian Federation.

Synopsis of Russia’s think tank environment | According to the University of Pennsylvania’s Global Go To Think Tank Index Report, the most influential think tanks in the Russian Federation are:

1) the Carnegie Moscow Center;

2) the Institute of World Economy and International Relations (known as IMEMO in English based on its Russian acronym);

3) the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC); and

4) The Valdai Discussion Club

Exactly how much influence to policy institutes in Russia enjoy? Jessica Tuchman Mathews, former head of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has argued that Russian think tanks and other civil society organizations producing independent policy analysis have become an increasing force in Russia since Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost (openness) the 1980’s. Think tanks have, according to Mathews, begun to replace the overwhelming status of the Russian Academy of Sciences, a national network of research institutes focusing on a wide array of research areas.

Yet, as Mathews also pointed out, in Russia’s think tank culture there is a disconnect between the government and independent policy research, with smaller civil society organizations having difficulties maintaining access to policymakers. In addition, members of the Russian Academy of Sciences continue to be the most favored sources of commentary on Korea-related issues for the Russian media.

Figure 1: The growth of Russian think tanks, 2010-2016

Data drawn from the University of Pennsylvania's Global Go To Think Tanks reports from 2010, 2013 and 2016, respectively.

Indeed, in addition to the slow growth of research organizations focused on producing independent policy research, the most important Russian think tanks tend to maintain a demonstrable connection with the government in Moscow. Of the four Russian policy research organizations covered in this study, only one, the Carnegie Moscow Center, does not maintain a primary or direct affiliation with the Kremlin or the Russian federal government. The Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO) is a part of the Russian Academy of Sciences, which is currently under the jurisdiction of the Russian government’s Federal Agency for Scientific Organizations (FASO). The Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) was established by presidential decree in 2010 and is part of Russia’s soft power efforts. The Valdai Discussion Club is, according to Tufts University’s Daniel Drezner, attached to the Russian elite. Valdai in particular offers observers a chance to gain insights into official Russian thinking. The diffusion of policy-relevant research away from the Russian Academy of Sciences has therefore not led to a distancing of policy research from the center of power in Russia.

Russian Research Institutes and Moscow’s Korea Policy | Policy influence largely concentrated in the hands of a small number of think tanks connected to the Russian government, combined with the continued influence of the Russian Academy of Sciences does not bode well for hopes of independent policy advocacy in Russia. Nevertheless, an understanding of the government-oriented nature of the Russian Federation’s policy institutes helps to shed light on Moscow’s interests toward Korea beyond a simple reading of the Kremlin’s foreign policy concept and other official pronouncements. A breakdown of the contents of Korea-oriented think tank output shows a heavy emphasis on economic issues, contrasting with a relative absence of discussions pertaining to the Korean security crisis.

A qualitative synopsis of Russian think tank coverage of the Korean Peninsula:

Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO): Most focused on Russia-South Korea ties, particularly diplomacy and economics. These were longer papers, rather than blog posts or shorter policy pieces.

Carnegie Moscow Center: Dmitri Trenin, the center’s director, authored most of the articles on Korea-Russia ties, although Andrei Lankov also wrote a handful. Carnegie Moscow’s output on Korea consisted of a mix of op-eds and in-house publications. The Russian-language output in particular tended to focus on sanctions against the DPRK, the US’s Korea policy and relations between North and South Korea.

Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC): RIAC led the pack in terms of output on Korea-Russia relations. One of the reasons for this is the fact that RIAC runs a project called “Russia and the Republic of Korea: Perspectives on Bilateral Relations” (Russian: “Россия и Республика Корея: перспективы двухсторонних отношении”). RIAC also distinguished itself by hosting a number of events and panel discussions on the topic of Korea-Russia ties, featuring both scholars as well as former government officials from the ROK and Russia. This study does not include blog posts written by external authors, of which there are many on Korea-Russia ties.

Valdai Discussion Club: Only one article on Korea-Russia relations, Valdai Paper 76 (which covered South Korea’s “New Northern” policy) appeared, in both English and Russian.

Even as most of Russia’s major think tanks are ultimately tied to the Kremlin, policy institutes have exhibited an eagerness to make what would ostensibly be Russia-centric research accessible to audiences with no knowledge of Russian. In almost every case, the number of English-language articles is equal to or even greater than the number of exclusively Russian-language publications:

Figure 2: A Linguistic Breakdown of Russian Think Tanks' Korea-Related Output

OrganizationNumber of Publications (English)Number of Publications (Russian)
Valdai Club11
Russian International Affairs Council64
Carnegie Moscow Center52

Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO): Russian-language items appeared in the journal “World Economy and International Relations (Russian: “Мировая экономика и международные отношения”). There were no translations of papers originally written in Russian into English, or vice versa.

Carnegie Moscow Center: Perhaps due to its independence from the Russian government, even fewer articles on the topic of Korea-Russia ties were written in Russian; the ones that were there were either originals or translations of articles with an English version.

Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC): The figures above do not include blog posts written by external authors, of which there are many, in both English and Russian, on Korea-Russia ties.

Valdai Discussion Club: In addition to Valdai Paper 76 there were a few multimedia results; however, these seemed to only be in English.

Conclusion | Judging from this qualitative reading of Russian policy-oriented output, it appears that economic issues are by far at the forefront of the Russian government’s thinking on Korea. Conspicuous by its absence is any substantial policy treatment of achieving denuclearization and disarmament on the Korean Peninsula. In the Russian context, this makes perfect sense. The Korean Peninsula plays a critical role in Moscow’s strategic goal of developing the Russian Far East. In addition, despite the Russian government’s official calls for North Korea to disarm, one scholar (incidentally from the Carnegie Moscow Center) has claimed that interviews with Russian officials reveal an undeclared but very real skepticism in Moscow on the prospects of Pyongyang disarming.

For a research organization to produce policy pieces in English is not in and of itself noteworthy. English is, after all, the de rigueur medium of international scholarly communication. The fact that so much Russian think tank output on Korea is in English raises a perhaps axiomatic point that nevertheless bears highlighting: for Russian scholars, discussions over Moscow’s interests in Korea are not exclusively for internal consumption.

Whether a lack of independence from government inhibits Russian policy institutes’ ability to provide the most sound advice and analysis is perhaps a question best left to Russians themselves. It is clear, however that policy scholars in the Russian Federation want their voices heard in the international community. Understanding some of the key characteristics of policy analysis in Russia can, in turn help outsiders have a clearer picture of the Kremlin’s interests in Korea.

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