Why Trump's efforts on North Korea aren't apt to win over Putin

Russia and the US both want to see North Korea's nuclear ambitions constrained, but the Kremlin views Trump's hard line on Pyongyang as fruitless. And it is skeptical about Trump's recent, more diplomatic overtures.

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
North Korea's new Ambassador to Russia Kim Hyun Joon (l.), poses with Russian President Vladimir Putin for a photo after presenting his credentials from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to Putin in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia on Nov. 19, 2014. After three years of watching his fellow leaders mix and mingle while he was secluded in Pyongyang, Kim Jong Un is looking more and more likely to visit Russia in his first trip abroad since taking power in the worldís first look at the young North Korean leader at work on the international stage.

On the face of things, the burgeoning crisis over North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile programs is an issue where Russia, China, and the US are basically on the same page. All want to curb the Pyongyang regime's nuclear ambitions, and ought to be able to work together.

But when Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin meet on Friday on the sidelines of the APEC summit in Vietnam, Russian experts say Mr. Putin will probably come to the meeting with open ears but virtually zero expectations.

If Mr. Trump continues to beat the drum for greater sanctions and political pressure against Pyongyang, Mr. Putin seems certain to reject any US proposal, experts say. And while Trump has offered hints of a more diplomatic solution this week, the Kremlin – burned more than once in recent months by Trump's foreign policy vacillations – is not likely to buy into such a plan without evidence that it's a real break with what it sees as failing US policy.

“It's extremely unpleasant to make this observation, but so far North Korea seems to be winning this game [with the US] of escalating insults and threats that's been going on,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow foreign policy journal. “Of course Russia wants to be helpful. But we can't help but notice that the current US tactics are not working, and are not likely to ever work. Why would we want a piece of that?”

Yuri Maltsev/Reuters
A guard walks along a platform past signs, which read 'Russia' and 'DPRK' (Democratic People's Republic of Korea), at the border crossing between Russia and North Korea in the settlement of Tumangan, North Korea in July 2014.

Making a deal?

Russia has a common border with North Korea, and enjoys even better political relations with Pyongyang these days than its main trading partner and erstwhile protector, China. As a result, Moscow might be able to mediate a deal between Washington and Pyongyang.

But Trump's stormy tweets and threats directed at North Korea, combined with the near unprecedented convergence of US military forces on the region, has until now clouded prospects for diplomacy and created what Russian analysts describe as a dangerous perception of unavoidable and maybe even imminent war.

However, speaking in Seoul, South Korea, on Tuesday, Trump executed one of his trademark rhetorical turnabouts by declaring that Washington has been making “a lot of progress” on the problem and suggested the time has come for Pyongyang to “make a deal” on its nuclear weapons and missile programs.

“I believe it makes sense for North Korea to do the right thing, not only for North Korea but for humanity all over the world,” Trump told journalists in a press conference with South Korean President Moon Jae-in. He added that China is “trying very hard to solve the problem,” and hoped that “Russia will likewise be helpful.”

“It's encouraging that Trump has hinted at making a deal. We think it's possible,” says Alexander Zhebin, head of the Center for Korean Studies at the official Institute of the Far East in Moscow. “But no deal can be simply imposed by pressure and threats. There has to be a return to negotiations, and all sides will need to demonstrate great patience and effort to accept this path. The UN resolutions that imposed sanctions on North Korea, supported by Russia and China, also say negotiations are indispensable. Unfortunately, that's the part Washington keeps forgetting.”

‘The US needs to rethink its whole strategy’

Russia and China advocate a starting-point agreement that would freeze North Korea's nuclear weapons and ballistic missile tests, in exchange for the US and South Korea radically scaling-back military drills near North Korea. Mr. Zhebin says the widespread perception that Pyongyang would never stick to any agreement is wrong, and that when the US made efforts in the past – under the Clinton administration in the 1990s – real progress was achieved.

“When US negotiators took the other side's interests into account, we saw that it was possible to find common language with North Korea,” he says. “Unfortunately when the George W. Bush administration came in, they changed the whole approach and the deals collapsed.”

Russian trade with North Korea has always been a tiny fraction of China's, and it has more than halved in the past few years to about $100 million last year. But Russian experts say there are ambitious plans – still mostly fantasies floated by Kremlin think tanks – to extend an existing railroad line from the Russian Pacific city of Vladivostok through North Korea to Seoul, thus connecting South Korea to Europe by rail. A gas pipeline from Russia's far east to South Korea via the North is little more than a twinkle in the eyes of Russian economic planners, but a political settlement in the region might rapidly change all that.

“The card Russia has to play in this crisis is a relationship of better trust with North Korea,” says Georgi Toloraya, head of Center for Asian Strategy at the official Institute of Economy in Moscow. “We find it possible to hold dialogue with Pyongyang. We have a road map, agreed with the Chinese, for a double freeze that both North Korea and the US would accept in order to get negotiations going. If Putin can persuade Trump of this approach, it may not be so difficult to convince Pyongyang as well.”

But Russian experts add that any settlement is probably going to have to accept that North Korea will keep its nuclear weapons and missiles.

“The North Koreans have seen what happened to Saddam Hussein, and Muammar Qaddafi, and they have drawn their conclusions,” says Andrei Klimov, deputy chair of the international affairs committee of the Federation Council, Russia's upper house of parliament. “We are ready to work with the Americans, and we certainly don't want to break off contacts. But this problem with North Korea today might have been solved long ago if not for the global military machinations of the US, and its constant threats to North Korea.

“So, from our point of view, to find a solution now means the US needs to rethink its whole strategy. What are the chances of Trump doing that?”

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