On September 29, Choe Son Hui, the North Korean foreign ministry’s senior official for North American affairs, met with senior Russian foreign affairs official Oleg Burmistrov in Moscow.
The meeting came at a time of high tensions between the U.S. and North Korea. The week had seen claims from the North Koreans that President Trump, in a fiery speech at the United Nations and a subsequent tweet, had declared war on the country.
So why did Choe meet with Burmistrov?
According to the Russian foreign ministry, Oleg Burmistrov holds the rank of a first-class plenipotentiary diplomat. He currently serves as an ambassador-at-large, and was Moscow’s deputy negotiator on North Korea’s nuclear program at the Six Party Talks.
Previously, he served as the deputy chief of mission for the Russian embassy in the United States, as well as deputy director of the Russian foreign ministry’s North America department – a CV not dissimilar to Choe’s.
The talks followed Oleg Burmistrov’s trip to Pyongyang in July, and days after a visit by Choe to Vladivostok just before journeying to Moscow.
Over the course of the meeting, the North Korean side, in usual style, insisted that it sought an end to what it perceived to be a hostile U.S. policy toward the North.
Choe Son Hui in action
Following Choe’s visit to Moscow, the Russian foreign ministry stated that it was willing to work with North Korea to resolve the nuclear crisis. Of course, such statements are formulaic, often accompanying such high-level meetings, and do not indicate any major breakthroughs or changes in course in Russian policy.
Nevertheless, the official statement did include a notable clause, about implementing a peaceful solution to the North Korea crisis “in the context of promoting the Russian-Chinese roadmap for a Korean settlement.”
The so-called “Russian-Chinese roadmap” constitutes the proposed “double freeze,” whereby North Korea will cease its activities in pursuit of advanced missile capabilities in return for the U.S. scaling back its military activities in northeast Asia.
At the official level, the United States has seemingly been receptive to the meeting between Burmistrov and Choe
The U.S., for its part, has roundly rejected the proposal, with Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley calling the proposal “insulting.”
But Russia’s star has been rising in multilateral negotiations over North Korea, particularly since May of this year. This marks a significant shift compared to previous periods of high tension, when Russia took a back seat to China in international talks.
POINT OF CONTACT?
Russia’s increasingly prominent position in the spotlight on the stage of the multi-national discussions over the Korean security crisis, however, undoubtedly complicates the equation for the biggest force spearheading efforts aimed at disarming North Korea, the United States.
Burmistrov serves as one of the major points of contact for North Korean officials involved in multi-party negotiations, given his position as ambassador-at-large for nuclear affairs, but also brings extensive experience in the U.S. to the table.
Despite this fact, Burmistrov’s wealth of practical experience in Washington could potentially help Russia achieve one of its ostensible goals, acting as an intermediary between North Korea and the U.S.
At the official level, the United States has seemingly been receptive to the meeting between Burmistrov and Choe. At a press briefing that took place around the time of her journey to Russia, U.S. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert, speaking in response to a journalist’s question over Russia’s role in negotiations over North Korea, stated:
“I can’t see that [meeting between North Korean and Russian officials] as a bad thing. Diplomacy is our preferred approach. If Russia can be successful in getting North Korea to move in a better direction, we would certainly welcome that.”
In the U.S., however, Russia’s role in multilateral talks over North Korea has been considered somewhat of a nuisance, and it is clear that Russia has its own motives in engaging in dialogue with DPRK officials.
Georgy Toloraya, a former Russian diplomat to North and South Korea, has argued that for Russia to completely take the U.S.’s side on the issue of North Korea’s missile and WMD programs would translate into Russia being completely sidelined. North Korea, Toloraya said, would not consider Russia’s vital economic interests in the region.
Russia’s star has been rising in multilateral negotiations over North Korea
Russia’s position on North Korea is also more closely aligned with Pyongyang itself, and Russia’s essential policy alignment with China, of course, detracts even more from the possibility that Russia could play the role of a diplomatic bridge between Pyongyang and Washington.
Given that North Korea’s top official for U.S. affairs has met with one of Russia’s highest-ranking ambassadors whose credentials include extensive experience on the American beltway, at this stage the biggest question is to what extent Russia is truly interested in being an intermediary between the DPRK and the United States.
The meeting between Burmistrov and Choe could potentially signal that both North Korea and Russia view the United States as a stumbling block to peace, and that they need to use their combined experience and expertise in U.S. affairs to coordinate policy responses toward Washington that are favorable to both Moscow and Pyongyang.
Ultimately, Russia may come down increasingly on the side of the DPRK at the expense of Russian cooperation with the U.S., despite its recent support for sanctions against North Korea at the UN.
If Russia continues to make a good faith effort to reach out to the U.S., as underscored by the top official for North Korean affairs Joseph Yun having traveled to Moscow this year, then it may be that Russia is truly attempting to take a balanced position in questions surrounding the Korean crisis.
Oleg Burmistrov, therefore, is a figure worth watching as the North Korea-Russia-United States triangular relationship begins to develop: Burmistrov’s rich background in Washington could outweigh his relative lack of experience in Korean affairs.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
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Featured Image: Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs by Bernt Rostad on 2008-08-02 14:20:54