Russia-ASEAN relations and North Korean nuclear issue

Envoys from Russia, the United States, North Korea, Japan, China and South Korea  meet at the beginning of a round  of six party talks in Beijing December 8, 2008. Source: POOL New / Reuters

Envoys from Russia, the United States, North Korea, Japan, China and South Korea meet at the beginning of a round of six party talks in Beijing December 8, 2008. Source: POOL New / Reuters

The set of problems relating to nuclear weapons allegedly being developed by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has traditionally been a major factor militating against the generally cooperative development paradigm of Asia-Pacific. Much time and energy have been injected into the Six-Party Talks but to date they appear to have demonstrated a low degree of effectiveness. Based on the premise that any result, however modest it may be, must initially be regarded in a positive way new mechanisms to reinvigorate these negotiations are urgently needed.

Russia and the Six-Party Talks

At this point, a potential contribution of cooperation between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Russian Federation as a new factor of Asia-Pacific stability deserves special attention. The study of whether and how it can influence the evolution of the North Korean nuclear problem seems to be a timely exercise.

The paper consists of three parts. Part One assesses the impact of the stalemate in the Six-Party Talks on Russia’s interests and outlines a number of nuances in its approach to these negotiations. Part Two specifies the North Korean nuclear problem in ASEAN’s order of international priority and overviews recent trends in ASEAN’s relations with DPRK. Part Three provides insights into how cooperation between Russia and ASEAN can strengthen the overall cooperative potential in Asia-Pacific. In conclusion, recommendations with regard to North Korea’s nuclear issue are offered.

The problem of North Korean nuclear weapons and the stalemate in the Six-Party Talks matter for Russia for a number of reasons. The major ones are outlined below.

First, the present situation hampers the implementation of business projects on the peninsula with Russia’s direct participation. Consider, for instance, ambitious plans developed by Moscow and Seoul to connect the Trans-Korean and the Trans-Siberian Railways, which failed due to DPRK’s nuclear tests. With this in mind, the prospects of a new project to be considered by Russian Railways Company [1] are unclear.

The same is true with regard to the conjectural construction of the pipeline from Russia to South Korea via the territory of North Korea. There were many indications raising optimistic expectations that Pyongyang might be interested in this project [2]. The result, however, has been zero. In this light, the new agreement reached at negotiations between Kim Jong Il and D.Medvedev in Ulan-Ude in August 2011 [3] can hardly present convincing evidence that the situation will develop in a constructive way. South Korea seems to realize it as it insists that Russia should take all the risks and provide LNG deliveries in case the pipeline supplies are disrupted [4].

At this point, several concomitant factors deserve mentioning. First, systematic outbreaks of instability in Middle East lead to uncertainty in East Asian countries, including South Korea, about the security of energy resources supplies [5]. Apart from it, the development of nuclear energy sector as an alternative to oil and gas will presumably slow down after the Fukushima nuclear accident [6].

Second, the stalemate in the Six-Party Talks inflicts reputational damage on Russia. To date, the Working Group on Northeast Asia Peace and Security under Russia’s chairmanship has been unable to achieve results which could be regarded as positive and tangible.

Under these circumstances, a number of nuances in Russia’s current approach to the Six-Party Talks can be outlined.

On the whole, Russia’s policy remains reactive rather than proactive due to a number of reasons. First, Moscow realizes that it lacks real influence on Pyongyang which doesn’t regard it as a guarantor of its security. In addition, from Russia’s perspective current and potential threats from North Korea are not too grave as the DPRK’s leadership keeps the political situation under control, a large-scale military conflict on the peninsular is unlikely and poor technological capabilities don’t allow North Korea to develop effective nuclear and missile weapons. Last but not least, a weak interest displayed by Russia’s business community also plays a role. The major reasons are two, to mention just a few – DPRK does not carry out privatization programs in which Russian business may participate and, secondly, the country can not boast of oil and gas deposits which may be exploited in some way or another by Russian energy companies.

On the other hand, for Russia, a responsible nuclear power, a nuclear-armed North Korea is unacceptable. The more so, since a possible environmental disaster near Russia’s Far Eastern borders as a result of DPRK’s nuclear tests cannot be excluded. Consequently, at the official level Russia demonstrates its adherence to the Six-Party Talks and stresses out that North Korean nuclear issue be settled within this framework. Recently, Moscow has repeatedly called for the resumption of the Six-Party Talks and expressed its readiness to continue cooperation with other parties. [7]

At the expert level, there is growing perception that to hold the Six-Party Talks the way they were conducted before is to fight a losing battle. The reasons are as follows.

The main one is the skeptical assessment of the results achieved at the Fourth Round of the Talks in 2005. A real breakthrough was not achieved as Pyongyang had shifted the focus from the development of its nuclear programs to the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. Many ambiguous provisions in the Joint Statement of the Fourth Round of the Six-Party Talks provide ample opportunity for alternative interpretations. As a result, the parties just reiterated their positions rather than specified concrete terms and ways of solving the problem of North Korean nuclear weapons. It predetermined the lack of progress on the issue, and future stalemates were inevitable. The key reason is that the current DPRK’s leadership doesn’t have strong incentives to curtail its nuclear weapon programs since they are the strongest bargaining chip for attracting economic aid and therefore allowing the regime to “keep afloat”. Under these circumstances, the Six-Party Talks should concentrate not on trying to solve the nuclear problem itself, but on stimulating market reforms and political transformation of DPRK. Without it, any change is most unlikely. [8]

With all this in view, some practical steps can be offered. It is expedient to separate negotiations on North Korean nuclear disarmament from those on economic assistance to DPRK – the latter should be provided in exchange for implementing market reforms. Setting up a multilateral fund for supporting these reforms is also worthy of note. Apart from it, reinvigorating the activity of the Working Group on Northeast Asia Peace and Security as a mechanism to discuss important issues even without DPRK’s participation will be useful.

Furthermore, to strengthen the overall cooperative potential of the region is very important. Russia’s contribution is seen primarily in hosting the APEC summit in Vladivostok in 2012 and participation in the East Asia summit and the recently created multilateral dialogue platform – ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus. Finally, other ways to influence North Korea should be explored. In this regard, current ASEAN’s policy towards DPRK along with ASEAN - Russia cooperation may hold promise.

A nuclear North Korea in current ASEAN's priorities

The presumable nuclear weapons of DPRK have for a long time loomed large in ASEAN’s order of international priority. Suffice it to say that once the ASEAN Regional Forum was set up, its first meeting attached particular attention to the US-DPRK negotiations on nuclear issue while developments in the South China Sea weren’t mentioned [9]. At present, owing to several factors there has emerged a new wave of ASEAN’s interest to this problem.

First, the association has recently declared its intention to play a more prominent role in global affairs [10]. Its efforts to mitigate tensions over the DPRK nuclear programs, with their global dimension and implications, are in line with this policy course.

To date, this vector of ASEAN’s efforts has been a success – suffice it to say that it was at the Bali session of the ASEAN Regional Forum (July 2011) where diplomats of North and South Korea held their first bilateral negotiations since the Six-Party Talks had stalled. The discussions were welcomed by Pyongyang for their “frank and serious" mood” [11]. High praise received by the association from Washington for getting the issue off the ground [12]speaks for itself.

Second, in the near future ASEAN’s key task will be the establishment of an ASEAN Community, with creating the Southeast Asian Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone as an important priority [13]. In this light, rumors about clandestine nuclear cooperation between North Korea and Myanmar undermine ASEAN’s positions in negotiations with nuclear powers about their accession to the Protocol to the Treaty on the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapons Free Zone.

Currently, ASEAN’s readiness to make a positive contribution to the issue is substantiated by upward trends in its relations with DPRK. Thus, in 2008 Pyongyang signed ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation and later took the decision to send an ambassador plenipotentiary to ASEAN. It should be stressed that North Korea regards ASEAN style of negotiations in a positive way – as based “on the principle of respect for sovereignty, non-interference in internal affairs and equality." [14]

In this context, a number of nuances are worth focusing on. First, North Korea is trying to develop alternative channels of communication with its neighbors and therefore broaden the spectrum of its political maneuver. Second, DRPK is seeking ways to mitigate the impact of economic sanctions. All this is aimed at getting more prepared for celebrating the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birthday in 2012 – a highly challenging reputational task given that considerable expenses are imminent while the overall situation in national economy remains alarming. Under these circumstances, ASEAN’s recently declared readiness to help DPRK alleviate food shortage [15] is likely to add fresh impetus to their rapprochement.

Simultaneously, bilateral relations between North Korea and individual countries of Southeast Asia, mainly from Indochina, are on the rise. For instance, starting from 2007 the relations between DRPK and Myanmar have shown upward trends. What deserves particular attention is that the two states consider themselves to be “in the same boat” and this cooperation serves their best interests. [16] Contacts between North Korea and Laos are also being strengthened, with verbal support the two parties are expressing to each other being generous and enthusiastic. [17]

But the most important focus of DPRK’s attention remains on Vietnam – a socialist state which manages to combine dynamic economic development with socio-political stability under the Communist Party leadership. Some time ago, Pyongyang was considering a possibility to borrow some components from the Vietnamese experience to add momentum to its stagnant economy. In its turn, SRV elaborated “an investment protection and encouragement pact” with DPRK [18]. In spite of striking differences between the two countries, the possibility that North Korea might partially emulate Vietnam’s model of modernization cannot be completely excluded. Given all these factors, it may be tentatively suggested that in future ASEAN will acquire an increased leverage to influence DPRK. It creates a new window of opportunity to deal with North Korean nuclear issue.

Russia-ASEAN cooperaion: strengthening Asia-Pacific stability

Another remarkable development in Asia-Pacific international affairs has been steady upward trend in relations between Russia and ASEAN. Though at present their economic exchanges remain modest, the political vector of cooperation may bring greater stability to the region. The rationale for this argument is provided, first and foremost, by a prospective assessment of Russia’s participation in the East Asia Summit.

At this point, a remarkable paradigm shift in the EAS evolution needs outlining. Before the Summit was established, it was seen as the first step toward the East Asia Community with economic cooperation being raised to a qualitatively new level. Currently, however, the politico-security component has come to the forefront of its priorities. Since Washington joined the EAS the likelihood of the clash of interests between the USA and China has increased. If this scenario materializes, ASEAN’s position as the “driving force” of the Summit will be weakened. Consequently, the association wants to be sure that these contradictions will be kept in a manageable, non-explosive state.

To cope with this task, ASEAN has opted to create a new “dynamic equilibrium” as a tool for balancing interests of its EAS partners [19]. But to achieve it, the association needs help from like-minded powers among the parties involved. The Russian Federation which has repeatedly stressed that its key international priorities “are consonant with ASEAN political philosophy [20]” is a suitable candidate for this role. Besides, Russia seems to be developing a policy course which meets these expectations. For instance, at the discussions held by Russian top experts and political figures the idea that the Russian Federation should carve out the niche of a “great regional non-allied power” is gaining prominence. [21]

Assuming that this line of thought is given practical substance, Russia – ASEAN cooperation within the framework of the EAS is likely to produce a stabilizing effect on general atmosphere of these negotiations. Consequently, strengthening the cooperative vector in the evolution of Asia-Pacific can be rightfully expected. In sum, assessing the potential contribution of rapprochement between Russia and ASEAN to strengthening the cooperative paradigm of Asia-Pacific evolution, reasons for optimism seem to be convincing. If so, the likelihood is strong that it will have a “multiplier effect” on North Korean nuclear issue.


With regard to North Korean nuclear issue, given its depth and complexity, positive changes can be neither rapid nor revolutionary. Consequently, genuinely goal-oriented recommendations cannot be in abundance. Nevertheless, some points deserve further examination.

The main challenge that the participants of the Six-Party Talks have traditionally been facing is lack of trust. The task to improve the atmosphere must be assigned to a party not considered by DRPK as potentially hostile. At present, ASEAN can fulfill this role, and upward trend in its relations with Russia may increase potential benefits. In this context, some steps may turn out to be useful.

It would be advantageous to the Six-Party Talks if ASEAN strengthened its “engagement policy” towards DPRK simultaneously stressing the following points. First, the principles of dialogue between ASEAN and North Korea will remain unchanged. Moreover, the political philosophy of ASEAN focuses – and will continue to do so – on broadening the possibilities for a win-win cooperation. Current rapprochement with Russia strengthens this course.

Second, nuclear cooperation between Russia and Myanmar can be positioned as an example for DPRK. It is especially noteworthy that Moscow is firm in its intention to develop the dialogue with Naypyidaw within the framework of nuclear non-proliferation regime, even in spite of dissatisfaction expressed by the USA [22]. To some extent, it may serve as an additional incentive for North Korea to return to Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

While nothing like a genuine solution to the North Korean nuclear issue is in sight, to continue the dialogue within the framework of the Six-Party Talks in order to find mutually acceptable interim agreements is maximum of what can be done. With this in view, any ways to enhance effectiveness of these negotiations can initially be welcomed. If so, the potential of ASEAN’s efforts magnified by the increased cooperation with Russia should be developed.

The article is first published in


1. RZD is planning to reconstruct the Trans-Korean Line. Primorye 24. 29.09.2011.

2. See, for instance: Chichkin A. Yearning to the Bottom. Russian Gas to South Korea and China May Pass Via North Korea. Rossiyskaya Business-Gazeta. 7 July 2009.

3. N.Korea Agrees Gas Pipeline Deal and Return to Nuclear Talks. RIA Novosti. 24.08.2011.

4. See, for instance: Korea Gas Asks Russia to Take Responsibility for Fuel Supply.The Moscow Times. 27 September 2011.

5. Oil-Thirsty Asia Watches Arab Unrest. The China Post. February 28, 2011.

6. Vivoda V. Nuclear Power in Asia After Fukushima. East Asia Forum. April 14, 2011.

7. See: Talks Best Remedy for Koreas – Lavrov. The Voice of Russia. December 30, 2010.China, Russia Issue Joint Statement on Major International Issues. June 17, 2011.

8. This line of argument is elaborated in detail in: Mikheev V.V. China – Japan: Strategic Competition and Partnership in the Globalizing World. – M., 2009. – P. 220-240.

9. Chairman’s Statement of the First Meeting of the ASEAN Regional Forum. Bangkok, 25 July 1994.

10. ASEAN Leaders’ Joint Statement on the ASEAN Community in a Global Community of Nations. 8 May 2011.

11. Kim Deok-hyun. Koreas Agree to Resume Six-Party Talks ‘As Soon As Possible’.Yonhap News Agency. 22.07.2011.

12. Lee M., McDowell R. U.S. Praises ASEAN Efforts on Korea, Spratlys. 22 July 2011.

13. ASEAN Political-Security Community Blueprint.

14. North Korea to Send Ambassador to ASEAN. 22 July 2011.

15. Negara ASEAN Bantu Somalia dan Korea Utara. 08 August 2011.

16. See: Chachavalpongpun P. Operation Breakout: North Korea in Southeast Asia.Opinion Asia. 12.10.2009.

17. See, for instance: Kim Jong Il Meets with Laos President. North Korea Leadership Watch. 25.09.2011.

18. Nga Pham. Vietnam “Key for N Korea Reform”. BBC News. 30 October 2007.; Vietnam Communist Party Chief Visits North Korea. Reuters. 15 October 2007.

19. See: Speech of the Minister of Foreign Affairs. Annual Press Statement of the Foreign Minister of the Republic of Indonesia Dr. R.M. Marty M. Natalegawa. 7 January 2011.; Grazela M., Haswidi A. ASEAN Poised for Skillful Maneuvering. The Jakarta Post. 26.04.2011.

20. Lavrov S. Russia and ASEAN Can Achieve a Great Deal Together. // International Affairs. Russia – ASEAN. Special Issue 2010. – M., 2010. – P. 7-16. – P. 16.

21. Barsky K., Borodavkin A., Galuzin M., Lukin A., Nikonov V., Oganesyan A., Orlov V., Panov A., Pestov V., Sumsky V., Toloraya G. Russia’s Foreign Policy in the Pacific. // Security Index. – Moscow, 2011. Vol. 17. – N. 2 (97). – P. 87-105.

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