On a scale of diplomatic insults where 1 is summoning the ambassador and 10 is North Korea’s usual behaviour, I’d situate this episode somewhere around 348.
It was quite clear that the Russian government hoped that a Kim visit to Moscow would constitute a key PR victory for the Beijing consensus approach to foreign policy. The intended message was clearly: ‘Your sanctions have failed for years, we make vague gestures in the direction of playing nice and suddenly the DPRK opens up. Yah boo sucks to you.’
The odd thing here is that the approach had every chance of working. China has recently seen sense and dropped North Korea like a hot brick (or something else which steams and is unpleasant to hold with bare hands), and thus the DPRK is in desperate need of a partner to fend off human rights accusations at the UN and provide it with a steady stream of hard currency. Russia was more than willing to fill the role in return for a few PR victories and the continued opening up of Eurasian project rail links with South Korea. So what happened?
Well, as the news outlets have acknowledged by means of the traditional medium of pages of awkward speculative waffle, no one really knows. I suspect that it is one of three possibilities:
1. The Russians pushed too hard in its private negotiations with the North Koreans, frightened the horses, and this is the result. I was going to quote a piece I wrote advising that Russia take a softly-softly approach in order to secure its long term cooperation with North Korea for precisely this reason, but I’ve just realised that it wasn’t published online, so you’ll just have to take my word for it. If the Russians had been asking for anything that the North Korean elites felt would weaken their control over the country (which is more or less anything), they would back off hurriedly. They were clearly far from happy about the Kim visit to begin with, and any further demands could have tipped them over the edge.
2. They North Koreans have re-evaluated their estimation of the value of the Eurasian infrastructure links to Russia. The Russians have made such a big deal of this item that North Korea has decided that it is clearly worth more than Russia was proposing to pay for it (quite a large amount nevertheless, in the form of juicy gas and mining deals), and have correspondingly upped their price.
3. Good old-fashioned North Korean incompetence. Most of the time, North Korea’s various administrative departments talk to each other little. It’s entirely possible that no one at the Foreign Ministry knew that the Navy intended to carry out this test today, and that no one in the Navy understood the significance of doing so.
So what now?
Well, there’s the option I suggested in the title, though other regional neighbours would probably not be very happy about it. From the North Korean perspective, the great thing about having nothing is that they have nothing to lose. There is very little that the outside world can do to them in retaliation for their misbehaviour that hasn’t already been done, repeatedly and at length.
The other option for the Russian side is to grit one’s teeth and ignore the insults, as China did for years. Given the difficulty of punishing North Korea in any meaningful way, this seems like the most probable outcome.
Either way, one can’t help but conclude that in this case at least Vladimir Putin has been beaten at his own game by plucky little North Korea. There must be a lot of bitter diplomats in Beijing enjoying a quiet moment of satisfaction right about now.