Russia issued its third condemnation of North Korea for its Nov. 23 attack on South Korean-controlled Yeonpyeong Island on Dec. 13, the same day that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov hosted his North Korean counterpart, Pak Ui Chun, for a third day of talks. The condemnation comes amid frantic diplomatic efforts over both the Yeonpyeong incident and North Korea's newly revealed uranium enrichment activities. South Korean nuclear envoy Wi Sung Lac is also in Russia for discussions Dec. 15, U.S. negotiators are in Beijing, China continues calling for a resumption of six-party talks, and Pyongyang claims it will not meet conditions imposed by Washington and its allies as a prerequisite to talks. Russia's response to the Yeonpyeong attack starkly contrasts with its response to the March sinking of the South Korean naval corvette ChonAn, indicating that while it may not have changed its stance on relations on the Korean Peninsula, it is weighing its lucrative economic relationship with South Korea more carefully this time.
Moscow's Responses to Pyongyang Russia twice before condemned the Yeonpyeong attack, the first coming immediately after the incident. In this third condemnation, Moscow demanded Pyongyang cease provocations, comply with U.N. Security Council (UNSC) resolutions and rejoin six-way talks. Though Russia has always lent verbal support for denuclearization and has supported UNSC sanctions against the North, these condemnations differ from its response to the ChonAn incident, where Moscow joined Beijing in shielding Pyongyang from criticism and conducted its own investigation, ultimately ruling against a North Korean torpedo attack. Russia has little interest in siding entirely with the South Koreans, which would mean siding with the Americans, against the North and China. Russia continues to criticize U.S. and South Korean military exercises as driving up tensions in the region. From Moscow's point of view, the Yeonpyeong incident, which North Korea blames on South Korean exercises taking place at the time of the attack, vindicated Deputy Foreign Minister Alexei Borodavkin's public warning in September that high tensions on the peninsula, fueled by such exercises, could erupt into conflict in the near future.
The Russo-Korean Economic Relationship But there are economic factors for Moscow to consider. South Korea remains a consumer of Russian oil and natural gas and a major investor in Russia's economy ($1.3 billion in 2009), offering exactly what Moscow is looking for to facilitate its economic modernization and privatization: capital, high technology, expertise and infrastructure. South Korean shipbuilders have become the chief players in renovating Russia's shipbuilding sector, which will help supply vessels and equipment for its expanding oil and natural gas trade in the Asia Pacific region. South Korea is still the largest shipbuilder in the world, builds the world's biggest ships and leads the world in technology and efficiency when it comes to shipyards and shipbuilding, so it is uniquely attractive to Moscow. Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Equipment is currently expanding and modernizing Russia's outdated Zvezda military shipyard near Vladivostok by 2012, and Samsung and Hyundai are pursuing similar shipbuilding contracts. The South Koreans would help Russia build icebreakers, oil-drilling platforms, tankers and potentially even high-tech icebreakers to carry liquefied natural gas (LNG). Seoul is also a top candidate for building an LNG export terminal in Vladivostok and investing in further expansions to Sakhalin Island energy projects and infrastructure, where it has already invested $1.5 billion, according to Sakhalin Gov. Alexander Khoroshavin. There are several other deals, blueprints and possibilities for cooperation in other sectors, taking as a model successes like Hyundai's recently opened $500 million car-making plant in St. Petersburg. Because the Yeonpyeong attack was North Korea's second extraordinary provocation this year and resulted in civilian casualties, Moscow would have faced a much higher risk of harming relations with Seoul had it not shown more sensitivity and support this time than after the ChonAn incident. Of course, as Moscow knows, the South Koreans need Russia too. Seoul did not downgrade relations with Russia over its unsympathetic response to the ChonAn incident. On the contrary, during the high tide of the ChonAn controversy the two sides continued striking major deals. Seoul wants to get into the Russian market and privatization and modernization processes as it attempts to boost exports of major industrial and infrastructural goods. The South Korean industrial giants feel Chinese competition rising and want to maintain the edge in a market as big as Russia's. In addition the Korea Times reported in October that South Korea hopes to convince Russia to transfer more high-tech arms, such as long-range radars and systems resistant to electromagnetic pulse attack, as a means of paying off its debts to the South. In fact, Seoul has shown willingness to make sacrifices to avoid angering Russia in its sphere of influence — the South Koreans pulled out of a bid in early December to help construct a nuclear plant in Lithuania, most likely due to Russian requests. While Russia may have struck a harsher tone after the North's latest attack, and will from time to time support international attempts to pressure North Korea through statements or sanctions, it will not shift wholly to a disapproving stance toward the North. Russia wants to see what it can get from South Korea while keeping some ability to use North Korea as a lever against the South or other interested parties like China and especially the United States. Russia shares a border with the North and has growing economic interests in the region, and it does not want universal pressure to force a North Korean collapse. North Korean normalization or even eventual reunification could bring opportunities (such as a natural gas pipeline, railway or electricity line connecting Russia and the Koreas), but unification would also pose the threat of having a U.S. ally on Russia's border, less than 100 kilometers away from Vladivostok. Hence, Russia will always seek to maintain its leverage over peninsular affairs so as to maintain the status quo or exert influence over any changes that take place. In fact, Russia was once much more active as one of the North's patrons, and with North Korea seeking ways to reduce its dependence on China, there is always the possibility that it could reach out to Russia more. For the Kremlin, North Korea, similarly to Iran, remains a lever that could come in handy. This will change only if the South Koreans are willing to pay Russia's price. In the meantime, the two sides seem to have found a modus vivendi.