Even in less eventful times, Russia tends to dislike being left out of the political dynamics of the North Korea crisis.
On May 30 the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a brief press release stating that foreign minister Sergei Lavrov would pay a visit to Pyongyang on May 31. The expected agenda for the summit included discussions over the most recent developments in Korea, as well as the overall state of DPRK-Russian bilateral relations.
Lavrov’s journey to Pyongyang comes less than two months after North Korean foreign minister Ri Yong Ho’s visit to the Russian capital. Indeed, during that visit, the DPRK’s chief diplomat extended an invitation for a reciprocal visit to the North Korean capital, although at that time there wasn’t even a vague indication of when it may take place.
The official announcement that Moscow’s top diplomat would visit the DPRK came quite suddenly and was subject to uncertainty: when asked about whether or not Lavrov would be visiting the DPRK, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov declined to answer, stating that such questions should be directed to the foreign ministry.
But Lavrov’s visit to the North Korean capital followed on the heels of a meeting between the deputy head of Russia’s foreign ministry, Mikhail Bogdanov, and the DPRK’s top envoy to Russia, Kim Hyun Joon.
The Russian foreign ministry’s statement following the meeting in Moscow used similar language as the press release announcing Lavrov’s official visit, stating that the two sides “exchanged opinions” about the current situation on the Korean peninsula.
In addition to the meeting between North Korean and Russian diplomats earlier this week in Moscow, Russian president Vladimir Putin declared following the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum earlier this month that denuclearization could only be achieved in the DPRK under conditions of ironclad security guarantees for the Kim regime.
Putin added that North Korean denuclearization was a matter of practicality for Russia, given the fact that North Korea tested bombs at a site 190 kilometers from the Russian border.
During the DPRK-Russia foreign ministers’ summit in April, the two sides concentrated mostly on economic cooperation. This time around, Moscow and Pyongyang iterated their desire for trilateral economic cooperation with South Korea.
Ahead of the May 31 meeting, however, Sergei Lavrov asserted that Korean security would be on the top of the agenda.
In Lavrov’s words, Moscow would continue to push for a gradual, step-by-step denuclearization of the Korean peninsula in line with the Sino-Russian “road map” (which boils down to a reduction in North Korean nuclear activities in return for a halt on ROK-US combined military exercises).
Overall North Korea-Russia relations have received an injection of energy
STILL A MARGINAL PLAYER?
A greater emphasis on security during the May 31 summit makes sense, yet it does not somehow imply that the Russian Federation’s influence in questions over Korean security has received a shot in the arm.
Indeed, just ahead of his journey to the DPRK, Lavrov held a telephone conversation with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to discuss how to improve Russia-U.S. bilateral ties. The two top diplomats discussed issues in third countries such as Syria and Ukraine, but no substantial coverage of the North Korea crisis occurred.
The timing is notable: Lavrov was due to travel to Pyongyang the next day, and Pompeo has been at the forefront of recent U.S. diplomatic initiatives with the DPRK.
Overall North Korea-Russia relations, however, have received an injection of energy. Following his meeting with Ri Yong Ho, the Russian foreign minister met Kim Jong Un. The meeting marked the first time Kim had met with such a senior Russian official since taking power.
The DPRK’s leader praised Russia for “opposing U.S. hegemony.” The use of such ideological statements is notable, given that recent DPRK-Russia ties have been more utilitarian in nature, to date. Lavrov also extended an invitation to Kim Jong Un to visit Russia.
Kim Jong Un’s decision to meet with a Russian official at the ministerial level likely indicates that Pyongyang wants to gradually upgrade its ties with Russia in preparation for a state-level visit. This could be of great benefit for the Kremlin, particularly in making Moscow a more influential actor on the Korean peninsula.
For Moscow, the key to having a voice in security discussions is, as it long has been, cooperation with China. As Yevgeny Kim of Russia’s Far Eastern Institute recently asserted, Lavrov’s visit to Pyongyang made sense in the context of Kim Yong-chol’s recent voyages to both Beijing and New York.
For Kim Jong Un to visit to Russia would show that the Pyongyang leadership values the Russian government as a partner. Indeed, two recent visits by China may have proved to be a sore point for Russia, as Moscow may feel sidelined.
Eventually, Russia will want an East Asia (and specifically Korea) policy that doesn’t require it to piggyback on Beijing, a fact of which Kim is no doubt aware. A visit to Russia could send a message to the Chinese that they don’t hold complete prime of place in the DPRK’s partnerships.
In any case, the Kremlin’s securing such high-level meetings in North Korea ahead of the Kim-Trump summit, at least temporarily, boosts Moscow’s diplomatic prestige.
WHAT’S BEEN ACHIEVED
Long faced with the fact that is it is of marginal importance in multilateral diplomacy over Korea, Russia has achieved two outcomes.
By meeting before the June 12 summit, the Kremlin has shown that it is valuable enough to get the ear of both the DPRK’s leadership and its top foreign affairs officials at such a critical time.
Russia has taken a valuable opportunity to make sure that it remains active in multilateral diplomacy
Lavrov, however, also echoed Kremlin spokesperson Peskov’s earlier statement on Russia’s position toward the June 12 meeting, saying that the Kremlin would take a hands-off approach to the upcoming meeting between the American and North Korean leaders.
Whatever way events develop in the days leading up to, and following, the anticipated summit in Singapore, Russia has taken a valuable opportunity to make sure that it remains active in multilateral diplomacy.
The Lavrov-Ri and Kim-Lavrov summits might possibly have little noticeable effect on the course of events surrounding the Korea crisis, in part due to Russia’s unassuming position as well as its lack of real leverage.
Nevertheless, Moscow has positioned itself to have a stake in the outcome of peace and denuclearization talks.
Ultimately, much of the potential benefit for Russia will depend on how the unfolding of events coincides with Russian interests. In such a tight neighborhood as Northeast Asia, there is little more it is able to do.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs
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