For Russia, the Korean problem has simultaneously global (nonproliferation and relations with great powers), regional (economic and security issues in Northeast Asia) and bilateral (relations with the two Koreas) aspects.
In general we can summarize the Russian interests in the Korean peninsula as following:
Denuclearization of the Korean peninsula;
Stability of the situation in general without any armed conflict, turmoil or war;
Resolution all disputes only through diplomatic means;
Growth of Russian influence and presence in the Korean peninsula affairs;
Containment of the U.S. attempts to isolate Russia and draw South Korea to any antiRussian activity;
Attracting South Korean investment for the development of Russia’s Far East Region;
Putting into effect three Russia-South-North Korean ‘Grand projects’ (gas pipeline, supply of electricity from Russia to South Korea through North Korea, connection of Russian Transsiberian and Transkorean railways) as well as creating circumstances favorable for other cooperation projects of Russia with ROK and DPRK.
Though the Korean peninsula problems are considered by Russia as important ones but it would be wrong to say that they are regarded by Moscow as “the most important” or vital. Russia sees less urgency in solving the North Korean nuclear problem in comparison with other vital issues—such as Ukraine, Syria, Middle East, NATO expansion, U.S., China, etc.—it faces elsewhere.
Simultaneously Russia's interests regarding Korean peninsula are not of the same importance and has a kind of hierarchy. The situation of “no war” and stability in the region prevails over other objectives including the nuclear problem. Though Russia does not want to accept North Korea as a nuclear state but at the same time Moscow does not expect Pyongyang to use its nuclear weapons against Russia. So, the war-option as a possible solution for North Korean nuclear problem is considered by Russia is too risky and dangerous.
When it comes to North Korea Russia has no illusions that the Kim Jong Un regime can be fully or radically influenced. Despite widely used in the ROK's media expression “allies” describing Russian-North Korean relations Moscow and Pyongyang those states are not allies but partners on some issues at best. Maybe Russia has more friendly and ‘normal’ relations with DPRK than most other states but that does not means the existence of the ally relations. Russia clearly sees the limits in trying to change North Korea’s external behavior, especially on existential matters such as nuclear and missile deterrence.
As for the economical dimension of the Russian interests in Korea, mutually beneficial cooperation leading to the development of Russia’s Far East is the primary goal.
Despite some claims of Russia’s far-reaching ambitions in East Asia and “desire to return to the Soviet Union glory”, the Russian Federation has no political and especially economical resources to achieve that. So, the aim “growth of Russian influence and presence in the Korean peninsula affairs” means the desire of Russia to guarantee not to be excluded out of regional mechanisms of political, security and economic decision-making as it happened in 1990-x after the collapse of the USSR.
In general it can be said that Russia shares very similar interests with another powerful player in the region – China. Due to many reasons, including the U.S. hostile policy, Moscow and Beijing recently experience one of the best periods in bilateral relations which allows them to arrange a joint front and acting together towards different regional and international issues. But at the same time regarding Korean Peninsula the position and interests of Russia and China are not identical.
It seems that China regards North Korea as more important for its vital interests than Russia views Pyongyang. Geographical proximity of the DPRK and Korean peninsula to the Chinese political and economic centers, bigger common border, the location of China in Asia, growth of China as the only real challenge to the U.S. dominance and another reasons explain why Beijing is more sensitive than Moscow towards the problems of the Korean peninsula. The good example of Russian-Chinese differences of perception was the South Korea’s THAAD deployment issue. Russia sees it more as a future and potential threat while China regards THAAD as the imminent challenge.
Russia’s policy in Korea for East Asia cooperation and regional stability
Russia is not in the position and has no power or resources to dictate its will to the actors in East Asia. At least in the near future the main logic of Russia’s strategic action in East Asia will be multilateral economic, political and security cooperation in the region preferably without any single dominant center.
Russia’s obvious interest in multilateral big scale economic projects which include North and South Korea and operate without interference of political factors naturally supports those who favor the idea of East Asia cooperation and believe in bringing stability through mutually beneficial economic cooperation.
Right now Russia has a working infrastructure and logistic project, which has potential to be transformed later into bigger regional cooperation mechanism. That is the Rajin-Khasan logistis project with North Korea where Russian coal and sometimes other goods delivered to other countries of the region (mainly to China). Despite some claims the operator of the project welcomes active participation of the Chinese business as well as South Korean investors. This project has good potential to be transformed into regional multilateral cooperation starting from Russia+DPRK into Russia+DPRK+ROK+China and later incorporating other countries as well.
At the same time Russia has a lot of experience at working in the international multilateral security arrangements. During the 6-party talks on North Korean nuclear issue Russia was in charge of the Committee on North-East Security issues. That idea worth to be revived either inside the frame of Six Party Talks or on a independent basis creating a Northeast Asia security mechanism—a framework within which the issues of denuclearization, sanctions, conventional arms control and confidence-building measures, the military presence of foreign troops on the peninsula and all other security issues would be discussed. Potentially this mechanism may be developed into a regional security organization.
In general Moscow is eager to cooperate with any interested parties in East Asia region to avoid the worst-case scenario and war on the Korean peninsula. Current friendly relations of Russia with China, similarity of basic interests of Moscow and Beijing, partnership relations both with South and North Korea, as well as basis for multilateral economic and political interaction mechanisms allows Russia to play active role as a mediator and initiator of cooperation in East Asia.
Oleg Kiriyanov is a Research Fellow at the Institute for East Asia Peace Studies (EAPS), Research Fellow at the Institute of Asia & Africa Studies for Moscow State University, foreign editor of china In Asisa
(Source: Oleg Kiriyanov, “U.S. & China, Peace and the Future of East Asia”, Discussion Paper of the Fourth Session of Seoul International Conference, 2018-12-05, Seoul Press Center.)