It’s hard to say what the Joe Biden administration’s policy on North Korea will be. On the one hand, Biden has described Kim Jong Un as a thug, and said he will only hold talks with Pyongyang if North Korea agrees to give up its nuclear weapons: something it will not do under any circumstances. 

On the other hand, in recent years, U.S. experts linked to the Democratic Party have increasingly come to realize what they should have understood since about fifteen years ago: the only way forward is to accept the need for a compromise. Such compromise would necessarily include the implicit acceptance of the fact that North Korea is a nuclear power and will remain so for the foreseeable future, so the focus of talks should not be on disarmament, but on arms control and, ideally, arms reduction.

There is a risk that Pyongyang may resort to its usual tactic of creating an artificial crisis in order to force the United States to enter into talks. This approach involves Pyongyang first taking some provocative action in order to send tensions soaring, and then, when the situation looks dangerous, agreeing to talks and a return to the pre-crisis situation in exchange for some kind of reward. In that situation, the reward could be U.S. willingness to enter into talks on a compromise solution.

For this reason, the North Korean leadership may be tempted to withdraw from the unilateral moratorium on testing intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that Kim Jong Un announced in early 2018. At a dramatic and spectacular nighttime military parade in Pyongyang on October 10, North Korea demonstrated both old and new models of ICBMs capable of hitting targets in the continental United States.

North Korea currently has at least three types of ICBMs that could reach the continental United States, including one unveiled at the October 10 parade that has not yet been tested. The launch of an ICBM and, perhaps, some more nuclear tests during the first few months of Biden’s presidency would remind Washington that North Korea has no intention of waiting patiently until the U.S. side feels like starting talks, and that in the meantime, the country’s nuclear engineers and scientists continue to work 24/7—with considerable success.

South Korean diplomacy is, of course, doing everything it can to dissuade the North’s leadership from taking such drastic measures, and Chinese diplomats are likely working to the same end. 

It’s China’s position that will probably determine events in the coming months. Since 2017, when harsh UN sanctions were introduced, North Korea’s dependence on China has reached unprecedented levels: only China is prepared to offer it meaningful assistance. Given its worsening confrontation with Washington, Beijing is keen to preserve stability in the region and doesn’t want to give the United States a convenient excuse to increase its presence near China’s borders. It may, therefore, put pressure on North Korea’s leadership, demanding that it refrains from taking drastic action and staging another provocation.

So how will events on the Korean Peninsula impact Russia’s interests, and can Moscow itself influence what happens there? Unfortunately for Russia, its opportunities on the Korean Peninsula, which have in any case been limited for decades, will likely only decrease as the Biden administration takes charge. 

Unlike China, Russia cannot apply any economic pressure to North Korea. Despite sanctions and unprecedentedly harsh lockdown measures, the North Korean economy remains afloat largely thanks to Chinese subsidies: the cost of China’s influence in Pyongyang. Russia, however, has provided precious little economic aid to North Korea in the last thirty years.

The trade volume between Russia and North Korea—even if its significant “unofficial component” is taken into account—also remains very small, and can be measured in hundreds of millions of dollars, rather than the billions in which trade with China is counted.

Until recently, Russia was of some interest to Pyongyang as a relatively friendly and nonthreatening intermediary in talks with the United States and the West, as well as something of a diplomatic counterweight in those talks. Unlike China, which Pyongyang views with caution, Russia is not particularly feared by the North Korean leadership, which understands that Moscow has neither the inclination nor the ability to interfere in North Korean domestic policy.

In addition, Russia has been able to influence the actions of other interested parties, primarily Western countries. Pyongyang saw Russia as a possible mediator that could even, to some extent, be trusted.

However, with the sharp escalation of the U.S.-Russian confrontation since 2014, Russia’s opportunities to mediate have decreased. If the West listens to what Moscow has to say now, it’s only to make sure it does the opposite. With Washington and its allies treating Russia with suspicion and hostility, and viewing it as a junior partner of China, Pyongyang can’t count on Russian mediation to be effective.

Russia’s dilemma on the Korean Peninsula was described very well in this recent commentary. Option one is for Russia to try to conduct its own policy there, which may be a little different to China’s. But though such a position might seem tempting, it would be quite costly, since any influence on North Korea must always be paid for—often with cold hard cash.

Currently, it doesn’t look as though Moscow has any inclination to invest in that costly approach, which isn’t surprising, since the potential political and strategic gains would likely not be worth the price that Moscow would have to pay to acquire them.

Option two is for Russia to reconcile itself with following in China’s slipstream. That approach doesn’t require major investment, but it does, of course, mean temporarily relinquishing autonomy in its actions on the Korean Peninsula. 

Biden’s election increases the likelihood of the second scenario: a passive stance and willingness to follow China’s lead. Embroiled in its confrontation with the West, Russia cannot play the role of an effective intermediary, and Moscow’s unwillingness to subsidize North Korea means that for Pyongyang, Russia is of no interest as a potential donor. This decreases its ability to influence the situation, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing: as a Taoist sage taught, there are times when “non-action” is not just the only realistic option, but also the best policy.

This article was published as part of the “Relaunching U.S.-Russia Dialogue on Global Challenges: The Role of the Next Generation” project, implemented in cooperation with the U.S. Embassy to Russia. The opinions, findings, and conclusions stated herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Embassy to Russia.

  • Andrei Lankov