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View more articles by Anthony V. Rinna
Anthony V. Rinna
Anthony V. Rinna is an analyst on Russian foreign policy in East Asia for the Sino-NK research group. He currently resides in South Korea.
The train has once again proven to be the North Korean leadership’s favored mode of transportation when conducting major bilateral summits. Kim Jong Un’s rail journey to Beijing has drawn parallels with his father’s visit to Russia in 2011, when Kim Jong Il traveled to Ulan-Ude to meet then-President Dmitry Medvedev.
Kim Jong Un’s adoption of his father’s preferred method of transport is not simply a continuity of Kim Jong Il’s personal taste. Kim’s destination also underscores Beijing’s continued prime of place in North Korea’s external relationships.
And while last year saw speculation rise that Russia may replace China as Pyongyang’s primary international backer following a downturn in Beijing-Pyongyang ties, the North Korean leader’s decision to travel first to the PRC likely indicates that China is still North Korea’s main go-to in the international arena.
The Kremlin does not seem to have taken the Kim Jong Un’s decision to travel to China at the outset of its summit diplomacy as a sign that Russia’s stature in Korean affairs has diminished. Following Kim’s visit to the Chinese capital, the Russian government praised it as an important development in resolving the Korea crisis through diplomatic means. Indeed, rather than viewing itself as being in competition with Beijing, Moscow took the opportunity to re-state a frequent aspect of its North Korea policy, namely that it intends to continue cooperating with China on regional peace.
Following the Kim-Xi summit in Beijing, and with Kim Jong Un tentatively scheduled to meet Moon Jae-in and Donald Trump (with Shinzo Abe also reportedly pushing for a bilateral dialogue), the prospect of a meeting between the North Korean and Russian heads of state has arisen.
The Kremlin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov recently asserted that the Russian government had no immediate plans for a summit with Kim Jong Un. Russia’s foreign ministry, however, did state that it was planning meetings regarding the North Korea issue.
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Opinions on the prospect of a DPRK-Russia summit from analysts across East Asia have been mixed. Okonogi Masao, a specialist in Korean affairs at Keio University in Tokyo, asserted that a summit between North Korea and Russia was quite likely.
Among South Korean analysts offering opinions on a prospective North Korea-Russia meeting, however, opinions were mixed. Kim Yong-hyun of Dongguk University stated that Russia was attempting to involve itself more deeply in issues of peace and security on the Korean peninsula. Kim Joon-hyung of Handong University, however, expressed uncertainty as to whether or not a meeting between the North Korean and Russian heads of state would be necessary.
South Korea’s Joongang Ilbo, nevertheless, has posited that the potential for a high-level summit between Moscow and Pyongyang must not be ruled out. Such a meeting between North Korean and Russian heads of state, however, would not be significant in and of itself. Rather, such a meeting would be par for the course in North Korea’s recent diplomatic outreach.
But in the context of the recent Kim-Xi meeting, as well as the tentative bilateral discussions between North and South Korea and Pyongyang and Washington, it would indeed be strange for Kim not to hold talks with his Russian counterpart.
Multilateralism, however, could backfire for Russia
Speculation over whether or not Kim Jong Un would meet with Vladimir Putin in the midst of Pyongyang’s spate of diplomatic outreach underscores the quandary Russia finds itself in with regards to the Korean peninsula. The Kremlin’s primary interest in Korean affairs is ensuring that multilateralism is the primary tool by which countries manage Korean security affairs.
North Korea’s current engagement in such wide-ranging outreach seems to be serving Russian interests well. Andrei Kulik, director of the Russian foreign ministry’s Asia-Pacific bureau, has declared that Moscow is ready for dialogue with all parties interested in normalizing the situation on the Korean peninsula, including North Korea itself.
By expressing a willingness to work across the board with all countries that have stakes in the outcome of the Korea crisis, Russia is demonstrating its commitment to multilateralism.
Indeed, given Russia’s underwhelming status as a player in Northeast Asia, multilateralism, rather than attempting to assert influence by itself, is perhaps the only way Moscow can maintain its voice in inter-Korean affairs. Multilateralism, however, could backfire for Russia. The Russian Federation does not enjoy a particularly prominent position in multilateral diplomacy over North Korea in and of itself, which partially explains the Kremlin’s continued policy coordination with China over North Korea.
If no meeting between Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin takes place, it would damage Moscow’s already-tenuous standing in the Korea crisis.
Even if the Russian Federation were sidelined diplomatically, however, Moscow’s presence will likely remain a constant in North Korea’s economic considerations. This includes both the DPRK’s potential inclusion in wider regional trade, as well as in the enforcement of the international sanctions regime against Pyongyang.
The volume of trade between North Korea and Russia is in and of itself insignificant. Even when accounting for the difference between official trade figures and estimated illegal commercial exchanges, the Russian Federation does not play a quantitatively important role in the DPRK’s external trade. Nevertheless, Russia’s continued transactions with North Korea have been significant enough to spark condemnation from the U.S. State Department.
Moscow’s presence will likely remain a constant in North Korea’s economic considerations
Washington’s frustration over DPRK-Russia trade, however, has not stopped Moscow and Pyongyang from taking continued steps toward deepening their economic relations. Around the same time as Kim was visiting Beijing, North Korean and Russian officials held the eighth session of the DPRK-Russia inter-governmental commission on trade.
The two sides vowed to cooperate on a host of mutual interests including energy and transport, which are also essential parts of the Russia-South Korea Nine Bridges initiative. Russia’s trade relations with South Korea, in fact, play into the Kremlin’s own pursuit of multilateralism in Korea. Moscow and Seoul have recently revived discussions on the construction of a trans-Korean energy pipeline, which would involve Russia, North Korea, and the ROK.
For Moscow, therefore, there is both hope and risk surrounding recent developments in regional diplomacy over the DPRK crisis. Kim Jong Un’s outreach to various countries coincides with Moscow’s oft-stated goal of resolving the standoff with the DPRK through diplomacy and multilateralism.
If Russia, however, does not factor into the very multilateralism it is currently witnessing, then its interests will only be partially served. It may have gotten what it asked for, but it may not have a chance to stake its claim as an active participant in the multi-party diplomacy which is has pursued.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Kremlin.ru