United States, North Korea, and Russia – Putin the Common Denominator
Ambassador Curtis A. Ward
There is a common element in United States-North Korea relations that is being overlooked. Sometimes, finding answers to otherwise puzzling questions evades us unless we broaden the scope of our thinking – outside of the box. What appears far-fetched may not be so improbable after all. New developments in U.S.-North Korea relations suggest the possibility that Russian president Vladimir Putin may have had a role in convincing North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to invite U.S. president Donald Trump to a bilateral meeting. The possibility of denuclearization of North Korea, though remote, is a tempting proposition. Putin’s likely role in the initiative – choreographed in Moscow – could result from the Russian leader’s connections to both the American president and the North Korean leader. Sanctions is a common denominator.
Russia’s relation to North Korea’s sanctions violations often goes unnoticed. The same applies to China’s violations. However, while China’s relation with North Korea is well known, Russia’s actions, in particular with sanctions violations, though quite obvious, are less known. The United Nations Security Council Committee (Committee) with responsibility for monitoring compliance with North Korean sanctions often is constrained to identify Russia’s or China’s complicity in UN sanctions evasion.
The Panel of Experts (PoE) – the monitoring mechanism with responsibility for investigating sanctions violations and making recommendations to the UN Security Council (UNSC) – must first submit and discuss its reports with the Committee. As one of the 15 members of the UNSC, Russia sits on the Committee and has opportunity to discuss the report before it is submitted to the Council and made public. The Committee’s consensus process affords members an opportunity to try and sanitize contents not backed by incontrovertible facts.
The PoE’s latest report was scheduled to be submitted to the Committee by February 1, 2017, and to the UNSC by March 12th (as this article is being published). An MSNBC exclusive report suggests the report clearly identifies Russian complicity in North Korea’s sanctions evasion, a conclusion also supported by open source information obtained by Richard Engel for a recent special MSNBC report. The evidence implicating Russian complicity in sanctions violations appears incontrovertible. The Trump administration is aware of Russia’s violations, as well as Russia’s likely complicity in the Syrian Government’s sanctions violations in acquiring scud missiles from North Korea. The Syrian violations were identified in the PoE’s September 2017 report.
Russian transgression will go unpunished by the UN due to Russia’s veto power in the UNSC. Similarly, Putin’s relationship with Trump has hindered robust enforcement of U.S. sanctions against Russia. As pressure mounts on Trump to impose sanctions against Russia, mainly due to the ongoing investigations into Russian meddling in the U.S. 2016 presidential elections, and the imminent naming and shaming of Russia in the PoE report, Putin may have been prompted to be an active player in the latest North Korean initiative. Putin’s dual connections appear likely to be a factor in Trump’s and Kim’s future interactions, thus increasing doubts of a positive outcome for the U.S. and its allies.
Positioned as a backstage player, Putin’s strategy could include redemption for Russia’s sanctions violations. Overlooked by media and geopolitical analysts, as well as by U.S. Congressional representatives, Putin’s possible role in the success or failure of any future Trump-Kim meeting is not being exposed. Putin pursues a geopolitical strategy which makes these actions and timing neither mere coincidence nor happenstance.
A lot is already known about Trump’s affinity or deference to Putin, and widespread belief about, some say evidence of, Putin’s influence over Trump. Despite legislation from the U.S. Congress to punish Russia for interfering in the U.S. 2016 elections, Trump has failed to take appropriate action against Russia. Trump expanded sanctions against North Korea while ignoring Russia’s complicity in North Korea’s evasion of UN and U.S. sanctions. Trump also targeted Chinese companies. China and Russia are the two most important neighbors with regard to North Korean sanctions enforcement. They are critical to sanctions enforcement against North Korea.
Not surprisingly, Trump credits his sanctions for the apparent sudden change in policy by the North Korean leader and his offer to discuss de-nuclearization. Most observers are wary of Kim’s end game. To suggest U.S.-imposed sanctions by themselves caused North Korean capitulation, especially the most recently Trump-imposed sanctions is a bridge too far.
I am a firm believer that clearly defined and targeted sanctions, the capacity of neighboring states and the will of the international community to implement and enforce them, in particular with respect to UNSC sanctions, can achieve their objectives. However, sanctions take time to be effective. Thus the decision by the North Korean leader could not have resulted from sanctions imposed by Trump since assuming office in January 2017. While there are many indicators that other factors influenced Kim’s decision to seek direct talks with Trump, there are many who will believe the sanctions are the reason and will overlook any influence Putin might have had. Keen observers of North Korea support my views this initiative is not as result of the recently imposed Trump sanctions.
According to Joel Wit (Senior Fellow, U.S.-North Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University, engaged on North Korean sanctions since the Clinton administration), getting a meeting with Donald Trump has been on Kim Jong-un’s agenda since November 2016. He noted Kim also made known his desire for a direct meeting with Trump in January 2017. This is consistent with his predecessors who have always sought one-on-one meetings with U.S. presidents. Prior to Trump, no other U.S. president has agreed to such meeting without preconditions set by the U.S. which they have never met. When this timeline is considered, it is clear Kim’s interest predated the sanctions imposed by Trump.
Both Russia and North Korea have been seeking ways to end sanctions imposed on their respective countries by President Barack Obama. Both Putin and Kim saw Trump’s election as an opportunity – an opening to be pursued. Both Putin and Kim understand that Trump is not deliberative but is transactional – the quid pro quo president. His modus operandi opens the door for adversaries such as Kim Jong-un and Vladimir Putin to play him. In North Korea’s case, Kim had to achieve his nuclear and missile technology objectives before playing that card. Now that North Korea presumably has crossed this threshhold — nuclear armed missiles capable of reaching the United States — the time for Kim to act had arrived. However, I leave open the possibility he was encouraged to do so at this time by Putin.
It is not implausible that Putin could have warned Kim that Russia’s exposure by the UNSC report will make it more difficult for Russia to assist in future sanctions evasion. That’s a good reason to urge Kim to open up dialogue with Trump.
As China, acting in its own interests has been pressuring North Korea, gradually tightening up on sanctions enforcement, North Korea has turned to Russia for assistance and Putin has been accommodating. While China traditionally has the greatest influence over North Korea by virtue of its vast trading relationship, Putin saw an opening fitting within his overall U.S. strategy and pounced on it. Naming and shaming Russia in the UNSC will have little effect on Russia; words alone won’t hurt. U.S. sanctions will.
© 2018 Curtis A. Ward/The Ward Post