Russia eyes bigger role on N.Korea issue

0 CommentsPrint E-mail Global Times, December 29, 2010
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 Dmitri Trenin

Editor's Note: Russia, up till now a more discreet player in the North Korean nuclear issue, seems to be intervening more actively in the rising tension over the Korean Peninsula recently. Does this signal a policy change by Russia toward North Korea? And what is the thinking behind Russia's increasing military presence in Northeast Asia? Global Times (GT) reporter Liu Linlin talked to Dmitri Trenin (Trenin), director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, on these issues.

GT: After the UN Security Council (US)'s failure to reach an agreement on North Korea, what are the next steps for Russia?

Trenin: In this most recent skirmish on the Korean Peninsula, Russia's No.1 priority has been to help avoid a military conflict. It publicly criticized North Korea's military provocations and its non-cooperation with the US, and appealed to South Korea and the US to show restraint.

Moscow also wanted to demonstrate that Russia is closely involved in diplomacy on the Korean issue. As a general principle, Moscow prefers to call upon all parties to engage in negotiations, and wants to be a party to the talks. On denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula, the Russians probably realize that North Korea will not give up its nuclear arsenal, but they want to defuse the situation and divert it into the diplomatic channel, where it can be controlled.

No one wants a war at this point, but incidents may happen, people may die, and a border conflict, or even a border war, cannot be ruled out. Moscow is coordinating positions with Beijing and talking to Tokyo. It wants to demonstrate it is closely involved in diplomacy on the Korean issue. Right now Moscow looks like a community fire brigade volunteer.

GT: What's the possibility of an all-out war in the Korean Peninsula at this point?

Trenin: There is a distinction between what I call a border war - fire exchanges across the lines separating South Korea and the North Korea - and a large-scale war. I do not think either side wants such a war. Nor does the US. In the future, a large-scale war on the Korean Peninsula cannot be ruled out, but I hope it can be prevented.

The US has very publicly shown its full support for South Korea. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, have visited Seoul. I am sure that, beyond expressing support for its ally and sympathy for the losses sustained, they have also counseled the South Koreans to be extremely careful in this war of nerves.

The US is increasingly concerned over the developments on the Korean Peninsula. Washington certainly does not want a war, but it does not like Pyongyang seizing the initiative with military provocations and nuclear "surprises."

However, there is not much that the US can do on its own. So it leans on China to rein in its ally. Seen from Washington, Beijing is reluctant to pressure Pyongyang effectively. This adds to tensions in US-China relations. President Hu Jintao's visit to Washington next month promises to be even more interesting.

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