Russia and the Future of Security on the Korean Peninsula

Russia and the Future of Security
on the Korean Peninsula

Speech delivered to the
Higher School of Economics,
Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs

28 April 2016

It’s good to be back in Moscow.

This is my fourth visit here over the past four years.

I am honored to be here to speak to you today about the future of security on the Korean peninsula, including Russia’s role.

I wish to thank and acknowledge Professor Karaganov, Dean of the Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs of the Higher School of Economics, for inviting me to address you.

And I’m also thankful to Professor Lukyanov for organizing this event.

The HSE has been called “Russia’s future Harvard University”.

I’m a Senior Fellow at the Belfer Center of the Harvard Kennedy School, and spent 2014 there thinking about the future of U.S.-China relations.

And I stood before young American and international students at the Kennedy Forum, as I stand before you today.

I was in Moscow in February, when I addressed your Diplomatic Academy on the challenge of North Korea’s latest nuclear and ballistic missile tests

I raised the concern that technical analyses of the rate of progress of North Korea’s nuclear program may differ between Moscow, Beijing and Washington.

But there is a growing recognition in each capital, each of which I have visited on a number of occasions over the last several months, that the challenge of the DPRK’s nuclear and missile programsis becoming more pressing.

Which is why the UN Security Council took decisive and timely action, in the resolution it adopted in March, in an effort to prevent further destabilization on the Korean peninsula.

North Korean tests, UNSC responses

The latest Security Council resolution is the strongest to date, in what has been an increasingly robust international response by the international community against the DPRK’s nuclear program, and other provocations on the peninsula.

Following North Korea’s missile test in July 2006, the Security Council required, in UNSCR1695, all UN member-states to prevent imports from, or exports to, North Korea of materials that could be used in its nuclear program.

Nonetheless, North Korea proceeded to explode a nuclear device later that same year.

The Security Council responded, in UNSCR1718 of October 2006, by restricting the sale or transfer of materials which could aid the DPRK’s nuclear program, and acted to freeze overseas businesses connected to North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic programs.

Member-states were empowered to inspect, “as necessary”, cargo moving in and out of North Korea to implement the Security Council’s new resolution.

North Korea carried out an underground nuclear test in 2009.

Under UNSCR 1874 or June 2009, the Security Council then tightened and extended international scrutiny of cargo in and out of the DPRK, and prohibited financial assistance and loans which could assist the latter’s nuclear program, with the exception of humanitarian reasons.

However, North Korea then carried out another missile test in December 2012, which the UN Security Council condemned in UNSCR 2087 of January 2013.

The DPRK then carried out its third nuclear test in February 2013.

The UNSC responded with UNSCR 2094 by unanimously imposed a fourth set of sanctions on the regime, further restricting cash transfers, luxury goods, and ordering assets freezes and travel bans on individuals and firms linked to the regime.

North Korea then carriedout its latest nuclear test earlier this year.

In its strongest stance to date, the UNSC, in Resolution 2270 last month, banned the export of coal, iron and iron ore to North Korea, as well as aviation fuel, rare earths, which may all assist the country’s nuclear and ballistic missile program.

Financial and asset freezes were also significantly tightened.

In February 2016, the DPRK launched another missile.

And earlier this week, on April 25, 2016, North Korea stated it had launched a ballistic missile from a submarine.
There are also further reports on an unsuccessful DPRK missile test today.

International reactions to the above are still developing.

So far, we have seen good P5 cooperation on North Korea.

Yet, as we must acknowledge, coordinated UNSC action has still had negligible effects on the North Korean regime’s behavior.
This is very concerning.

And it points to a more complex set of strategic issues.

Strategic Stability on the Korean Peninsula

The issue of security on the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia presents strategic challenges, as well as strategic opportunities, for cooperation between Moscow, Beijing and Washington.

The challenges are well known.

Take, for example, THAAD, or the Tactical High Altitude Air Defense systems, which South Korea has considered deploying.
The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed concerns over discussions between South Korea and the U.S. regarding the deployment of THAAD.

In fact, both Moscow and Beijing have expressed a common concern over the potential deployment of US THAAD systems to South Korea.
This raises long-term questions about the question of missile defense in Northeast Asia, and in other theatres.
Nonetheless, we should be mindful of other difficult foreign and security policy challenges where Russia, China, the U.S. have been able to cooperate.

The Iranian nuclear deal is a case in point.

The Syrian process may be a second.

North Korea could be another.

Ignoring and contravening the UN’s resolutions, North Korea challenges the foundations of the post-war international order: the centrality of the Security Council on international peace and security, and the role of international law in the fabric of world order.

If left unchecked, I fear that the DPRK’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs may lead us down train tracks to hell.

We are already on these tracks.

Getting off will require strong, powerful, creative diplomacy.

North Korea’s Technical Capabilities

Intelligence services around the world are working to gain an accurate estimate of North Korea’s technical capabilities in nuclear enrichment, rocketry, targeting and miniaturization.

Despite their best efforts, technical analyses remain grainy.

There are various public, often conflicting reports on the current state of North Korea’s nuclear capability.

⦁ The DPRK’s main nuclear reactor could have been used to produce up to 1–2 kg of plutonium, though other estimates suggest it may be was no more than a few hundred grams.

⦁ A newer nuclear reactor could yield a maximum of 27–29 kg of plutonium.

⦁ Two more reactors are currently under construction at Yongbyon and Taechon. If completed, they will be capable of producing up to 60 kg and 220 kg of plutonium per year, enough to produce approximately 10 and 40 nuclear warheads per year respectively.

⦁ North Korea performed no tests of medium-range missiles sufficiently powerful to reach Japan in 2015, but some sources believed that at least one missile fired during North Korea’s March 2016 missile tests could have been medium-range Rodong-missile.

⦁ North Korean missiles vary form a range of 160km (KN-1 anti-ship cruise missiles), to 300km (Hwasong-5, of which it possess up to 200), 700km (Hwasong-6, up to 400 in use), to 1,600km (Nodong-1), to the Taepodong-1 which has an estimated range of 6,000km.

⦁ There is also some reporting which suggests that North Korea has been able to miniaturize a nuclear warhead for use on a ballistic missile; re-entry technology to protect the warheads en route to their targets is lacking.

Again, there will be debates about the precise accuracy of these various reports.

Remembering also that we are talking about one of the most reclusive and secretive states in the world.

Coupled with one of the largest land armies in the world.

And, of course, a formidable, all-pervasive military culture.

North Korean Perceptions

North Korea’s public statements earlier this year were clear declaratory encapsulations of the strategic calculus underpinning its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

A DPRK statement claimed that:

“History proves that powerful nuclear deterrence serves as the strongest treasured sword for frustrating outsiders’ aggression.”

It continued:

“The Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq and the Gaddafi regime in Libya could not escape the fate of destruction after being deprived of their foundations for nuclear development and giving up nuclear programs of their own accord.”

This statement, coupled with the record of North Korea’s demands at the negotiating table, leave the clear impression that the above programs – seen from Pyongyang – are insurance policies to guarantee the survival of the regime from perceived existential threats to the regime’s very survival.

Many in the West disregard or downplay this perception.

But if the North Korean declaratory position is an accurate reflection of its substantive position, it means that North Korea will not trade away its nuclear and ballistic missile programs cheaply.

In fact, it suggests that it will trade them away very dearly.

It will require more than UNSC sanctions and logical argument about international law to induce Pyongyang to return to the negotiating table.

We should assume that North Korean – like any rational actor in international affairs – is primarily concerned with its survival.
Expert opinion on Korean experts in academia, government and think tanks – from Moscow to Beijing and Washington – tends to coalesce around the conclusion that the DPRK’s actions boil down to three core demands:

1. Reunification with the South remains its formal, long-term objective, albeit under the aegis of an Austro-Hungarian style confederacy, uniting two nations and social systems under one state, with the goal of eventual, long-term integration. A formal North Korean peace proposal, widely ignored in the West, proposes a ‘Democratic Confederal Republic of Koryo’. Russian experts, Georgy Toloraya and Alexander Vorontsov, have pointed out the distinct similarities between this proposal and that of the liberal wing of South Korean politics, as seen in the strategic thinking underpinning ROK president Kim Dae-jung’s “Sunshine Policy”.

2. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly in the short term, the DPRK routinely demands the signing of a peace treaty with the United States, formally ending the state of war.

3. Finally, experts with access to Pyongyang suggest that some type of external security guarantees, provided by states with a deep interest in strategic stability on the Korean peninsula, would be necessary to assure the North Korean regime of its long-term survival and, eventually, normalization as a post-nuclear sovereign state.

What is South Korea’s position on the above?

Reunification remains a long-term goal for the governments of both North and South Korea.

South Korean experts and officials are generally committed, according to the letter and spirit of their public statements,to reunifying Korea,in which the South would assume a role similar to that of West Germany post-unification.

Seoul’s position on a possible U.S.-DPRK peace treaty is unenthusiastic, if not distrustful of any bilateral normalization of relations with the United States which disregards its interests.

Beijing is committed to North Korea’s eventual denuclearization.

Russia is also a major player in the long-term security of the Korean peninsula, with an increasingly active role.
This is normal, given the proximity of Russian territory.

Moscow has explored creative ways to strengthen the Six-Party Talks as a mechanism of conflict resolution, calling for negotiations without preconditions, opposing the use of military threats, external pressure and sanctions against the regime.

When Pyongyang threatened “preventive nuclear strikes” against the U.S., earlier this year,the Russian foreign ministry’s statement of 7 March 2016 was strong and balanced, calling Pyongyang’s threats “absolutely unacceptable” and warning that:

“Pyongyang should understand that by making such statements it sets itself against the international community, and provides grounds under international law to use military force against it as per the right of states to self-defence that is part of the UN Charter.”

Russia understands the potential human, economic, geopolitical costs of any crisis or conflict on the Korean peninsula, and from the risks of nuclear proliferation to extremist, non-state actors.

Not to mention the questions of refugees from a range of contingencies on the Korean peninsula, of a matter of equal concern to Moscow and Beijing as to Seoul.

Tokyo, of course, has a major security interest in the peaceful settlement of intra-Korean tensions.

And its position on the unresolved issue of abducted Japanese citizens is well known within and outside the Six-Party Talks.

As for the U.S. position,

The U.S. does not want war.

Neither does China

Neither does Russia.

Nor does Japan.

Nor does South Korea.

The way ahead

Which leads us to the perennial question:

What is to be done?


Of course, our answer will depend upon our analysis of the facts.

Unfortunately, the facts, or the interpretation thereof, are not universally agreed between Moscow, Washington and Beijing.

First, as noted above, the technical question of assessments of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, and the projected timeline of its future development in coming months and years is fundamentally important.

You’ll hear different answers to the same factual questions across capitals.

A shared, factual basis for a common strategy on how to manage security and stability on the Korean peninsula is plainly lacking.
If so, a joint assessment of the technical facts may potentially be useful.

A more profound strategic disagreement concerns the more complex question of how much risk is tolerable.

There is no factual answer to this question, since it concerns varying red lines, national interests and strategic cultures.
Where some states perceive a grave if not mortal threat in a nuclear-armed North Korea, others are less concerned.

Or if they are concerned, the emphasis is on the risk of a regime collapse leading to nuclear proliferation to terrorist groups.

Or the risk of a modern nuclear power in Pyongyang increasing pressure on Asian neighboring states to develop a nuclear breakout capability.

There is also the complex question of the strategic implications of Korean unification, which adds to the mesh of entangled issues and interests.

All of which explains why some have referred to the Korean peninsula as “the cockpit of great power war in Asia in the 21st century.”
Which it could become more easily than many may think.

Especially given the historic role of the Korean peninsula as a highway of empires throughout the centuries.

This is what led, in part, to its carve-up into two buffer states at the end of the Cold War, to dampen tensions between Asia’s giants.
Ultimately, this Cold War front line led to the industrial-scale and, in the West, often-forgotten carnage that was the Korean War.

The most significant clash of Sino-American armed forces in history.

History is always a sobering companion.

It reminds us never to assume that the future will be a permanent replication of the present.

And that peace and stability, often taken for granted, are not self-sustaining.

But rather this should not lead us to indulge in fatalism, and a belief that the conflict is unresolvable or, worse, that a resumption of conflict is inevitable.

It’s easy to consign the Korean peninsula to the growing number of frozen conflicts.

The Iranian nuclear program was once seen as intractable.

As was the question of German reunification during the Cold War.

As was the resolution of the Sino-Soviet border.

The key question, bearing in mind all of the above constraints, is whether it is possible to enter into negotiations with the North Korean regime, incorporating at least some of its core demands.

North Korea would also need to accept the legitimacy of its partners’ base-line position on the dismantling of the North Korean nuclear program.

One potential approach, discussed in various capitals, is that of a two-track or parallel negotiation taking place.
This could consist of:

1. The issue of a potential peace treaty and security guarantees of the DPRK’s sovereignty being discussed on one track; while at the same time

2. A parallel working group negotiated denuclearization and a timetable on the cessation of all work on North Korea’s nuclear program, and the destruction of its existing nuclear capacity.

If such a two-track negotiation could be possible, it could perhaps lead to future discussions of the Korea’s final political status, at a pace acceptable to all.

The success of such a negotiating strategy would, of course, depend on the full buy-inof the two Koreas, Japan,as well China, Russia and the U.S.

Some see a stabilizing role for nuclear weapons in world politics.

Others, most notably John Mearsheimer, prescribe the active proliferation of nuclear weapons to more states in order to stabilize great power relations across the world.

That is an extraordinary gamble.

Particularly when states like North Korea have no real concept of an even elementary nuclear doctrine.

Which is why the established nuclear powers themselves need to develop a strong, united stance to prevent any conflagration on the peninsula.

A conflagration which, experts around the world understand, could end with a far larger cloud above Korea than the plumes of smoke which the world woke up to during the shelling Yeonpyeong in 2010.

Which is why the states which have mastered the destructive potential of nuclear weapons, through both technical and doctrinal experience, are particularly well placed to play a stabilizing role on the peninsula.

The United Nations Security Council, as the guarantor of international peace and security, also has an important and historic role to play in stabilizing the peninsula.

In this vein, experts from a South Korean and Russian think tank, the Russian International Affairs Council, recommended:

“putting the “Korean question” back on the UN agenda and having the United Nations hold a peace conference on the matter. It was noted that the two Koreas should be the parties to a peace agreement, or other document that could replace the 1953 Armistice Agreement and that the five permanent members of the UN Security Council could act as guarantors that the parties fulfil their obligations under the treaty.”
Whether the P5 see this as the best format for pursuing formal peace talks – and intra-Korean negotiations on denuclearisation and possibly reunification – is a matter for them.

It is also an open question whether Tokyo, or indeed other of the P5 capitals, would support such an approach.

But, at minimum, the UN could also begin to develop proposals to advance the type of twin-track negotiation process outlined above.


All this may be extremely difficult – requiring immense patience, diplomatic creativity, and new levels of strategic cooperation among the P3.

A tall order in any international dispute, let alone the 60 year old stand-off between North and South Korea.

A relic of the Cold War with the explosive potential of leading to a hot war almost every day of the week.

But I simply ask you this:

What’s the alternative?

If we do not manage securityon the Korean peninsula through concerted diplomatic action among the great powers, a major conflict could come like a bolt of lightning in a clear blue sky.

I also worry that time is not on our side.

I am particularly concerned about sharpening American assessments of the DPRK’s nuclear capabilities leading to the risk of unilateral American actions in defense of the U.S. homeland, including its own Pacific territories including Guam, and its Pacific allies.

Remember the impact of the DPRK’s public threat on American civilians that:

“If this H-bomb were to be mounted on an intercontinental ballistic missile and fall on Manhattan in New York City, all the people there would be killed immediately and the city would burn down to ashes.”

This reckless threat is a danger to the regime itself, as the Russian foreign ministry recently asserted strongly and correctly.

Such threats are an assault on the norms, conventions and rules in the UN Charter.

And an attack, in the final analysis, on human civilization.

The stakes are high and increasing on the Korean peninsula.

A discussion of negotiation modalities needs to begin anew.

And soon.

The clock is ticking