Friday, July 5, 2019

Russia in Review: North Korean Denuclearization

Russia in Review is a weekly intelligence summary (INTSUM) produced by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW). This ISW INTSUM series sheds light on key trends and developments related to the Russian government’s objectives and its efforts to secure them. Receive future Russia in Review INTSUM products via-email by signing up for the ISW mailing list.

Authors: Mason Clark and Andrea Snyder

Key Takeaway: The Kremlin is expanding its campaign to establish itself as a great power by attempting to supplant the U.S. as the primary mediator in denuclearization talks on the Korean Peninsula. The Kremlin held numerous meetings with the leaders of North Korea, South Korea, and China in April – June 2019, likely to lobby for its preferred multilateral format for negotiations with North Korea. South Korea remains committed to the U.S. and its involvement in denuclearization talks with North Korea, but it is likely amenable to increased influence for Russia on the Korean Peninsula.

The Kremlin likely intends to supplant the U.S. as the primary mediator in denuclearization talks on the Korean Peninsula. Russia and China have held weeks of meetings as part of an effort to establish a new multilateral format for negotiations with North Korea. Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un in his first state visit to Moscow on April 24 - 25, 2019.[1] Putin emphasized the need to provide reciprocal security guarantees on the Korean Peninsula in exchange for the denuclearization of North Korea.[2] Russian National Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev simultaneously met with South Korean President Moon Jae-in on April 25.[3] Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov later invited South Korea to join a “new Russian - Chinese initiative” to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula during a meeting with South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha on June 17.[4] Putin and Moon further discussed North Korea at the G20 Summit on June 28.[5] Putin also discussed the Korean Peninsula during a series of meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping on April 25, June 5, and June 14.[6] Xi later held his first state visit to North Korea on June 20 - 23.[7] Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin later met with senior military officials from North Korea on July 3.[8] 

The Kremlin has dismissed efforts by U.S. President Donald Trump to settle the conflict with North Korea.[9] Russia has instead proposed a series of “reciprocal steps” including a suspension of nuclear and ballistic missile tests by North Korea in exchange a suspension in military exercises by the U.S. and South Korea.[10] The Kremlin first proposed this plan in October 2017. The U.S. has rejected this proposal in favor of its goal of the complete and irreversible denuclearization of North Korea.[11] The Trump Administration has nonetheless considered cost-cutting measures that include the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Korean Peninsula, but only as a cost-cutting measure rather than a concession to North Korea.[12] The Kremlin will likely try to capitalize on this expressed willingness to withdraw in its efforts to shape talks on North Korea. 

South Korea has appeared favorable towards an increased role for Russia on the Korean Peninsula but has not yet committed to the negotiation proposals from the Kremlin. Moon welcomed the involvement of Russia in the peace process with North Korea on April 25.[13] Russia and South Korea also announced their intent to create a free trade zone for investments and services on June 17.[14] Moon nonetheless remains supportive of talks between the U.S. and North Korea, including a meeting between Trump and Kim in the Korean De-Militarized Zone on June 30.[15] Moon is likely amenable to the format proposed by Russia and China due to its similarity to as his softer ‘Sunshine Policy 2.0’ focused on constructive cooperation with North Korea. Yet North Korea and South Korea have both not yet released an official response to the initiative and the Kremlin is likely still lobbying for its preferred format. 

The Kremlin desires to expand its diplomatic ties with South Korea to advance its wider strategic objectives on the Korean Peninsula, including framing itself as a successful international mediator, building strong economic ties with both Koreas, and limiting U.S. influence in East Asia.[16] The Kremlin seeks trilateral infrastructure cooperation with both North Korea and South Korea, and frames economic cooperation as a means to resolving the problems on the Korean Peninsula.[17] It will likely use these deals to subvert sanctions on both North Korea and Russia through expanded trade with South Korea.[18] 

The Kremlin values gaining recognition as a successful arbiter as part of its campaign to restore its status as a global great power.[19] The Kremlin’s attempts to insert itself as the primary mediator for the Korean Peninsula expands this campaign into the Asia-Pacific. Russia has created parallel diplomatic formats in multiple theaters to challenge the U.S. and the West, including the Astana Talks on Syria, negotiations with the Taliban on Afghanistan, and the Palermo Conference hosted by Italy on Libya.[20] 

The Kremlin’s efforts to interject itself on the Korean Peninsula threaten U.S. interests in East Asia. Putin is not a trustworthy partner on the denuclearization of North Korea. He will likely exploit his involvement in any negotiations to expand his economic influence on the Korean Peninsula, subvert sanctions on Russia, and reduce the U.S. presence in South Korea. The withdrawal of the U.S. from South Korea would erode national security and eliminate strategic basing in the Asia-Pacific. The U.S. must ensure that Russia does not undermine the existing political process on North Korea at the cost of its interests in East Asia. The Kremlin’s proposal may prove unsuccessful, but it can still claim a victory if it is able to pull South Korea closer into the diplomatic sphere of influence of Russia.

[1] [“Russian-North Korean Negotiations,”] Kremlin, April 25, 2019, http://kremlin(.)ru/events/president/news/60363.
[2] [“Press Conference Following Russian-North Korean Talks,”] Kremlin, April 25, 2019, http://kremlin(.)ru/events/president/news/60370.
[3] “Moon Says N. Korea-Russia Summit to Help Promote Regional Peace,” Yonhap, April 25, 2019,
[4] “Russia, China Activate Korean Talks Ahead of G20,” RFE/RL, June 17, 2019,
[5] “Putin, Moon Jae-in Discuss Situation on Korean Peninsula,” TASS, June 28, 2019, https://tass(.)com/economy/1066193.
[6] “Vladimir Putin Arrived in China,” Kremlin, April 25, 2019, http://en.kremlin(.)ru/events/president/news/60373; “On June 5, Vladimir Putin Will Meet with President of China Xi Jinping,” Kremlin, June 5, 2019, http://en.kremlin(.)ru/press/announcements/60658; “Meeting with President of China Xi Jinping and President of Mongolia Khaltmaagiin Battulga,” Kremlin, June 14, 2019, http://en.kremlin(.)ru/events/president/news/60753.
[7] Sasha Ingber, “Chinese President Xi Jinping to Visit North Korea This Week,” NPR, June 17, 2019,
[8] [“Interaction Between the Defense Departments of the Russian Federation and the DPRK Intensified,”] Russian Defense Ministry, July 3, 2019,
[9] John Power, “Trump-Kim Summit 2019: Collapsed Talks a Risk for North Korea with Silver Linings for China and Japan,” South China Morning Post, March 1, 2019, https://www.scmp(.)com/week-asia/politics/article/2188273/trump-kim-summit-2019-collapsed-talks-risk-north-korea-silver; Hyonhee Shin and Joyce Lee, “North Korea Executes Envoy to Failed U.S. Summit - Media; White House Monitoring,” Reuters, May 30, 2019,
[10] “Seoul Invited to Join Russian-Chinese New Initiative on Korean Peninsula, Says Lavrov,” TASS, June 17, 2019, https://tass(.)com/world/1064125.
[11] “Lavrov to Discuss ‘New Russian, Chinese Initiative’ on Korean Peninsula with Visiting South Korean FM,” RFE/RL, June 16, 2019,
[12] Mark Landler, “Trump Orders Pentagon to Consider Reducing U.S. Forces in South Korea,” New York Times, May 3, 2018,
[13] “Moon Says N. Korea-Russia Summit to Help Promote Regional Peace,” Korea Herald, Apr 25, 2019,
[14] “Russia, South Korea to Formally Start Free Trade Zone Talks, Says Lavrov,” TASS, June 17, 2019, https://tass(.)com/economy/1064214.
[15] “Pompeo Optimistic on North Korea Talks as Former Official Calls It PR Stunt,” RFE/RL, June 30, 2019,
[16] [“Statement by Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov During a Joint Press Conference Following Talks with Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Korea Kang Kyung-hwa,”] Russian Foreign Ministry, June 17, 2019, http://www.mid(.)ru/ru/foreign_policy/news/-/asset_publisher/cKNonkJE02Bw/content/id/3686129.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Fredrick W. Kagan, Nataliya Bugayova, and Jennifer Cafarella, “Confronting the Russian Challenge: A New Approach for the U.S.,” Institute for the Study of War, June 2019,
[20] Catherine Harris and Jack Ulses, “Russia in Review: August 14 - 20, 2018,” Institute for the Study of War, August 21, 2018,; Jack Ulses and Catherine Harris, “Russia in Review: August 21 - 28, 2018,” Institute for the Study of War, August 29, 2018,; Lorenzo Tondo and Patrick Wintour, “Italian Summit on Libya in Disarray as Trump and Putin Stay Away,” The Guardian, November 21, 2018,