Russia's Diplomacy Moves in Mysterious Ways

      December 20, 2010 13:42

      Jung Byung-sun

      The diplomatic moves Russia made last week carried the classic signature of the Kremlin. The "citadel," as Kremlin literally translates, remains shrouded in a thick veil of secrecy, and its moves are difficult to predict.

      After criticizing North Korea repeatedly over the artillery attack on Yeonpyeong, Russia on Saturday abruptly demanded an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council, taking issue with planned South Korean artillery drills on on Yeonpyeong Island that have been held annually for decades. Just a few days ago Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov sharply criticized the artillery attack when he met North Korean Foreign Minister Pak Ui-chun, and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin also criticized North Korea's uranium enrichment program. Such contradictory behavior affirms Moscow's reputation for unpredictability.

      Following Russia's rare rebuke of the North, some South Korean diplomats got mistaken impression that they had gained a new ally. One South Korean diplomat even said, "Russia showed clear resolve not to protect North Korea any longer on the international stage." When it became clear that the North was solely responsible for the artillery attack, Russia could no longer remain silent on the issue and abandoned its amiable attitude to the North, the diplomat said.

      But that view quickly lost ground when Moscow began to take issue with the South Korean military exercises. It seems likely that the Russians consulted with Pyongyang before calling the UN Security Council meeting. This could help North Korea’s attempts to make the drills appear the source of the tensions. Perhaps that is why Pak declared there had been "fruitful results" to his Moscow visit. Russia experts call this "matroshka" diplomacy, referring to the Russian dolls that always have another doll concealed inside them.

      But there is one constant in Russia's policy toward the Korean Peninsula. Moscow fears being diplomatically isolated and is constantly trying to assert itself on the international stage. In the past, it was responsible for most of the leaks to the press about the latest developments in the six-party nuclear talks. That was the only way Russia had of demonstrating its diplomatic existence, since its contribution to the talks was otherwise negligible.

      Now, with China's rapid ascent on the diplomatic stage, fears have increased of Russia losing its status in Northeast Asian diplomacy, so it appears Moscow is trying to show its clout by other means.

      Russia cannot currently hope to gain the kind of influence that the U.S. and China have in Northeast Asia, but it believes it can keep a foothold by staying in the middle and siding with no one. That is why Russia's basic approach to North and South Korea has been "long-distance" diplomacy ever since Seoul and Moscow formed diplomatic ties in 1990. That was Russia's stance over the 10 years of the six-party process, and that was apparent in Moscow's silence after the sinking of the Navy corvette Cheonan.

      But surely Russia, like China, must be as fed up with North Korea by now. They may fear the possibility of regime collapse in North Korea greatly, but they cannot allow the North to become a nuclear power. As time goes by Russia will grow sick and tired of Pyongyang, but apparently not yet.

      By Jung Byung-sun from the Chosun Ilbo's News Desk

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