The official reaction from Moscow to last week’s summit in Hanoi has been notably reserved, while in the background of the uncertain finish to last week’s convocation in Hanoi there have been several promising developments in the trajectory of the Kremlin’s Korea policy.
In her regular Friday briefing on March 1, Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova appeared hesitant to comment in detail about the summit. Nevertheless, the Russian foreign ministry expressed a cautiously positive attitude regarding the summit, stating that the process toward reaching a mutually-agreeable outcome for all sides would require time.
The foreign ministry’s official statement also made reference to the hope that any resolution to the security crisis would involve “known Sino-Russian initiatives,” most likely a reference to the “road map” that Beijing and Moscow have been pushing since 2017.
The United States has, of late, been giving particular attention to the Russian Federation’s role in the Korean security crisis. Prior to the DPRK-U.S. leadership gathering in Vietnam, senior State Department official for Korean affairs Mark Lambert traveled to Moscow for meetings with Russian officials and Korea experts.
Shortly after the summit, Lambert returned to Moscow and met with Russia’s special envoy for nuclear affairs, Oleg Burmistrov, where they vowed to continue cooperation between Moscow and Washington over the crisis in spite of a clear-cut upward trajectory after Hanoi.
Kim Jong Un has begun giving special consideration to cooperation with Russia
The summit’s aftermath also provided another opportunity for the Kremlin to bring up the topic of Kim Jong Un visiting the Russian Federation, an issue not-infrequently discussed in Russian policy circles.
Immediately after the second round of direct DPRK-U.S. leadership talks, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitri Peskov announced that plans for Kim Jong Un to visit Russia were in the works, although the specific details had not as of yet been hammered out.
Amid the hazy ending of the Hanoi summit, the Kremlin implied that now is a more pressing time than ever for Kim Jong Un to visit the Russian Federation, in order for Pyongyang to shore up as much diplomatic support for itself as possible in the uncertain months ahead.
No matter the developments surrounding the security crisis, nothing appears to be stopping the progression of DPRK-Russia cooperation at the bilateral level.
On March 6, the ninth meeting of the DPRK-Russia intergovernmental commission on trade, economic, scientific and technical cooperation opened in Moscow.
Representing the Russian government was Minister of Russian Far East Development Alexander Kozlov, while Kim Yong Jae, Minister of External Economic Relations, represented Pyongyang, with North Korean ambassador Kim Hyung Joon also present.
During the 9th intergovernmental commission, the two sides discussed logistics as well as problems surrounding UN sanctions prohibiting North Korean guest workers from applying for or renewing work contracts for jobs in Russia.
Trilateral cooperation with the DPRK and Russia is an essential component of Seoul’s New Northern Policy
The meeting comes at a time when, according to one senior official from the Korean Workers’ Party, Kim Jong Un has begun giving special consideration to cooperation with Russia.
Shortly after the announcement that collaboration with Russia was at the top of the North Korean leadership’s agenda, Russian media agency Interfax reported that the North Korean and Russian governments were making plans to augment the volume of their bilateral trade within the confines of both UN as well as unilateral American sanctions.
Sanctions against the DPRK have in fact been one of the major stumbling blocks to prospects of an increased DPRK-Russia economic partnership.
The Korean Workers’ Party statement on the North Korean government’s consideration over closer cooperation with the Russian Federation, in fact contained a statement claiming that the North Korean government and people admired Moscow’s defiance in the face of international sanctions over Russian activities in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.
In spite of the damage sanctions have done to DPRK-Russia trade relations, the Kremlin has striven to be in compliance with sanctions, at least in terms of having domestic statutes on the books.
One example of this is a Russian government order in response to UN sanctions laid against Pyongyang, restrictions on North Korean banking activities within the Russian Federation will likely complicate the types of financial activities the two countries hope to undertake.
As Kim Jong Un is apparently giving extra attention to the idea of deepening cooperation with Russia, the South Korean government is also eager to involve both the DPRK and Russia in an economic framework.
During his national address on the 100th anniversary of the March 1st independence movement, ROK president Moon Jae-in touted the development of energy cooperation in Northeast Asia. The Russian Federation would invariably be the engine of such collaboration, especially in terms of supplying materials.
Moon declared that an overland transit corridor was preferable to maritime routes. More specifically, Moon Jae-in mentioned using rail lines to connect the Korean peninsula to Eurasian suppliers.
That the South Korean president would prefer territorial transit to maritime routes is somewhat curious, as there are several ports in the Russian Far East connected to the Russian interior by rail, including Nakhodka, Vanino, and Vladivostok.
Given the seemingly insurmountable hurdles inherent in connecting Russia and the two Koreas via territorial infrastructure at present (namely in terms of sanctions as well as political risk), President Moon appears to be thinking not so much in what is more immediately convenient for Korean energy needs, but rather in terms of the potential peace dividend of such economic interconnectivity.
Indeed, trilateral cooperation with the DPRK and Russia is an essential component of Seoul’s New Northern Policy, which is based not exclusively on trade, but also has a strong political aspect as a prospectively stabilizing force.
Potentially bolstering the course of increased inter-Korean cooperation with Russia is the recent appointment of Lee Sok-bae as the Seoul’s new ambassador to the Russian Federation. Lee possesses extensive experience in the post-Soviet space, including fluency in Russian as well as stints at both South Korea’s embassy in Kazakhstan and at the ROK consulate in Vladivostok.
Amid the cloud of uncertainly hanging over the future of U.S.-North Korea negotiations, for the Russian Federation things appear to be largely business as usual
In the aftermath of Hanoi, the Russian Federation may not have gotten the outcome it hoped for. Nevertheless, there are positive signs for Moscow from several corners of the Korean security quandary and beyond.
Washington appears eager not to let tensions in other aspects of its relations with Moscow undermine prospects for exchanging views on Northeast Asian security. Seoul, meanwhile, continues to push for collaboration with the Russian Federation that includes the DPRK in a concrete manner.
Aside from how Seoul and Washington view the Kremlin’s role on the Korean peninsula, the DPRK and Russia appear to be continuing to press forward in their bilateral ties.
Whether or not Kim Jong Un’s apparent special consideration regarding partnership with Russia is part of an overall sense that the DPRK needs Russia more than ever in the Korean security crisis is uncertain.
Nevertheless, amid the cloud of uncertainly hanging over the future of U.S.-North Korea negotiations, for the Russian Federation things appear to be largely business as usual after Hanoi. Given the Kremlin’s sensitivity to negative developments in Korea, inching forward one small step is much preferred to two steps back in the wrong direction.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Russian MFA
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