Russia Is the Indispensable Nation in De-Nuclearizing North Korea

North Korea's actions are not irrational, but based on very definite foreign policy goals

Kim Il Sung with Giancarlo Elia Valori and Signora Emilia Marinelli
Kim Il Sung with Giancarlo Elia Valori and Signora Emilia Marinelli

Our contributor, Dr. Tatiana Yugay, Professor of the Plekhanov Russian Economic University, an expert on Italy and a former advisor to the President’s Administration and Security Council, introduces this article written especially for RI:

Giancarlo Elia Valori's reaction to the launch of the North Korean satellite is no standard mass media comment. Valori has had personal relations with the Korean ruling dynasty, first meeting President Kim Il Sung during a visit to North Korea in 1975. He often vacationed in North Korea with his mother and Kim Il Sung had named the residence which was always at their disposal - Villa Emilia - in honor of his mother. He was the only foreign citizen who was invited to the funeral of Kim Il Sung in 1994, and maintained friendly relations with Kim Jong Il, meeting him several times.. Though Valori met North Korea’s present leader, Kim Jong Un only once, Un sent him a beautiful Korean picture for his birthday last year. As I mentioned in my article about Giancarlo Elia Valori, this friendship with the Korean communist leader Kim Il Sung played a crucial role in releasing French hostages kidnapped by Iranian Islamic extremists in 1985.

At a time when  almost all world leaders and mass media have unanimously condemned North Korea’s behavior, Valori tries to find a rationale behind the reckless actions of its leader. He calls for negotiations and emphasizes Russia's decisive role in a Korean diplomatic settlement.

Giancarlo Elia Valori has kindly given RI permission to publish photos from his personal archive.


On February 7, 2016 (Juche 105), the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un orbited an earth observation satellite called Kwangmyonsong-4.

The launch is part of North Korea’s five-year plan for aerospace development – to which the North Korean leader attaches great importance.

It is the most important and technologically independent part of North Korea’s non-conventional military system.

The three-stage carrier rocket blasted off from the Sohae Space Centre in Cholsan County, North Pyongyan Province, at 9 a.m. local time on February 7 and entered its present orbit at 9.09:46 a.m., 9 minutes and 46 seconds after lift-off.

Measuring and telecommunications equipment was installed in the earth observation satellite called Kwangmyonsong-4. After the separation of the carrier stages, the third component of the missile was immediately broken apart into about 270 fragments, to prevent South Korea from recovering it, and learning about it.

The first stage fell onto the area that North Korea had indicated to the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the second reached the  east coast of the Philippines.

The "Bright Star" satellite (as its name means in Korean) even flew over the stadium in which the Superbowl had taken place - an hour after the end of the event, in an area very close to the Silicon Valley.

The Unha rocket that launched "Bright Star" into space is a version of the Taepodong-2, the nuclear carrier which can hit targets up to  4,000-4,500 kilometers. It was an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), that alarmed Japan, the United States and, of course, South Korea.

What is the use of the satellite structure, over and above demonstrating the high quality achieved by North Korean science and technology?

North Korea says the satellite will monitor weather conditions and will explore forest resources and the availability of raw materials which are of interest to the North Korean government.

The other satellite in orbit is only calibrated to manage telecommunications.

So what is the use of North Korea’s overall missile and nuclear strategy, in addition to obviously increasing the prestige and security of that regime?

We can assume several motivations:

First, it would be designed to obtain international concessions to stabilize its political system.

North Korea is afraid of dissolving in the globalization of its geopolitical region, losing the strategic military and economic privileges that enable its military build up.

Hence a large amount of missile and nuclear technology to offset the threat from other  countries, starting with South Korea.

Secondly, for North Korea, the use of technologically-advanced weapons and the constant threat of their use internationalizes the historical crisis of the Korean peninsula, still divided along the 38th parallel, placing this issue high on both the US and Chinese agendas.

My friend Bob Gallucci (US chief negotiator with North Korea – ed.) remembers all too well that the negotiations with North Korea in 1994 and 2003 were based on the comparative reliability and rationality of that regime, that accepted to reduce its nuclear arsenal in exchange for the construction of a large nuclear power plant. But above all, in exchange for recognition of its stability and political autonomy.

Gallucci’s deal failed, due to US reluctance to accept a negotiating line with North Korea, that finally walked out of the negotiations.

North Korea keeps a careful watch on US moves. Any action taken by the regime is always a coded message to the United States to show clearly that North Korea will negotiate seriously only on specific conditions: to be a full member of the Asian system, on an equal footing and with the same dignity as Japan and South Korea.

But only with the explicit mediation and brokerage of China, the United States and, above all, the Russian Federation, the only country that can really negotiate an effective agreement between North Korea and the major global and regional powers.

Only Russia can interact with the DPRK in order to instill confidence on the reliability of negotiations. Only Russia can guarantee the results of a future agreement – including at the militarily level.

Russia is far enough away not to worry regional powers and it is trusted by North Korea, which has never included it in its list of enemies. It is a credible power both for the United States, which certainly cannot do much with the DPRK, and for China, which is not worried by the role of  guarantor played by Russia on the Korean peninsula.

Moreover the DPRK must stabilize its political regime, which lacks the economic basis for a peaceful projection of power.

Furthermore, North Korea’s military system is calibrated to prevent any  attempts at internal political destabilization by external enemies.

In the history of military nuclear power, North Korea’s is the first case in which these defensive technologies are used primarily to preserve its own domestic political system.

Obviously North Korea’s nuclear power also has a compensatory function: to offset - with its non-conventional ABC weapons - the inevitable tactical and logistical weakness of its conventional forces which must shrink to make available the resources necessary for the development of the economy, the nuclear threat being cheaper than the traditional conventional build up.

The first DPRK nuclear test dates back to October 2006.

The UN Security Council immediately issued a series of Resolutions that lasted until 2013.

Tough economic sanctions increased the costs of North Korea’s nuclear program and were a good example for other countries thinking about imitating the DPKR’s "isolationist" strategy.

However, in the specific case of North Korea, sanctions had no appreciable results. In 2015 North Korea reaffirmed the goal of byungjin, the "parallel development" of the domestic economy and nuclear deterrence.

In principle, sanctions slow down military development, but do not stop it.

A country just has to centralize military and economic planning - as North Korea has done - and acquire “sensitive” technologies from unofficial channels.

It’s also worth recalling that the sanctions imposed on North Korea were calibrated  for a "rational political operator”. This meant that the benefits of negotiating would be greater than the costs of autonomous action and a negotiating stalemate.

Yet political systems do not always follow the rule of rational choice, but often operate as free riders gaining more from refusing the benefits of collective action - according to Mancur Olson's theory - than from the profits resulting from collective action.

It’s always the same problem mentioned by Glaucon in Plato's Republic (Book 2, 360 b-c): whether compliance with the law is intimately connected with the unavoidability of sanctions.

If at times we can avoid being subjected to the "hard yoke of the law", it can also be rational to operate as if the rules do not exist, as a free rider, if we consider that the benefit of isolated action is greater than the loss incurred in implementing the law.

In any case, the sanctions put in place by the United States have  increased the North Korean cost of unlawfully procuring nuclear technologies abroad, but have not made it impossible.

Obviously China has no intention of negatively affecting its relations with North Korea, a future contributor to its economic expansion towards the West with the One Belt One Road Initiative. Also, China has no intention of destabilizing the region creating demographic, security, economic and strategic dangers.

North Korea is a strategic "belt" for defense against the "foreign dogs" of South-Western Chinese borders, as well as an unavoidable axis for the protection of its routes in the South China Sea.

Moreover, China does not fear the DPRK’s nuclear arsenal, since it knows it could respond immediately and decisively to any possible attack.

Hence, with a view to persuading China, we need to shift from an old sanctions regime to broader negotiations – and hence to a partial recognition of North Korea’s strategic and economic status in the Asian regional system as well as in relation to Japan and Taiwan.

The 2003-2009 Six Party Talks between the DPRK, the United States, China, Japan, Russia and South Korea, sanctions did not create a diplomatic thread in the short-medium term, and today the sanction system is ineffective, since North Korea simply factors it is as a cost.

In order to start talking effectively with North Korea, we must convince North Korea that no one is interested in regime change in the DPRK.

After a series of confidence-building measures, we must prevent North Korea from using the highest card in negotiations.

Vainglorious boasting may be rational today, but it will become self--defeating for North Korea in the future. A new regional security climate would enable the DPRK to implement a less muscular foreign policy.

We must not call for the country’s complete denuclearization, but consider together North Korea’s non-conventional arsenal and China’s deterrence, and the North Korean regime’s opening to the global economy in positive terms - with Russian mediation.

If this does not happen, being a free rider will become a rational choice for the DPRK.

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