Pyongyang’s relationships with the great powers have in many ways been front and center at the onset of the new year.
Speculation over the “when” and “where” for a second summit between the American and North Korean leadership has been ongoing, interrupted only by Kim Jong Un’s fourth meeting with Xi Jinping. Kim Yong Chol’s visit to the U.S., furthermore, has propelled conjecture over the immediate future of Pyongyang-Washington relations.
Trying to gauge the year ahead in the trans-national dynamics of the Korean security deadlock is futile at best. Developments within the first weeks of 2019, however, underscore key elements of the great powers and their positions relative to North Korea.
Whereas China and the U.S. have undertaken important steps in partially setting the tone for this year, Russia has been operating in a relatively low-profile mode for the past several months.
Beijing and Moscow have long formed an informal but real political bloc in the Korea crisis, arguably in support of the DPRK. Few if any doubt that the influence of the great powers on Korean security is inescapable, and that China’s clout in Korean security outweighs Russia’s by far.
Indeed, former ROK prime minister Lee Hong-koo recently expressed hope that Beijing and Washington could continue cooperating on the DPRK’s denuclearization, especially given China and the U.S.’s status as permanent members of the UN Security Council.
The Kremlin is bound to continue feeling it is missing valuable opportunities
ALL QUIET ON THE RUSSIAN FRONT
Recently, there has been little activity on the traditionally robust front of Sino-Russian cooperation regarding Korean security.
Since the trilateral summit between China, the DPRK, and Russia held in Moscow last October, Beijing and Moscow have not conducted any major meetings over Korean security, nor does it appear that Chinese and Russian foreign affairs officials have held any phone conversations regarding the Korean peninsula.
A temporary lull in Sino-Russian collaboration over Korea, however, doesn’t signal any major shifts in the Kremlin’s leverage. Of course, witnessing senior DPRK leadership shuttling between Beijing and Washington, the Kremlin is bound to continue feeling it is missing valuable opportunities.
Yet even as the Kremlin would prefer to enjoy a greater measure of effectiveness in the current standoff than it currently does, Moscow may also be of the opinion that the peaceful resolution of the Korean security dilemma is in and of itself more important that the Russian government having an outsized role in realizing that goal.
Moscow’s standing on the Korean peninsula, despite North Korea’s current focus on China and the U.S., may have recently gotten a recent shot in the arm, with the DPRK’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs appointing a new director of its department in charge of relations with Russia.
There is scant information about the new director, Kan Song Ho. Russian ambassador to the DPRK Alexander Matsegora, however noted Kan’s extensive experience regarding Russia, including fluency in the language and a vast network of contacts within the Russian Federation.
Kan and Matsegora will apparently work together to mark the 70th anniversary of the signing of the Agreement on Economic and Cultural Cooperation between North Korea and the USSR, inked in March of 1949.
Moscow’s standing on the Korean peninsula… may have recently gotten a recent shot in the arm
To be sure, other countries – including North Korea itself – have not failed to continue dialoguing with Russia over Korean security.
Last week Alexander Matsegora met with Choe Son Hui, during which time they addressed mutual concerns over regional security.
During the meeting with Moscow’s top envoy, Choe stated that the course of the DPRK’s foreign policy would continue in line with Kim Jong Un’s New Year speech. Furthermore, the two sides – in addition to questions of security – also discussed Kim Jong Un’s most recent trip to China.
In mid-December of last year, Russia and South Korea held talks in Seoul over the nuclear impasse. The discussions were reported to have been part of the ROK’s efforts to foster continued bilateral dialogue between both North Korea and Seoul as well as between the DPRK and Washington.
That same month, Russian deputy foreign minister Igor Morgulov held a telephone conversation with Kent Härstedt, a senior Swedish foreign ministry official for Korean affairs. Härstedt and Morgulov’s conversation centered around a host of political and diplomatic issues in Northeast Asia, of which the North Korean nuclear crisis was but one.
The Kremlin’s dearth of substantive influence in Korea notwithstanding, Russia’s permanent membership on the UN Security Council still gives it a leg up in one of the most essential aspects of Korea-related diplomacy – sanctions. Russian officials, in fact have taken advantage of the lull in Pyongyang’s provocative activities to call for a reduction in punitive economic measures.
Oleg Burmistrov, who serves as the Kremlin’s ambassador-at-large for nuclear affairs, recently declared that given the fact North Korea has refrained from recent nuclear or ballistic missile tests, sanctions against Pyongyang should be reduced.
In late December of last year, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov expressed hope that countries with unilateral sanctions against Pyongyang would ease such economic measures.
Lavrov touched upon such possibilities as greater inter-Korean cooperation as well as opening up possibilities for North Korean laborers interested in working abroad.
Russia’s President also expressed a similar sentiment to Moon Jae-in. In a conversation late last year with the ROK’s president, Vladimir Putin stated that the time has come to loosen sanctions against the DPRK in exchange for Pyongyang’s compliance with international demands.
The Kremlin has been maintaining subtle engagement with the two Koreas
President Moon reportedly responded that the Kremlin should use whatever leverage it has to accelerate North Korean denuclearization.
ENGAGEMENT PAR EXCELLENCE
Against the backdrop of Beijing and Washington taking up looming positions under the klieg lights over the Korean peninsula, the Kremlin has been maintaining subtle engagement with the two Koreas.
All the while, Moscow is pushing for economic conditions that are not only more favorable to Pyongyang, but to greater multilateral cooperation.
Whether or not Moscow will continue pursuing a back seat course in its Korea-related diplomacy this year in the pursuit of security on the Korean peninsula remains to be seen.
Depending on how the sanctions regime against Pyongyang develops, ultimately, Russia may get what it wants regarding Korea, even with a low profile compared with China and the U.S.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: KCNA
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