Dr. Alexander Zhebin,  Director, Center for Korean Studies, Institute of Far Eastern Studies, Moscow

Global Peace Leadership Conference
Seoul, Korea, 2012


As a bordering neighbor of Korea and a major power in Northeast Asia, Russia has a keen interest in the situation on the Korean peninsula. For uninterrupted internal development and protection of its interests in Northeast Asia, Russia wants to maintain peace and security on the Korean peninsula.  Korean unification, however, is likely to create new conditions in which Russia has to redefine its policy in Northeast Asia. Moscow’s position concerning the inter-Korean rapprochement and its possible results is determined by Russia’s national interests which, certainly, will benefit, first of all, from liquidation of a long-time conflict right next to her Far Eastern region and from founding in the end a unified Korea, capable to maintain relations of friendship, good-neighborhood and cooperation with Russia. Secondly, better relations between North and South Korea, along with providing Russia with more favorable conditions for development of trade and economic cooperation with both parts of Korea, would open new opportunities for economic development of the Russian Far East and for linking Russia’s economy to integration processes in the Asia-Pacific region. So both on security and economic reasons Moscow is vitally interested in peace, reconciliation and unification of Korea. This paper will examine Russia’s policy toward Korean unification and its likely responses to a wide range of Korean unification strategies. The paper will also discuss peace-building in Northeast Asia from the Russian perspective.

  1. Introduction

Russia is vitally interested in maintenance of peace and stability in the areas located on perimeter of the Russian borders. The promotion of a good-neighborhood and mutually advantageous cooperation with the regional states in Northeast Asia is getting ever more important in view of the forthcoming APEC summit to be hosted by Russia just in few weeks in Vladivostok.

 Moscow is well aware of the fact that any serious aggravation of the situation, the more so armed conflicts on the Korean peninsula had always jeopardized Russia’s security, compelled her to undertake additional measures to strengthen the country’s defense capabilities in the region. Several times Russia had to use its armed forces in Korea to protect her interests against non-continental adversaries as it happened in 1904-1905, 1945 and finally, though on a very limited scale, in 1950-1953.

 That’s why Moscow pays due attention to efforts aimed at ensuring Russia’s active and full-fledge participation in a search for a political solution to the nuclear problem on the Korean peninsula, maintaining constructive relations with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and the Republic of Korea (ROK), promoting dialogue between Seoul and Pyongyang and strengthening security in Northeast Asia.[1]

 This paper examines evolution of Russia’s policy toward North and South Korea and explains reasons for Russia’s consistent support for any steps aimed at promoting the process of reconciliation, rapprochement and cooperation in Korea. It also provides with some outlines of Moscow’s vision of a reunited Korea and her place in any future security architecture in the region which should be acceptable for all major parties concerned.

  1. Russia: Seeking a Balance in Korea

Russia’s policy toward the Korean peninsula has experienced U-turns in the end of the 20th century.  Till the end of the 1980s the USSR, mainly because of ideological reasons, recognized only one of two Korean states – North Korea, while ignoring the other one – South Korea. Then, after well-known changes in the Soviet Union’s foreign and domestic policy and establishment of diplomatic relations with the ROK, prompt rapprochement with Seoul and fast cooling of relations with Pyongyang has taken place. During 1990 –1992 period Russia failed to utilize her unique position of the only Great Power which maintained diplomatic relations with both Korean states.

The USSR/Russia-ROK relations during the first half of the 1990s can be characterized as a period of lost opportunities and illusions that were destined not to come true. Some people in Moscow believed naively that economic cooperation with the ROK and its investments in the Russian economy will play a role of an engine to move it on market rails. In its turn, Seoul expected that new relations with Moscow will help to advance the unification of Korea according to South Korea’s scenario.

At the same time Russia-DPRK relations have drastically deteriorated. The reason for such a turn was the same – an ideology-motivated approach by some people in Boris Yeltsin’s administration, but only opposite one to those which prevailed during most of the Soviet period. It was demonstrated in the most vivid manner when the Russian leadership took public decision to abrogate the bilateral military-political treaty of 1961 with North Korea which represented one of key pillars of the security architecture in the region.[2]

These actions brought about a drastic loss of Russia’s influence in Korea. As a result of such policy Russia was excluded from the settlement of the first nuclear crisis in Korea and from participation in establishing  the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO), and, secondly, not invited to participate in the negotiations (though those finally have proved to be unsuccessful) on establishment of a new mechanism for maintenance of peace in Korea instead of the Armistice Agreement of 1953 (the Four-Party talks  with participation of the U.S.A., China, DPRK and ROK).[3]

The developments have pushed the Russian experts and then the Russian leadership to look for more rational and balanced policy in Korea. Nevertheless the whole second half of the 1990s was spent for overcoming the alienation with the North and mutual disappointment with the South.

Russia’s new course took into account both social and economic changes in Russia and geopolitical realities in the international arena. Russia’s new foreign policy is characterized, including those toward the Korean peninsula, by total disappearance of the ideological factor and by appreciable increase of pragmatism in defining approaches to the current global and regional problems.

It is obvious that Russia has interests both in the North and in the South on the Korean peninsula. However, opportunities for their realization are determined by differences in social and economic systems, foreign policy and economic potential of two Korean states.

Russia’s political and economic values now, undoubtedly, are closer to those existed in the ROK, than in the DPRK. However, Moscow’s foreign policy priorities quite often, as Pyongyang (2000) and Moscow (2001) Declarations testify, to a greater degree coincide with Pyongyang’s line, which supports or has a lot of common with our positions on number of major international problems (multipolar world order, missile defense, NATO’s expansion).

No doubt that nowadays Russia’s economic interests are concentrated in South Korea. The volume of the Russia-ROK bilateral trade approximately 220 times exceeds the corresponding figure with the DPRK. However the structure of trade and economic cooperation, the content of scientific and technical cooperation are favorable first of all to Seoul. If to take into account South Korea’s obvious ambivalence to go ahead with realization of three lateral gas and transportation projects with Russia in North Korea, it becomes obvious that the economic partnership with the ROK  yet can not be considered as the determining factor of our Korean policy.

However, while striving to promote in every way trade and economic cooperation with the ROK adequate to Russia’s interests, Moscow is not going to lose economic positions in North Korea whose economy was developed with the Soviet assistance and till now in many aspects is oriented toward Russian technological and resource base and commodity markets. Russia’s recent decision to write off 90 percent of North Korea’s debt to the former USSR underscores Moscow’s intention to boost economic ties with Pyongyang.[4]

The “Russian factor” is taken into consideration by both North and South Korea in the most serious manner. However both of them do not consider it to be of key importance to them. Pyongyang strives to show to the U.S.A. and their allies as well to China the presence of “Moscow alternative”, though the North Koreans understand that Russia is hardly inclined to provide any security guarantees to the DPRK which even distantly would resemble those promised by the former USSR.

At the same time some experts are obviously underestimating the degree of Russia’s influence and the role of Moscow’s bilateral contacts with Pyongyang (especially during three trips by Kim Jong-il to Russia in 2001-2002 and in 2011) in recent developments, including economic transformations in the DPRK. For the North Koreans our experience in realization of economic reforms is valuable first of all from the point of their political results and lessons.

During those trips to Russia and four last trips to China (2010-2011) Kim Jong-il and his entourage had chances to get a first-hand experience that market-oriented transformations and even political reforms not necessarily should result in a loss of power by the ruling elite. The ruling elite in Russia and in China generally have retained their positions. There were no purges, blood-shedding, etc. That was one of the main arguments which may convince North Korea’s leaders that a market “evil” was not as terrible as it was used to be painted, that it was possible to go cautiously forward in economic transformation and to not lose at all political power.

The DPRK draw the same conclusion from experience of post-Soviet development in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia and Transcaucasia, where some leaders well-known to their North Korean colleagues, in particular, Geidar Aliev, who had been the CPSU Politburo’s member, not only retained the power, but even managed to ensure its rather smooth transfer to his son.

At the same time, on strong Russia some circles both in Pyongyang and in Seoul pin their hope that it will be possible, accordingly, to reduce the U.S.A. pressure upon the North and their dominance in the South and to feel more comfortably in relations with China and Japan.

All these factors dictates Russia necessity to stand in Korea, figuratively speaking, “on two legs”, to maintain good-neighborhood relations with both Korean states. Shifts in Moscow’s Korean policy for the benefit of one of them always reduced Russia’s ability to influence the Korean affairs and led to falling interest in Moscow as a worthy partner in both Korean states and among other participants of the Korean settlement.

The optimum model of Russia’s “balance of interests” on the Korean peninsula should, probably, include such system of relations with each of the two Korean states which would exclude an opportunity for any of them to use its relations with Russia to the detriment of Moscow’s relations with the other Korean state.

Considering the above mentioned factors, nowadays main tasks of Russia’s policy toward the Korean peninsula could be defined as the following:

  • prevention of the situation when developments on the Korean peninsula or a policy of any of two Korean states could pose a threat to Russia’s national security interests;
  • ensuring of the denuclearized status of the Korean peninsula, non-proliferation of WMD and means of their delivery;
  • support for independent, without intervention from the outside, process of reconciliation between the DPRK  and the ROK;
  • settlement of problems existing on the Korean peninsula only through peaceful means, employing political-diplomatic methods;
  • backing emergence of the unified Korean state, friendly to Russia and to other neighboring countries;
  • establishment of the economic foundation for peace and prosperity in the region through realization of multilateral economic projects, especially including those with participation of the RF, the DPRK and the ROK.

Russia and Inter-Korean Relations

Russia welcomed results of two inter-Korean summits of 2000 and 2007 because of two major considerations: Moscow hoped that the inter-Korean reconciliation, firstly, will remove a threat of military conflict right next to her Eastern border and secondly, create more favorable environment both for development of her bilateral economic ties with two Korean states as well as for implementation of multilateral economic projects with Russia’s participation in Northeast Asia. There were expectations that in the long run a unified Korea will be a country capable to maintain relations of friendship, good neighborhood and cooperation with Russia.

A major new consideration added by two inter-Korean summits to Russia’s Korean policy was realization of the fact that the Korean nationalism has become a major factor which should be taken into account by all parties concerned when formulating and realizing their respective policies toward the Korean peninsula.[5] Therefore from that time on Moscow tries to foresee how her policy and practical steps look like from the point of view of North or South Korea, but the Korean nation as a whole.

However, there should be no doubt that Russia’s priority interest concerning realization of any unification scenario remains maintenance of peace and stability on the peninsula. The content of Pyongyang and Moscow Declarations on results of the RF-DPRK summits in 2001-2002, and also the Russian – Korean joint statement and Declaration on results of two Russia-ROK summits in 2001 and 2004 speak quite clearly to the effect.[6]

It is also important for Moscow to ensure the most possible predictability of final results of the re-unification process. High degree of uncertainty concerning character of foreign policy of the unified Korea, its participation in the military-political alliances with other states and orientations of such alliances compels Russia, as well as other powers, while welcoming inter-Korean détente, to take more cautious position toward prospects of unification.

The same could be said about other major parties’ approaches. For example, Beijing is seemingly fears advancement of the U.S. troops to almost 1400 km-long the Korean-Chinese border to be a part of the U.S.A.’s “hedging strategy” against China, the United States is worried by prospects that unified Korea may be inclined to put an end to the American military presence on the peninsula, and the Japanese are seemingly afraid of emergence of a strong competitor overwhelmed with aspiration to get a historical revenge for humiliations of the colonial past.

One can hardly expect Russia (and China, too) to welcome as a new neighbor  a state with 75-million population which is  under prevailing influence of the U.S.A. and the more so with the U.S. troops on its territory. It would be equivalent to emergence near our eastern borders of an Asian clone of the NATO.

Some prominent Russian experts consider that the continuing U.S. troops’ stationing in South Korea is anachronism of the “Cold War” period.[7] They believe it is necessary to put an end to a foreign military presence in Korea after her possible re-unification since it can be directed only against Russia (and her strategic partner – China). Moscow also keeps in mind that the U.S. troops on the Korean peninsula will be protected by Theatre Missile Defense (TMD) system which is being deployed by the U.S.A. in the region.

Some Russian experts call for disbandment of the UN Command in Korea which was usurped by the U.S.A. for covering up the power politics in the region. The move wouldn’t destabilize the situation on the peninsula since the U.S. troops almost for certain will stay there on the basis of the bilateral treaty with the ROK. However, the UN Command’s dissolution and termination of foreign military presence in the unified Korea will suit not only Russia’s security interests, but also core national interests of all Koreans.[8]

The countries located next to the Korean peninsula are also worried by possible territorial claims by the unified Korea to the neighboring states. The rather heated Korean-Chinese dispute over borders and history of ancient Korean state Koguryo has brought close attention to the future developments on the matter..

Generally speaking, since the middle of the 19th century the real task for Russia’s foreign policy has been not to get prevailing positions on the Korean peninsula, but to prevent such a situation when Korea would be placed under influence of another, especially unfriendly to Russia, state.[9]

Since under present balance of forces in Northeast Asia one could not exclude development of events according to such scenario completely, existence of the DPRK as the friendly sovereign state which is carrying out a role of a certain buffer for geopolitical ambitions of the U.S.A. in this region is favorable to Moscow (and Beijing, too) in a short and mid-term perspective.

In view of the factors specified above, the DPRK’s unification formula which calls for creation of a neutral non-aligned state on the peninsula looks, from the point of view of Russia’s security interests, more attractive, than South Korean commitment to the American military presence even after unification of Korea.

Russia understands that the Korean problem – one of the most complicated problems in Asia and thus demands unrelenting attention. The Russian side is not imposing itself as an intermediary between Seoul and Pyongyang, but uses all opportunities to promote peace and dialogue between the North and the South. Moscow aspires to play on the peninsula a constructive, stabilizing role contradicting to nobody’s interests.

Russia’s firm conviction is that there is no alternative to the inter-Korean dialogue and cooperation. Moscow never failed to confirm that “Russia supports the policy of developing dialogue between the two Korean states and bringing them closer together” and that “Russia has always aspired to, and today expresses its unequivocal support for, a dialogue and rapprochement of the Korean states and maintaining a denuclearized Korean peninsula.”[10]

Normalization of situation on the Korean peninsula completely suits Russia’s national interests. And in particular, because tension arising from time to time between Pyongyang and Seoul obviously does not promote realization of such joint economic projects, like oil and gas pipelines, linking the Russian Trans-Siberian Mainline with the Trans-Korean railways. Russia believes that cooperation in a tripartite format, between Russia, the Republic of Korea and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, in the energy and transportation sectors can be a very important part of expanding bilateral cooperation between Moscow and Seoul.[11]

Betterment of relations between the DPRK and the ROK, along with providing with more favorable conditions for development of trade and economic cooperation between Russia and both parts of Korea, undoubtedly, would open new opportunities for economic development of the Russian Far East and for linking its economy to integration processes in the Asia-Pacific region.

Besides being economically advantageous, such interaction is highly likely to contribute to the confidence-building between South and North Korea. Russia believes that such cooperation “will not only be economically advantageous, but will also increase trust on the Korean peninsula.”[12]

So both on security and economic reasons Russia is vitally interested in peace, reconciliation and unification of Korea. This well-grounded conclusion seems especially important in view of continuing attempts by some experts to convince public opinion than none of the neighboring countries, including Russia, is interested in Korea unification. Such attempts are aimed at placating some countries’ egoistic, arrogant policy and disguise their attempts to keep their military dominance in the region at any price.

During the last decade Russia has shown with practical deeds that it is ready in every possible way to promote confidence, peaceful co-existence, stable and all-round cooperation between the DPRK and the ROK. Moscow is encouraging all other parties concerned to act in the same way.

Russia and Nuclear Problem in Korea

It is difficult to imagine a unified Korea short of denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. Moscow’s position on the nuclear problem is determined by the coincidence of vital national interests of Russia and the Korean nation as a whole. The approach is based on two major assumptions.

Firstly, any war on Russia’s borders, to say nothing of one with high possibility of using WMD, will be a direct threat to our security. The security of Russia’s Far Eastern regions and their population’s lives directly depend on how events in Korea will evolve. In case of an armed conflict on the peninsula the radioactive clouds from dozens of  Korean Chernobyl’s (many of 23 South Korean atomic power plants could be destroyed by North Korea with conventional weapons), and streams of refugees would not reach the U.S. Pacific coast, but they would certainly reach Russia’s Far East territory.

Secondly, in case of an armed conflict in Korea, Moscow could hardly expect implementation of multilateral energy and transportation projects in this region with which Russia links social and economic development of her Far Eastern region. Threat of a major conflict on the peninsula can sharply increase outflow of the population from the Russian Far East. In case a war is unleashed, the demographic situation in the Far East can become just catastrophic.

Moscow is convinced that only removal of mutual concerns in a “package,” on the basis of a broad compromise will make it possible to achieve the goals of the world community with regard to the situation on the Korean Peninsula.[13]

Starting with the commencement of the Six-Party talks Russia from time to time reminded her partners at the talks that one of the obstacles to the DPRK’s better behavior is “rather tough pressure exerted by some partners.” Moscow believes that to solve the problem “we should not push the situation into the corner, but employ negotiations, and use the Six-Party format”. [14]

Russia has welcomed the results of the third meeting of DPRK and U.S.A. representatives in Beijing on February 23-24 and favorably assessed the agreement. At the same time Moscow repeatedly indicated that it remains rather skeptical about assumption that any bilateral track can resolve all issues. In April 2011 then Russia’s President D.Medvedev in his interview to China Central TV pointed out: “no one should dominate, and not because we are seriously against unilateral or bilateral negotiations – but because I just do not believe in their efficiency. Sometimes we hear people say: let some other country do it, for instance the United States of America, it will sort it all out. But it won’t! The world works in such a way that there is a need for guarantees, a need for building a comprehensive security system; that is why I consider the six-party talks involving both Koreas, China, the Russian Federation, Japan, and the United States, a fairer mechanism in this context”.[15]

In the same interview D.Medvedev said that “we should make attempts, we should talk, and we should try and offer incentives to North Korea to make it see that there is no alternative to cooperation, that nuclear power engineering, nuclear programs must be exclusively peaceful. This is the only way to achieve progress. And we are ready for that”.[16]

Russia’s President V.Putin in his article on foreign policy, published on February 27, 2012 during election campaign, pointed out that “all this fervor around the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea makes one wonder how the risks of nuclear weapons proliferation emerge and who is aggravating them. It seems that the more frequent cases of crude and even armed outside interference in the domestic affairs of countries may prompt authoritarian (and other) regimes to possess nuclear weapons.”[17]

It is essential to do everything we can to prevent any country from being tempted to get nuclear weapons. Non-proliferation campaigners must also change their conduct, especially those that are used to penalizing other countries by force, without letting the diplomats do their job. This was the case in Iraq – its problems have only become worse after an almost decade-long occupation.[18]

During last two decades North Korea has taken advantage of the “draw situation” between the U.S.A. and rising China in the region. Having been frightened by the U.S.A.-led invasions in various parts of the world and feeling incapable to defend themselves with their obsolete conventional armaments; Pyongyang has started to develop missile and nuclear weapons to deter a possible attack or prevent a regime change scenario.

However, the DPRK’s attempts even after failed sputnik’s launch to restart bilateral dialogue with the U.S.A. confirms that Pyongyang’s priority remains a dialogue as the only way to improve relations with the United States in order to remove an external threat and to get access to investments and assistance from the West. The latter is vitally important for North Korea since only then it will be possible to revive and modernize the country’s economy. Without that, it will be very difficult for the regime to survive.

So the future of the Six-Party talks will depend mainly on what choice will be made by the U.S.A. – whether it limits its demands to North Korea to a nonproliferation agenda or continues to pursue simultaneously a backstage agenda to realize a regime change scenario. In the latter case the DPRK is unlikely to give up its “nuclear deterrent”.

Meanwhile, taking into consideration domestic political situation both in the U.S.A. and the ROK and other countries directly concerned it is plausible to suggest that the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula in the short and even medium term is unlikely. It would be more realistically to talk about preventing the proliferation by the DPRK of nuclear weapons and relevant technologies as well as missiles and their workmanship.

Russia is firmly in favor of full and non-reversible denuclearization of the   Korean peninsula by political and diplomatic means, formation of the peace mechanism, safety and mutual trust, development of mutually beneficial cooperation in the region. President V.Putin’s Executive Order to implement foreign policy contains his instructions to the MFA of Russia “to promote the peaceful settlement of the nuclear problem on the Korean Peninsula within the framework of the Six-Party talks”.[19]

Multilateral Economic Engagement and Peace Process

Traditional methods which had been employed so far for solving the nuclear problem and other security-related issues on the Korean peninsula haven’t brought so far any tangible results. A process of economic integration and globalization in NEA seems to provide us with new instruments for solving the task. It is highly likely that more active involvement of the DPRK in those processes may bring about positive changes in her international behavior.

Lessons of Germany’s unification, downfall of socialism in East Europe and regime change scenarios imposed by the U.S.A. and its allies on the Balkans, in Iraq and Libya alarmed North Korea’s leaders. Unless the North Korean elite would be provided with clear guarantees of their personal safety, adequate social status and a certain level of well-being after unification, it would stay united and remain very reluctant to open the country and abandon nuclear weapons.

Only inviting in honest North Korea to participate in realization of multilateral economic projects in NEA, including those proposed by Russia, can convince Pyongyang that international community had taken on a road leading to the DPRK’s gradual and peaceful integration in existing international political and economic order instead of forcing on the country a regime change scenario.

Economic cooperation will help to develop the DPRK’s economy, to make the North Koreans more prepared to live in a modern society. In other words, it will help to lessen the existing gap between two parts of the country and  to cut unification’s cost. During the process, it will help to enlarge in the North ever growing strata of people interested in stable cooperative relations with the outside world.

That’s why Russia disagrees with those advocating postponing practical implementation of multilateral economic cooperation projects until the nuclear problem in Korea is resolved

Nowadays, when North Korea’s new leader Kim Jong-un is trying to present to his people and to the world if not a new policy, but certainly a new style and more human-alike image, it is getting ever more important to stop watching the North Korean ruling elite as an inseparable and unfriendly entity. There is a younger part of the ruling elite, growing both in numbers and influence, whose value orientation is close or similar to those in societies with liberal democracy and market economy systems. This strata includes mainly managers of joint ventures, export-import and general trading companies, which by their structure and functioning methods sometimes resembles very much South Korean chaebols in the 1970-1980s. The group also includes some military officers, technical specialists and students, who got their education and training abroad, some prominent figures in arts and culture. The most important thing is that for the first time this strata may have the leader who happened to become the country’s top official.

That doesn’t mean at all that Kim Jong-un leadership will be much more liberal or more inclined to step down from the power. On the contrary, it may well be rather conservative in domestic politics, highly pragmatic and very tough in negotiating for a such unification formula which would ensure for them an appropriate social status and material well-being in the re-unified Korea and would not bring them in the long run behind the bars, like it had happened with many their comrades-in-arms in East Europe. They, taking into consideration the experience of China, the former USSR and some other countries, will work on consolidation of their political and economic base in the North and are preparing to negotiate with the South the conditions acceptable for them to agree to reunification.

In Search for New Peace Mechanism in Northeast Asia

Attempts to realize an idea of establishing a multilateral security mechanism in Northeast Asia had been revived with the first signs of progress at the Six-Party talks on the nuclear problem on the Korean peninsula. There were arguments that the talks could serve as a foundation for the future Northeast Asian organization on security and cooperation.

Regretfully, because of numerous suspensions of the negotiating process, with the current one being the longest and the most discouraging, hopes expressed by some experts at turning the Six-Party format (even without the DPRK’s participation) into some kind of regional mechanism for security and cooperation have subdued very much.

Proponents of the idea argue that, in addition to achieving the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, the problem of conventional arms control and its subsequent reduction in the region requires attention and collective efforts. The multilateral format could be useful for discussion and formulation of measures designed to respond to new challenges and threats, in particular to prevent acts of terrorism and ensuring environmental security coordination in the event of natural and technological disasters, etc.

However, the last decade’s experience demonstrated that new challenges and threats in Northeast Asia proved not to be so urgent like in other regions of our planet. At least, those issues failed to become a top priority on the agenda of both multilateral and bilateral meetings of the regional countries’ leaders.

It is a well-known fact that the security in East Asia after the end of the Korean War was based and still is founded on bilateral military-political alliances. Many American experts believe that any future peace regime and new security mechanism in NEA should not “put at risk” the existing U.S. alliances with Japan and South Korea which are expected to remain the foundation the United States’ strong position in NEA.[20]

Thus, any future peace and security mechanism in Northeast Asia is actually viewed by them as a kind of a “supplement” to bilateral military-political alliances existing since the beginning of “the Cold War”. That kind of multilateral bodies will be assigned with two main tasks – consolidating and legitimizing the American military and political domination in the region and extending American control over the policies of those countries that have not yet been linked by the bilateral alliances with the United States.

Regretfully, starting from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s speech made on January 12, 2010 in Honolulu, Hawaii, where she de-facto presented B.Obama administration’s policy toward Asia-Pacific, in a number of follow-up statements both U.S. President and Secretary of State confirmed that the U.S.A. will continue to rely on their bilateral alliances in the region as “the cornerstone” of American involvement and leadership.[21]

The United States’ intention to continue to rely primarily on their bilateral military and political alliances with some countries in the region, rather than on multilateral mechanisms for the maintenance of peace and security constitutes and, apparently, in the foreseeable future, will remain a major obstacle to the establishment of an effective mechanism for security and cooperation in NEA. Particularly destructive are the U.S. attempts to use such alliances and new block combinations of different configurations to deter a peaceful rise of China, and Russia, too.

History of the Korean settlement for the past two decades, including time and again encountered difficulties in solving the nuclear issue on the Korean peninsula, makes us to conclude that without solution of a certain fundamental problem, directly related to the region’s future security architecture as a whole, we will continue incessantly stumble on minor problems and will not be capable to tackle them.

The fundamental, key issue which any future peace process in Northeast Asia should to resolve is defining an acceptable for all  “big countries” place for the unified Korea in the future regional security system. Short of such a vision each and every participant of the future peace system will remain very suspicious about others’ plans and moves.

Many politicians and experts in the U.S.A., the ROK and Japan have already listed the re-unified Korea as a member of the tripartite alliance of U.S.A.-Japan-ROK, to which Australia has been already linked.[22]

However, such plans are unlikely to be welcomed in Moscow and Beijing. Both countries are likely to perceive such a triangle as a deterrent against Russia and China. Such an alliance would be tantamount to the emergence on Russia’s eastern borders of a body similar to NATO, under the umbrella of TMD system which is actively deployed by the U.S.A. and their allies in the region.

Calculations to the effect that future unified Korea will be de-facto a forward base of maritime powers – the United States and Japan – against continental – China and Russia can hamper and is already hindering both the establishment of a reliable and sustainable peace system in Northeast Asia, the solution of the nuclear problem and the re-unification of Korea.

The assertion that the division of Korea is one of the worst legacies of “the Cold War” has become almost commonplace in all discussions on the situation in the region. However, virtually all analysts and policymakers tend to limit their calls for elimination of this heritage to the need to achieve the desirable for the United States and its allies changes in foreign and domestic policy of the DPRK, or even better – to realize a regime change scenario in that country.

But are not the same legacy of “the Cold War” the U.S. military alliances with Japan and ROK? It has been almost two decades since the West announced its victory in the “Cold War”, but these alliances are far from  been dissolved. On the contrary, one can witness incessant attempts to have them strengthened and enlarged.

Moscow has long ago abrogated military and political treaties with countries in the region, our army and navy in the Far East have been substantially reduced. Nowadays even the most ardent critics of Russia’s policy don’t dare to assert the existence of “the Russian threat” in the region. So the discussion on the nature, directions and validity of the very existence of the U.S. bilateral alliances in their current form would be hard to avoid.

Program for Korea and World Community

The issue of foreign policy’s orientation of a unified Korean state and its future alliances is extremely important, of course, not only for Russia,  but also for China, the U.S.A. and Japan and, of course, for the Koreans themselves. Neutralization of a future unified Korea with international guarantees from the U.S.A. China, Russia and Japan may be the most acceptable option to all those concerned and genially interested in an early and peaceful Korean settlement. Members of the “Big Four” (China, Russia, the U.S.A. and Japan) should give formal guarantees of the unified Korea’s neutral status. This status could be supported and reinforced by the UN Security Council, which can adopt a special resolution to that effect.

The “big countries” should also take obligations to refrain from entering into  any military alliance with the unified Korea and promise to each other and to the Koreans, of course, to never send  or deploy their troops on the Korean soil (except in cases of unanimous decisions by the UN Security Council adopted in accordance with the UN Charter).

For its part, the unified Korea also should declare herself a neutral state, takes an obligation not to conclude military treaties with other countries (the existing agreements between China and North Korea, South Korea and the United States cease to have effect in due time), not to invite any foreign troops on her territory. The Korean troops can be sent overseas only as a peacekeeping or disaster relieve force following the relevant decision by the UN Security Council. The participation of the united Korea in various non-military international and regional organizations (APEC, ASEM, ASEAN Regional Forum, etc.), bilateral agreements on economic, trade and cultural cooperation are encouraged and supported.

The obligations taken and promises given by  the North and the South to each other in a number of inter-Korean documents to achieve unification through peaceful means should acquire legal status and be guaranteed by the “Big Four”. Those guarantees and related conditions must be accepted by Seoul and Pyongyang. This will allow them to proceed to substantial mutual reductions of armed forces and armaments along with simultaneous withdrawal of foreign troops from the peninsula. As a result, the DPRK will be able to release considerable funds for modernization of her economy and infrastructure, and the Republic of Korea will get additional money to assist the North to fulfill the task.

Sure, an inevitable question will be raised – whether the Koreans themselves would agree to such limitations of the sovereignty of a future united state? One might reply that we live in an era of limited sovereignty. Virtually all countries of the modern world, big and small, are parties to hundreds of international treaties, agreements, and members of various organizations that restrict this sovereignty for their own and the common good. Didn’t EU member-states, when developing and improving their organization, agree to voluntarily relinquish part of their sovereignty for the sake of pan-European benefits? Did Austria’s international standing and her people’s living standards suffer a lot after almost 60 years living in conditions of neutrality, “imposed” on this country in 1955 by the State Treaty?

When North Korea started to disable its nuclear facilities and supplied the Americans, not her Russian or Chinese friends with boxes stuffed with documents about her nuclear activities that were previously considered top secret, didn’t she sacrifice her sovereignty? And what about South Korea’s armed forces which until recently were even in time of peace under the control of the U.S. general, who still retains this right in case of armed conflict on the peninsula?

History should have taught the Koreans that having friendship with any of the great powers against other one (or others) will not bring peace and tranquility to the Korean soil, and certainly will not bring closer the day of re-unification.

Given today’s global and Korean realities assertions to the effect that neutralization of Korea and clearly understood and agreed self-restraint of other countries in their policies in Korea supposedly will “infringe” on the sovereignty of the Korean people, or deprive somebody from the Great Powers of “free hands”  in Korea are no more than a smokescreen for an attempt to push one’s own selfish egoistic interest, implement scenarios which have nothing to do neither with the true interests of the Korean nation, nor the interests of lasting peace and equal security for all countries in the region where because of history and geography interests the most powerful nations of the modern world are happened to be so tightly intertwined.

One can argue that disadvantage of the proposed model to solve the Korean problem is that it’s too perfect and idealistic one, and therefore – it’s a task to be resolved in a more distant future. Alas, the situation with the Six-Party talks and the state of inter-Korean relations once again lead us to the conclusion that absence of a clear and coherent final goal, common for the “Big Four” vision of a unified Korea’s place within any future security architecture in Northeast Asia is the very key, fundamental issue, without addressing which we will now and then stumble at each step into smaller questions and we will not know how to resolve them.


Neutralization of a unified Korea will be a real “big bargain”, or compromise among the “Big Four”. It must be reached to serve as a cornerstone for a sustainable peace mechanism in Northeast Asia. The future security architecture in the region should be fair, or, in other words, to provide the region’s countries with such external conditions that are most conducive to their common security and socio-economic development. It also should ensure finding and implementing mutually acceptable compromises, and not to become a tool of imposing the interests of one or other group of countries onto other participants of such an organization. Russia stands for establishing the very such mechanism.

Meanwhile, the current long pause in the Six-Party process provide South and North Korea with unique chance through their own combined efforts to size leadership in removing threat of another major conflict,  promoting peace and common prosperity. The start of the 21st century proved that an inter-Korean dialogue has all chances to become a major factor of security and stability on the Korean peninsula. The dialogue is vitally necessary to improve the current uneasy situation in the inter-Korean relations.

The progress in inter-Korean reconciliation is very important in view of current policy of some countries in the region. The course pursued by them toward the DPRK and their practical actions actually block the further normalization of situation in Korea. It looks like that a real aim of these forces is to achieve at any cost a regime change in Pyongyang in order to place under their control the entire Korean peninsula.

In these circumstances the best option for the Koreans would be to resume working on implementation of the bilateral agreements and understandings reached between South and North Korea at the various talks and contacts held during several previous decades, including those agreed upon at the historical inter-Korean summits of 2000 and 2007.

Russia hopes that the unified Korea will become her good neighbor and a major economic partner. Emergence of such an actor in the region is perceived as favorable for Russia since it would broaden her policy options in Northeast Asia.

Those who strongly doubt possibility of much closer relations between Russia and unified Korea should be reminded of some prominent events in two countries’ bilateral relations in the 19th century, when Korea’s independence and dignity were at stake.

Russia and Korea have never been the warring states against each other. Small numbers of the Koreans forcefully mobilized to Japanese army during World War II and Soviet advisers and pilots (fighting mostly Americans) during the Korean War can’t spoil this basic fact of history.

It is highly likely that the unified Korea, while remaining an Asian country and thus being surrounded by more powerful and populated Asian competitors (China and Japan), in order to ensure her national identity, would turn toward Russia which is the closest to Korea part of European civilization and can provide  a direct link to Europe.

In recent years Russia has drastically change its policy’s pattern on the Korean peninsula. Moscow is developing the relations of mutually beneficial cooperation with the DPRK and the ROK striving to make a sound contribution to peace and stability on the Korean peninsula and in NEA. Russia strongly supports improvement of relations between North and South Korea in various areas.

However, it would a great mistake for Russia as well as for any member of the “Big Four” to seek dominant or simply prevailing positions in Korea. In that case the ghosts of the past tragedies could awaken and repeat the awful past. Only by taking an equidistant position among the “Big Four” the unified Korea can ensure the prosperity for the Koreans and to make an indispensible contribution to peace and security in Northeast Asia.

A new Russia has demonstrated her desire and ability to contribute to the cause of Korea’s re-unification in a way acceptable for both North and South Korea. Moscow’s active and consistent efforts aimed at peaceful settlement of the nuclear issue on the peninsula have proved once more that Russia’s policy is an important factor for ensuring peace and stability and promoting new security architecture in the region.

Addressing new challenges on the Korean peninsula, Russia has also demonstrated unprecedented level of readiness to take into consideration legitimate interests of all other parties concerned, to hold intrusive and regular consultations with them and, finally, to work together in search for a mutually acceptable solution of the problems which could jeopardise regional and world peace and security.


[1] The Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation. Approved by Dmitry A. Medvedev, President of the Russian Federation, on July 12, 2008. http://www.mid/ru

[2] Titarenko M. Russia and Her Asian Partners in Globalizing World. Strategic Interaction: Problems &Prospects.  Forum Publishing House. Moscow. 2012. p. 442.

[3] Zhebin A. “Russia and Four-Party Talks on Korea”. Seoul. The Korean Journal of National Unification. Vol. 6, 1997, p.99.

[4] RIA-Novosti. URL: http://www.ria.ru/politics/20120621/678636603-print.html

[5] .Zhebin A. “Inter-Korean Relations: A View from Russia”. Moscow. Far Eastern Affairs. 2002. ?2. p.77.

[6] Moscow Declaration  of the Russian Federation and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Moscow, August 4, 2001. MFA of RF Diplomatichesky vestnik, September 2001; Russia-Korean Joint Declaration. Moscow. September 21, 2004. http://www.mid.ru

[7] Denisov V. “Inter-Korean Settlement and Russia’s Interests”. Moscow. International Affairs, 2002, No.1, p. 59.

[8] Zhebin A. Who is to Blame. Moscow. Asia and Africa Today. 2011. ? 11. p.56.

[9] Tkachenko V. “Korean Peninsula and Russia’s Interests.” Moscow. Orient Literature Publishing House. 2000, p.165.

[10] Vladimir Putin met with the President of the Republic of Korea Roh Moo Hyun,

Pusan, November 19, 2005. http:\\www.mid.ru

[11] Titarenko M. Russia and Her Asian Partners in Globalizing World. Strategic Interaction: Problems &Prospects.  Forum Publishing House. Moscow. 2012. p. 471.

[12] Russia-Korean Joint Declaration. Moscow. September 21, 2004. http://www.mid.ru; Vladimir Putin met with the President of the Republic of Korea, Roh Moo Hyun,

Pusan, November 19, 2005. http:\\www.mid.ru

[13] Official Spokesman for Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Alexander Yakovenko Replies to Questions from Russian Media on North Korea Problems. May 28, 2003. http://www.mid.ru

[14] V.Putin’s interview to CBS anchor Mike Wallace. May 9, 2005. http://www.mid.ru

[15] Interview by Dmitry Medvedev to China Central Television (CCTV) April 12, 2011,  Gorki, Moscow Region. URL: http://eng.news.kremlin.ru/transcripts/2059

[16] Interview by Dmitry Medvedev to China Central Television (CCTV) April 12, 2011,  Gorki, Moscow Region. URL: http://eng.news.kremlin.ru/transcripts/2059

[17] Putin V. Russia and the Changing World. Moscow News. February 27, 2012.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Executive Order on measures to implement foreign policy. May 7, 2012. URL: http://eng.news.kremlin.ru/acts/3764.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Regional architecture in Asia: Principles and Priorities. Remarks by Secretary of State Hillary Rodney Clinton. January 12, 2010. Department of State. Office of Spokesman.

[22] Australia pushes defence ties with Japan. AFP Tokyo dispatch,  April 22, 2011.


This address was prepared for the Global Peace Leadership Conference held in Seoul, Korea in 2012, organized by Action for Korea United, a coalition of more than 800 civil society organizations advancing a grass-roots movement for Korean reunification.