Mu­tu­ally As­sured Dis­trac­tion

Rus­sia has pro­posed a “road map” amid grow­ing ten­sions between the U.S. and North Korea. Spoiler: It’s not go­ing to work

The Moscow Times - - LOOKING BACK - By Matthew Kupfer news­re­porter@ime­dia.ru

On June 12, North Korea re­leased Otto Warm­bier, an Amer­i­can stu­dent im­pris­oned for 17 months in the se­cre­tive coun­try. But what should have been a vic­tory for in­ter­na­tional diplo­macy was hardly cel­e­bra­tory.

Warm­bier re­turned home co­matose, in a per­sis­tent veg­e­ta­tive state with no chance of re­cov­ery. He died only six days af­ter ar­riv­ing on U.S. soil. The death came as the lat­est in­ci­dent amid rock­et­ing ten­sions between Py­ongyang and Washington. In March, North Korea test-fired four bal­lis­tic mis­siles into the Sea of Ja­pan. In re­sponse, the United States be­gan to de­ploy THAAD anti-mis­sile sys­tems to South Korea. A month later, dur­ing a visit to the South, U.S. Vice-Pres­i­dent Mike Pence de­clared that the “era of strate­gic pa­tience” with Py­ongyang was over.

“North Korea would do well not to test [Trump’s] re­solve or the strength of the armed forces of the United States in this re­gion,” he said.

Since then, how­ever, mis­sile tests have con­tin­ued.

En­ter Moscow. On Tues­day, the Rus­sian For­eign Min­istry an­nounced that it has worked out a “road map” for reg­u­lat­ing the sit­u­a­tion on the Korean Penin­sula. The plan re­port­edly in­cludes a step-by-step scheme for bring­ing all sides to di­a­logue. It also calls for ev­ery­one to ex­er­cise re­straint, avoid provo­ca­tion, and aban­don threats of force, Deputy For­eign Min­is­ter Igor Morgulov told the RIA Novosti news agency.

Per­haps most im­por­tantly, the “road map” pro­poses pro­vid­ing Py­ongyang with a se­cu­rity guar­an­tee, thereby al­low­ing it to halt its nu­clear mis­sile pro­gram. That may sound good on pa­per, but geopo­lit­i­cal an­a­lysts say it is un­likely to work in prac­tice.

“It’s North Korea’s Santa wish­list,” Vladimir Frolov, a Rus­sian for­eign af­fairs ex­pert, told The Moscow Times in an email. “And it’s Moscow’s PR move to ap­pear rel­e­vant in the cri­sis with­out do­ing any heavy lift­ing.”

The plan is weak, lack­ing spe­cific de­mands for Py­ongyang to freeze — let alone dis­man­tle — its nu­clear and mis­sile pro­grams, Frolov said. It also ar­tic­u­lates no puni­tive mea­sures for vi­o­la­tions by the North.

“It’s a co­or­di­nated move with China to cast the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion as a reck­less war­mon­ger,” Frolov added.

The prob­lem, he says, is that, de­spite per­cep­tions to the con­trary, the Krem­lin lacks lever­age over Py­ongyang. Af­ter the Korean War, Moscow and Py­ongyang were com­mu­nist al­lies. Soviet fi­nan­cial and tech­no­log­i­cal aid were key to build­ing the North Korean econ­omy. But that ended with the Soviet col­lapse.

In re­cent years, eco­nomic ties have picked up again. In 2014, for ex­am­ple, Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin wrote off Py­ongyang’s $11 bil­lion debt to the Soviet Union. And North Korean la­bor­ers now toil in Rus­sia’s Far East and even helped con­struct St. Peters­burg’s Zenit Arena. Their work — es­sen­tially slave la­bor — pro­vides much needed hard cur­rency for Py­ongyang, which con­fis­cates up to half of their pay­checks.

Beyond that, Rus­sia con­trols only five per­cent of North Korea’s trade — much less than China does, ac­cord­ing to Alexan­der Gabuev, a se­nior fel­low at the Carnegie Moscow Cen­ter. As a re­sult, it can­not im­pose lim­its on Py­ongyang by eco­nomic pres­sure alone.

Any ef­forts to rein in North Korea will have to ad­dress the coun­try’s fun­da­men­tal con­cerns, Gabuev says. While the U.S. wor­ries that Py­ongyang’s mis­siles could even­tu­ally hit its west coast, the North Korean gov­ern­ment views nu­clear weapons as its only in­sur­ance pol­icy against the U.S. It looks with alarm at events such as the over­throw of Libyan leader Muam­mar Gaddafi. He had aban­doned weapons of mass de­struc­tion and in­creas­ingly rec­on­ciled with the West, but was nev­er­the­less killed amid NATO airstrikes.

Short of find­ing a way to en­shrine a se­cu­rity guar­an­tee — both for Py­ongyang and Washington — in stone, no “road map” for the Korean Penin­sula is likely to work.

“The les­son that North Korea took is that you must have a de­ter­rent,” Gabuev says. “For them, that’s the nu­clear bomb.” North Korea has been un­der UN sanc­tions since its first nu­clear tests in 2006.

“Not gonna fly, me­thinks” — po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst Vladimir Frolov on Rus­sia’s Korean “road map.”

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