Can Moscow stop North Korea's nuclear march?
Russia helped North Korea for decades. But now its influence with the "rogue" nation has waned.
MOSCOW – After North Korea's nuclear bomb test on Monday, US State Department spokesman Ian Kelly noted hopefully that Pyongyang's actions had drawn "very strong statements" of condemnation from its traditional friends China and Russia.
Mr. Kelly suggested they might help in forging a unified response.
But in Moscow, where North Korea's oddball Stalinist dynasty was born and and nurtured for decades, officials appear perplexed and even scared over the Pyongyang regime's increasingly wayward behavior.
After years of assailing the George W. Bush administration for failing to appreciate Russia's special, Soviet-era relationship with "rogue" states like North Korea, the collective response of Moscow's diplomatic community right now looks like a shrug of helplessness.
"If you'd asked me even three years ago, I would say Russia has some leverage with Pyongyang. But not today," says Yevgeny Bazhanov, vice rector of the official Diplomatic Academy in Moscow, which trains Russian diplomats.
"If Russia, or even China, could do anything about this, these tests wouldn't have taken place this week," he says. "Actually, it looks like nobody has any influence over them anymore. This man, (North Korean leader Kim Jong Il) will do whatever he wants."
Monday's North Korean test took place in a mountainous site barely 100-miles from Russia's Pacific coast city of Vladivostok. Russia's Ministry of Emergency Services immediately deployed teams of experts to check for radiation spikes, but reportedly found none.
Russia holds permanent membership on the United Nations Security Council, and has indicated that it will support tougher sanctions against Pyongyang in the wake of the tests, which violate previous Security Council resolutions.
Moscow is also involved in the six-party talks, which since 2003 have attempted to convince Pyongyang to curb its nuclear program. But Russian experts say all the supposed progress made in that process, including a 2005 Statement of Principles, under which North Korea agreed to eventually abandon its nuclear ambitions and rejoin the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, has now gone up in smoke.
The USSR established the Pyongyang regime, headed by the current leader's father Kim Il Sung, after World War II. With Soviet and Red Chinese help, North Korea fought the forces of the United Nations to a bloody stalemate in the Korean War of the early 1950's, and has since survived as what is probably the world's most reclusive, militarized and authoritarian state.
"In fact even the Soviet Union didn't have much influence there, and neither did China. The North Koreans effectively played off Moscow against Beijing," says Ivan Zakharchenko, an analyst with the official RIA-Novosti news agency in Moscow.
But Russia's relations with North Korea still looked substantial as recently as 2001, when Kim Jong Il rode his armored train to Moscow, where he was feted and treated like an important partner by then-President Vladimir Putin.
Today, Russia maintains almost no trade with Pyongyang, and its once-vaunted diplomatic pull has shriveled to virtually nil, say Russian experts.
"Nobody wants a war," says Mr. Bazhanov. "The only alternative is to go back to the drawing board. Put on sanctions, hold talks, try to convince them not to go any further. But it doesn't look good."