Man of the hour in the North Korea crisis: Vladimir Putin?

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Analysis by GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs

Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin Sept. 6, 2017, began taking the initiative to control the “crisis” over North Korean strategic weapons, because Russia had more at stake in resolving the issue than perhaps any other nation-state.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-In at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok on Sept. 6. / Michal Clzek / Reuters

There was strong evidence that President Putin was working to orchestrate a breakthrough resolution of the challenge by the international community to the DPRK over Pyongyang’s growing demonstration of its nuclear (and possibly thermonuclear) and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capabilities.

President Putin’s initiative would discreetly circumvent the U.S.’ and the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) initiatives, and yet at the same time deliver what both of those powers had been seeking: a brokered peace accord between the ROK and DPRK.

Such a deal would pave the way for Russia’s key objective, and one supported by Japan and the ROK: a stable and peaceful relationship between North and South Korea which would permit the construction of logistical lines (road and rail links) all the way up the Korean Peninsula, linking to the Russian railway network at Vladivostok, and thence to Western Europe. This would break the PRC’s monopoly on the “Silk Road” across Eurasia, and one which currently makes the Russian rail networks some 70 percent dependent on the PRC for their viability.

A “second Silk Road” across the North of Eurasia (through Russia) would limit the PRC’s control of the continent, and would provide a major boost for the Russian, DPRK, ROK, Japanese, and possibly the Republic of China (ROC: Taiwan) economies.

DPRK and Republic of Korea (ROK: South Korea) diplomats were already on Russky Island, near Vladivostok, in the Russian Far East, by Sept. 6, 2017, to attend the Eastern Economic Forum (Sept. 6-7, 2017), which began a day after the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) Summit ended in Beijing on Sept. 5, 2017. Delegations from Russia, the PRC, the DPRK, ROK, Mongolia, and Vietnam participated in the Eastern Economic Forum, along with international private investors.

ROK President Moon Jae-In, in Vladivostok on Sept. 6, 2017, asked President Putin for help in resolving the crisis with the DPRK. And Russia, significantly, is the foreign power which Pyongyang trusts most.

DPRK leader Kim Jong-Un is known to be chafing under the relationship he has with the PRC which, he feels, neither respects him nor the DPRK, and only supports Pyongyang in order to keep it away from possible reunification with the ROK and to keep external powers (the U.S.) from gaining a foothold, again, close to the Yalu River border between the DPRK and the PRC.

Indeed, the USSR was the major ally of the DPRK up to and including the Korean War, and the PRC only became involved in the Korean War when it appeared as though an existential threat existed with U.S. forces crossing the Yalu River and threatening nuclear war against the PRC.

The U.S. had in early September 2017 been close to its “end game” with the DPRK: that “end game” being actual negotiations to achieve what President Putin was now attempting to achieve: a formal peace treaty between Pyongyang and Seoul to end the Korean War, and mutual recognition between North and South Korea with an end to the ROK’s demand for reunification of the Korean Peninsula.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Aug. 22, 2017, held out the promise that the time was now ripe for direct talks with the DPRK. That appeared to be derailed by the DPRK detonation of a 120kt nuclear or thermonuclear weapon on Sept. 3, 2017 (the sixth and largest DPRK nuclear detonation on North Korean soil), and the launch of an unarmed DPRK ICBM overflying Japan on Aug. 29, 2017.

It was clear that President Putin, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and ROK President Moon were ready to go along with President Trump’s proposed coup de main to achieve a sudden   breakthrough and resolution with the DPRK (a “Nixon to China” moment), but domestic U.S. political pressures appeared to be making it difficult for President Trump to be able to engineer the move, given the build-up of demand in the U.S. for the total removal of all nuclear weapons and ICBMs from North Korea.

This opened the door for President Putin to negotiate the peace deal between the ROK and DPRK in a move which would deprive President Trump of that coup de main, to the relief also of Beijing, going into the 19th Communist Party Congress, opening in Bejing on Oct. 18, 2017.

The PRC would lose a measure of control over the DPRK, but it would still be neutral, and the U.S. would be deprived of a diplomatic victory and leverage.