Prime Minister Shinzo Abe failed to convince Russian President Vladimir Putin to share Japan’s grave concerns over North Korea’s provocative acts as the two leaders met on Sept. 7. This is indeed regrettable, as Putin is the leader with whom Abe has engaged in the largest number of summit talks to date.
The 19th meeting between Abe and Putin was held in Vladivostok, in the Russian Far East, amid rising tensions following North Korea’s sixth nuclear test on Sept. 3. The fate of plans to hit North Korea with additional U.N. sanctions over the test is likely to be determined by Russia and China. Attention had thus been focused on whether interactions between the two leaders would lead to bilateral cooperation on North Korea in light of the serious threat to Japan’s security.
During the summit, Prime Minister Abe asked for cooperation from Russia in increasing pressure on North Korea to force the secluded state to abandon its nuclear weapons program. The two leaders reportedly agreed that North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs pose a serious threat. At a news conference following the meeting, however, President Putin reiterated that it is important for all concerned parties to participate in dialogue on the matter rather than putting pressure on Pyongyang.
Putin is of the view that there is no point in imposing sanctions on North Korea because Pyongyang would never abandon its nuclear weapons program unless it were convinced that its regime could still be maintained.
However, members of the U.N. Security Council are considering additional sanctions on Pyongyang, such as imposing oil export embargoes and turning away migrating North Korean workers. These measures would certainly have some effect.
Putin stressed that Russia exports only 40,000 metric tons of oil to North Korea during each quarter. However, this amount, which translates into an annualized volume of 160,000 tons, is not small. Therefore, Putin’s argument could allow North Korea to warn the international community that even if China were to restrict its oil exports to North Korea, Pyongyang could make up for it with imports from Russia.
Russia is said to have accepted nearly 30,000 North Korean workers to make up for a shortage in its workforce in its Far East region. This is an important way for North Korea to acquire foreign currency to finance its nuclear and missile programs.
Suspicions have arisen that the engine of one intercontinental ballistic missile that North Korea launched was made at a factory in Ukraine, and that Russia, which bought the engine, may have been involved in its transfer to North Korea. Russia should not stay on the sidelines of the issue.
On the same day as his meeting with Putin, Abe met with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and they agreed to increase their pressure on North Korea. Prime Minister Abe is expected to hold another meeting with Putin in November. Japan, the United States and South Korea should step up their cooperation in urging Russia and China to intensify their pressure on North Korea to force the country to abandon its provocative acts.