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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.
On February 11, North Korea’s ambassador to the Russian Federation Kim Hyun Joong held a meeting in Moscow with senior Russian lawmaker Konstantin Kosachev. Also present at the talks was Oleg Melnichenko, a member of the Russian parliament’s upper house and chairperson of a parliamentary group that fosters cooperation with the North Korean Supreme People’s Assembly.
The meeting between North Korea’s top diplomat in Moscow and Russian lawmakers largely focused on one of the topics common to Moscow-Pyongyang interactions, namely economic collaboration.
The gathering, however, also had a broader purpose, with Kosachev saying that the goal of Monday’s meeting was to pave the way for a visit by three key Russian parliamentary committees to the DPRK later this year.
He also took the opportunity to reiterate a position frequently found among Russian officials, namely that while Moscow had an obligation to adhere to UN sanctions against Pyongyang, Russia was under no mandate to adhere to unilateral sanctions against the North Korean government.
The fact that such a parliamentary meeting has occurred between North Korea and Russia is in and of itself unremarkable — exchanges between lawmakers are one of the staples of Russia’s relations with both the DPRK and South Korea.
Indeed, it was the chairperson of the Russian parliament’s upper chamber Valentina Matvienko, rather than a member of the Russian government’s executive branch, who represented the Russian Federation at the 70th anniversary celebrations of the DPRK’s establishment in September 2018.
Furthermore, professional exchanges between lawmakers have been key to Moscow’s cooperation with both Pyongyang and Seoul over the security situation on the Korean peninsula.
Only weeks ago, the Federation Council (Russian parliament’s upper house) extended an invitation to South Korean lawmakers to visit Moscow.
Vladimir Dzhabarov, deputy chair of the Federation Council’s foreign affairs committee, declared that Russian parliamentarians wholeheartedly supported the Moon Jae-in administration’s efforts at fostering inter-Korean reconciliation.
Aside from the meeting’s purpose facilitating future large-scale contacts between lawmaking organs, Oleg Melnichenko’s professional functions also offer some key insights into how the Russian parliament can play a role in advancing Moscow’s interests regarding North Korea.
In addition to his duties in fostering ties between North Korean and Russian parliamentarians, Melnichenko is also the chair of the Committee on Federal Structure, Regional Policy, Local Government and Northern Affairs.
This particular committee, as the name implies, is tasked with a wide mandate. Its responsibilities extend across a range of issues such as regional development (within Russia), natural resource management, and the development of some of the Russian Federation’s less economically robust regions.
Much of the DPRK’s relations with Russia (outside the context of the security crisis) occur at the regional level within Russia. Even at the federal level within Russia, a regionally-oriented ministry, the Ministry of Far Eastern Development, has been one of the engine’s driving Moscow-Pyongyang ties.
Provincial governments, meanwhile, have had a key role in both advancing Russia’s ties with the DPRK as well as managing consequences of international sanctions against North Korea.
In terms of economic cooperation with North Korea, specific regions of Russia, namely Amur, Khabarovsk and Primorye (all located in the Russian Far East), have traditionally been the most important in this regard.
Furthermore, provincial governments have been making plans to contend with the prohibition on extending work contracts to North Korean laborers under UN resolutions.
Professional exchanges between lawmakers have been key to Moscow’s cooperation with both Pyongyang and Seoul
The fact that the committee of which Melnichenko is head deals with natural resources is also notable, as trade in energy and other resources are crucial to Moscow and Pyongyang’s plans for economic cooperation. Second to (or perhaps neck-in-neck with) the ongoing Korean security crisis is trilateral economic cooperation between the DPRK, Russia and South Korea.
As mentioned above, Melnichenko’s committee is specifically dedicated to affairs occurring in the northern regions of Russia.
Although at first glance this would seem to have little to do with North Korea, it is important to remember that one of the key policy goals of the South Korean government’s New Northern Policy is cooperation with Russia over logistics and trade in the Arctic.
This particular sphere of cooperation would largely occur in the maritime sphere, yet the New Northern Policy depends heavily on inducing North Korea for its overland access from South Korea into Russian territory.
Thus any overland connections between South Korea and Russia’s northernmost territories would inevitably require North Korean participation.
Aside from economics, Melnichenko’s committee is also dedicated to improving the quality of life in some of the lesser developed areas of Russia.
This particular group of lawmakers, therefore could also be uniquely positioned to advance yet another facet of DPRK-Russia ties, namely humanitarian aid provisions.
During Monday’s meeting in Moscow, Konstantin Kosachev stated that the Russian Federation would continue to humanitarian assistance to the DPRK to the fullest extent possible.
The fact that humanitarian aid is under discussion hints that the committee could also be preparing for extending the coordination of provisions for North Korea’s humanitarian situation.
Indeed, in the context of DPRK-Russia ties, humanitarian aid cannot be entirely separated from economic considerations.
The humanitarian state of affairs in the DPRK has recently been one of the main points of reference with which Russian officials have called for economic sanctions to be mitigated.
Although, in Moscow’s view, sanctions exacerbate North Korea’s humanitarian situation, punitive economic measures also undermine Russia’s ability to pursue economic projects with the DPRK.
The details of the planned visit by Russian lawmakers to the DPRK remain unclear. Nevertheless, this week’s meeting offers observers a chance to gain perspective on how the Russian parliament may use its position to advance Moscow’s ties to the DPRK.
The Federation Council’s foreign affairs committee would seem to be the logical engine of developing DPRK-Russia ties between lawmakers.
Oleg Melnichenko’s position both in charge of developing relations between North Korean and Russian lawmakers, as well as advancing Russia’s domestic economic interests, indicates where Moscow’s priorities with the DPRK lie.
Even as security is a key goal for the Kremlin, stability in Korea is not an end in and of itself, but is a prerequisite to the fulfillment of Moscow’s commercial interests.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Federation Council of the Russian Federal Assembly