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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.
Ri Yong Ho, North Korea’s top diplomat and former chief of the DPRK’s delegation to the Six-Party Talks, recently wrapped up a visit to several capitals across the post-Soviet region.
Following a quick stop off in Beijing, the DPRK foreign minister traveled to Baku, Azerbaijan, for a ministerial meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement, and made a brief visit to Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan. At the end of his voyage, Ri Yong Ho then traveled to Moscow to meet with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, as well as with Russia’s security chief Nikolai Patrushev.
Koh Yu-hwan of Dongguk University has stated that the main purpose of Ri Yong Ho’s visit to Moscow would most likely be to explain the North Korean government’s policy positions to Russian officials ahead of the North-South and DPRK-U.S. summits. The North Korean and Russian foreign ministers were, however, also expected to discuss other issues of international concern, including recent security developments in the Middle East.
Indeed, the meeting appeared to be more of a normal bilateral summit rather than a meeting specifically called to address the Korea crisis. Lavrov emphasized the growth of DPRK-Russia relations in general, including inter-parliamentary ties and the hope that Moscow and Pyongyang could engage in trilateral economic projects that included South Korea.
Ri nevertheless stressed the crucial role Moscow could play in Korean security issues. Official interactions between North Korean and Russian government officials during the visit only occurred at the ministerial level – Ri was not scheduled for an audience with Vladimir Putin, though he did invite Lavrov to Pyongyang – an offer Lavrov has accepted.
A KIM-PUTIN SUMMIT?
Kim Jong Un’s visit to the Chinese capital in March raised speculation that the North Korean leader may visit Russia as well, with U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats recently quoted by some outlets as having asserted that the Kremlin had invited Kim Jong Un to Russia. Nevertheless Oleg Burmistrov, the Russian Federation’s special envoy for nuclear affairs, stated that the Russian foreign ministry was unaware of an impending visit to the country by Kim Jong Un.
The meeting appeared to be more of a normal bilateral summit, rather than a meeting specifically called to address the Korea crisis
Even if Kim didn’t match his trip to China with a visit to the Russian Federation, the Sino-Russian partnership in resolving the Korea crisis continues to be strong.
As a general principle, China and Russia have comprised a coalition largely sympathetic to many of North Korea’s grievances, while Japan, South Korea, and the United States form a bloc opposite the Beijing-Moscow-Pyongyang partnership. South Korea’s recent push for multilateral outreach, especially the rapprochement between Moscow and Seoul over the Korea crisis, raised the possibility that informal divisions between groups of countries may be loosening.
Regional dynamics have nevertheless continued more-or-less along their traditional path. Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi visited Moscow in the week before Ri’s visit to the Russian capital for a summit with Lavrov. There, the two chief diplomats stated that they would implement a “road map” for resolving the Korea crisis.
Aleksandr Lomanov, a scholar at the Russian Academy of Sciences, asserted that a so-called Sino-Russian “road map” would likely involve a continued push for the “dual freeze” that Beijing and Moscow proposed in 2017. Oleg Burmistrov went as far to claim that Chinese and Russian policy coordination over the Korea crisis had already demonstrated its viability and effectiveness.
In Burmistrov’s view, the Sino-Russian roadmap consists of several steps, the first of which is a reduction in military activities on the Korean peninsula. The Russian special envoy stated that lack of any recent North Korean missile tests, and the U.S.’s agreement to reduce the scale of the 2018 Foal Eagle/Key Resolve drills with South Korea, are part of the first step in implementing the Beijing-Moscow policy proposal.
KEEP YOUR FRIENDS CLOSE
Although Moscow was Ri’s priority during his travels, North Korea’s top diplomat took the opportunity to continue a long tradition in North Korean foreign policy. As friendly great powers as China and Russia have loomed large in North Korea’s foreign affairs, Pyongyang has relied on amicable contacts with other countries to help mitigate its isolation beyond Beijing and Moscow.
A case-in-point: the small but crucial role Romania played in giving North Korea a degree of flexibility in its external relations in the 1970’s.
Baku and Pyongyang, however, could face several hurdles in their attempts to foster collaboration
In Baku, Ri attended a ministerial-level meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). Prior to his visit to Baku, Ri Yong Ho declared that he would seek support for North Korea from members of the NAM. For North Korea, the Non-Aligned Movement is a critical opening into the international arena, according to Rovshan Ibrahimov, a professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies.
Ri also met with the Azerbaijani foreign minister to discuss bilateral cooperation, particularly in the energy sector. Baku and Pyongyang, however, could face several hurdles in their attempts to foster collaboration. If the two sides were to cooperate on energy, they would have to contend with the prohibitions on energy trade laid out in UN Security Council Resolution 2397.
Furthermore, as Rovshan Ibrahimov noted, the North Korean government’s attempts to shore up ties with Azerbaijan could prove risky. Baku is cautious not to let any deepening in bilateral ties with the DPRK jeopardize its increasingly close political and economic relations with Seoul.
In Ashgabat, Ri had a meeting with Turkmenistan’s foreign minister Rashid Meredov. Meredov and Ri discussed developing bilateral cooperation between their two countries, although the details of the meeting remain unclear. Ri Yong Ho also met with Turkmenistani lawmakers, a notable occurrence seeing as members of South Korea and Turkmenistan’s respective national assemblies held a summit this past January.
KEEPING OPTIONS OPEN
Though Ri’s trips to Ashgabat, Baku, and Moscow had differing primary objectives, the DPRK is working to make sure its foreign policy remains as flexible as possible. Reaching out to the Russian Federation keeps Moscow as an active player in multilateral negotiations over North Korea’s WMD program, and helps to ease North Korea’s isolation more generally.
Affirming contacts with less powerful and geographically distant countries such as Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan are part of North Korea’s outreach to partners the world over where it can – useful amid the DPRK’s growing diplomatic isolation from countries once considered allies. Pyongyang, obviously, finds it worthwhile to engage in areas that allow it to be active beyond the parameters of north east Asia.
In the end, however, North Korea’s chief diplomat making the rounds across Eurasia will not alter the fact that Beijing, Seoul, and Washington remain the most important voices in the conversation over North Korea and its challenges to regional and global security. Nor is outreach to these three countries likely to have a significant mitigating effect on the sanctions regime against the Pyongyang regime.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Russian MFA