Yesterday, the State Department released an official reaction to media reports on upcoming joint naval exercises between Russia and North Korea.
The U.S. declared that “any engagement with the North Koreans should be conducted in a way that does not detract from the international community’s clear message of concern about the North’s weapons programs, and the necessity for Pyongyang to do what is necessary to return to the Six-Party talks.” The response is timid, considering the danger that the recent behavior of both countries presents to U.S. interests.
Continued North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile tests demonstrate the country’s commitment to defy the international law. The announcement about joint military exercises, coming soon after agreeing to resume six-party nuclear talks, is simply another North Korean provocation in order to gain more diplomatic leverage. As Heritage scholar Bruce Klingner noted, this has always been a common tactic for North Korea. Details on the nature of the upcoming drill remain unclear, which only highlights the politicized nature of the announcement.
For Russia, this is an opportunity to increase its clout in the region. Paying lip service to the Obama Administration’s “reset” policy, Russian officials continue to press for a multipolar world order, which includes Russian dominance in Eastern Europe and parts of Asia.
As Professor Stephen Blank of the U.S. Army War College commented on the topic, “These maneuvers represent Russia’s effort to show that it counts for a major player in the six-party talks and in Northeast Asia, and that it has influence on North Korea. Like other similar gambits by major powers, it is more likely to represent the triumph of hope over experience.” Moscow’s willingness to engage in bilateral military exercises undermines its recent criticism of Pyongyang’s provocative and belligerent behavior.
Going beyond “hope,” however, Russia is taking another step that demonstrates that Moscow does not plan to be reciprocal in the U.S.–Russian “reset.” As Heritage’s Ariel Cohen and Professor Blank wrote recently:
The optics of Moscow’s ties to anti-American states, which build power to challenge the U.S. regionally and support and control extensive terrorist and intelligence networks, clash dramatically with the optics of the Obama Administration’s “reset.” [Pyongyang], Tehran, Damascus, and Caracas have an interest in destabilizing their regions and in acquiring advanced conventional—and likely nuclear—weapons. Such proliferation makes for a most problematic multipolarity, which piles up obstacles to U.S. interests and security.
Thus, the Obama Administration needs to re-examine the current arrangement. The State Department—and the Administration as a whole—should take a tougher stance on the upcoming joint exercises. Russia’s military cooperation with North Korea should be condemned, since technology and know-how that North Korea would obtain in the process would not only constitute a direct threat to the United States and its allies in the region; it would also increase the likelihood of proliferation.
North Korea is known to closely cooperate with terrorism-sponsoring states such as Syria and Iran and has transferred nuclear and missile technologies to both. For Pyongyang, the exercises are a means to show that it will not be intimidated by international efforts to weaken its military capabilities or moderate its behavior. The Administration needs to make sure that this plan does not succeed.
Anatoly Khomenko is a member of the Heritage Young Leaders Program