Putting an end to several months of speculation, the Kremlin has announced that it is not expecting either Kim Jong Un or Moon Jae-in to attend this year’s Eastern Economic Forum (EEF) in Vladivostok.
Yury Ushakov, an aide to Russian president Vladimir Putin, announced that the upcoming Kim-Moon summit (the date for which has not yet been officially confirmed) will coincide with the EEF, and that Russia must therefore assume that neither Moon Jae-in nor Kim Jong Un will be present.
Prior to the announcement, plans had been in the works for Russia to host delegations from China, Japan, North Korea and South Korea. Commentators had noted that, minus the U.S., this would be a de facto gathering of the members of the former Six Party Talks.
The coincidence of the Eastern Economic Forum and the third inter-Korean summit is a case-in-point of one of the most difficult aspects of international diplomacy: scheduling. We cannot know for sure if Kim Jong Un would have attended the Eastern Economic Forum in the first place. Yet if he had wanted to, it’s a fair guess to say that Pyongyang and Seoul would have wanted to accommodate the EEF with their own bilateral meeting.
Whatever the reasons why the two Koreas have decided they must hold their next round of talks at the same time as the Eastern Economic Forum, it is a definite disappointment for Russia.
This will be the first time in two years that South Korea, with which Russia has pushed tirelessly for economic collaboration, will not be present. Former South Korean president Park Geun-hye initiated South Korea’s participation in the EEF in 2016, even as outreach to Russia was never a particularly strong aspect of her foreign policy. Moon Jae-in, in contrast got straight to work in calibrating ties with Russia shortly after taking office.
Moon’s absence from the summit, therefore, interrupts this trend. And although it’s not likely a major setback for Russia-South Korea bilateral ties, given the quite recent summit between Moon and Putin in Moscow, Kim Jong Un’s presence would of course have been not only be the first time the DPRK has participated in the EEF, but would also have been Kim Jong Un’s first trip to Russia.
Kim’s failure to participate in the Eastern Economic Forum this year has not put an end to the possibility that he will meet Russian president Vladimir Putin. On the contrary, serious discussion of the prospects of a Kim-Putin meeting have been raised nearly three months after the North Korean leader received an invitation to Russia from Putin, care of Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov. A bilateral discussion between the North Korean and Russian leaders may in fact be more productive for both sides than chatting on the sidelines of a multilateral forum.
The EEF, scheduled from September 11-13, will likely have multiple competing agendas, which would have made it difficult for either Moscow or Pyongyang to take full advantage of a senior-level meeting. A separate DPRK-Russia leadership summit, however, will have fewer distractions, and allow both Moscow and Pyongyang a chance to assert their independence in the midst of regional dynamics.
Kim and Moon’s absence from Vladivostok next month also represent a setback for prospective three-way economic cooperation between the DPRK, Russia, and South Korea
The absence of both the DPRK and South Korean leadership at the Forum nevertheless has two major implications, one for Moscow’s Korea policy, and one for inter-Korean relations as they pertain to the wider Northeast Asia region.
Russia has, of course, played a largely secondary role in the Korea crisis. Moscow has sought to reverse this state of affairs, attempting to use its underwhelming stature in Northeast Asian regional affairs to promote itself as an intermediary.
Hosting the North and South Korean leadership on Russian soil would have been a diplomatic coup for Moscow, and senior government officials as well as established scholars have long promoted the idea of Russia’s role as a dialogue broker in the Korea crisis.
In January of this year Leonid Slutsky, chairman of the foreign affairs committee in the Russian parliament’s lower house, proposed that Russia could act as an intermediary between the two Koreas in denuclearization talks. Likewise, both Russian researchers as well as the government have touted the ostensible potential for Moscow to foster dialogue between Pyongyang and Washington.
Even if nothing substantive came to fruition in terms of the inter-Korean peace process came from an inter-Korean meeting on the sidelines of the Eastern Economic Forum, Russia would have to its credit the right to say that it had hosted the North Korean and ROK leadership. It would perhaps be little more than symbolic, but it would be something to which no other third state with a vested interest in the outcome of the Korean security crisis could lay claim.
Moscow has not only missed a chance to act in a mediating position between the two Koreas for the sake of Russia’s own prestige: Kim and Moon’s absence from Vladivostok next month also represent a setback for prospective three-way economic cooperation between the DPRK, Russia, and South Korea.
Moscow’s hopes for three-way economic cooperation with Pyongyang and Seoul coincide with various policy positions among the three countries, such as South Korea’s “New Northern” initiative, Russia’s policy of inter-Korean “equidistance,” and Pyongyang’s hope to loosen sanctions (a goal that North Korea shares with Moscow).
Given the interconnectedness between trade issues and denuclearization, it is easy to conflate these separate agendas in any meeting between North Korea and regional actors. Recent research suggests, however that Moscow’s primary interests on the Korean peninsula are focused on economic considerations.
For Moscow to bring Pyongyang and Seoul together at a meeting focused specifically on trade and development issues would not only have potentially been a boon for Russia’s Korea policies. As the Forum would also likely have been focused more-or-less exclusively on economic considerations, it could have constituted the first time the Russian Federation did not have to work with the DPRK and South Korea on a separate basis.
There is no doubt that some of the key tenets of the Russian Federation’s prospective inter-Korean economic cooperation – including energy trade and infrastructure development – face a number of hurdles, not least of which are international sanctions.
To expect that the EEF would have provided a shot in the arm for collaboration between the two Koreas and Russia would perhaps be overkill. Nevertheless, the fact that neither one of the Korean governments will be present in Vladivostok cannot bode well for attempts at calibrating trilateral relations.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: KCNA
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