This week lawmakers from the Russian legislature’s upper house, the Federation Council (also occasionally referred to as the Senate) wrapped up a visit to Pyongyang for talks aimed at strengthening DPRK-Russia bilateral relations.
Among those representing the Russian government were Sergei Kislyak, who formerly served as Moscow’s ambassador to the U.S., and Oleg Melnicheko, chairperson of a regional development committee on the Federation Council.
A group of Russian legislators visiting the DPRK for a relatively extended period of time — five days in total — may appear to be setting the stage for major developments.
In late 2014 North Korean senior statesman Choe Ryong Hae spent five days in Moscow, shortly after which the DPRK declared 2015 would be a “year of friendship” with Russia.
Russian lawmakers, in particular, have recently taken up a critical role in shoring up Moscow’s ties with the DPRK. Just last month Oleg Melnichenko participated in a meeting involving Pyongyang’s top envoy to Moscow.
And in September last year it was the chairperson of the Federation Council, Valentina Matvienko, who represented Russia in Pyongyang during the 70th anniversary commemoration of Moscow-Pyongyang ties.
In Pyongyang the delegation of visiting Russian senators held discussions not only with some of their North Korean opposite numbers, but with government ministers as well. Among those present were North Korea’s minister for external trade Kim Jong Jae and vice foreign minister Im Chon Il.
The fact that the meeting took taken place so shortly after the Hanoi summit may leave the impression that the Korean security crisis was the driving force behind this week’s gathering.
Concurrent developments such as the DPRK’s apparent summoning of its ambassadors posted to key partners such as China and Russia back to Pyongyang would, ostensibly, support this thesis.
The significance of this week’s summit involving Russian senators in Pyongyang should not be underestimated. But a deeper look into the nature of the gathering reveals no particular sense that the DPRK’s bid to shore up ties with Russia in this context is related to the fog of uncertainty following Hanoi.
Indeed, the second Kim-Trump summit’s abrupt ending did not have any discernible effect on Russia’s standing on the Korean peninsula.
The lack of a clear connection between the Russian senators’ sojourn in the North Korean capital and the Hanoi summit’s aftermath, however, does not mean the Kremlin isn’t keeping its foot in the door on issues of Korean security.
Prior to the senators’ trip to Pyongyang, Sergei Vershinin, another one of the Kremlin’s vice foreign ministers, held talks on security with North Korean vice foreign minister Im Chon Il.
Around the time of the legislative gathering in North Korea, Lee Do-hoon, South Korea’s special envoy for Korean Peninsula peace and security issues met with one of Russia’s deputy foreign ministers Igor Morgulov in St. Petersburg.
Preceding this week’s summit in Pyongyang, Sergei Kislyak described North Korea as a “friendly country” and spoke of the need for Russia to reach out to the DPRK.
Economics was the dominant theme during this most recent gathering with Russian legislators and North Korean officials
In the context of North Korea-Russia relations, even if security takes a back seat to economics in any given discussion, trade and security are invariably linked, given not only the political risk potential violence poses to DPRK-Russia economic cooperation, but also the task of having to navigate the complexities of building commercial ties while taking care not to violate sanctions against North Korea.
Economics was the dominant theme during this most recent gathering with Russian legislators and North Korean officials. More specifically, the two sides carried out discussions over specific bilateral economic initiatives.
Among the projects discussed were the construction of a bridge between the DPRK and Russia, as well as establishing a trading house for the two countries to use.
The Russian delegation was quick to assure their North Korean interlocutors that projects would have the full backing of the Russian government. Furthermore, Russian senators were keen to state that all projects would occur without running afoul of UN sanctions.
In discussions over the implications sanctions exert on Moscow-Pyongyang ties, however, the Russian government is careful to distinguish its willingness to adhere to UN sanctions from any implications it is under obligation to obey those imposed unilaterally by the U.S. government.
Befitting his role as head of a Senate regional development committee, Oleg Melnichenko also emphasized the regional aspect of cooperation between the Russian Federation and North Korea.
Indeed, while DPRK-Russia relations occur primarily at the official level in Moscow and Pyongyang, for a country as geographically expansive as the Russian Federation, ties with North Korea invariably have a strong local element as well.
Russian provinces such as Amur, Khabarovsk and Primorye have been the mainstay of commercial ties between the two countries.
Furthermore in recent years the Russian Ministry of Far Eastern Economic Development, tasked with developing Russia’s Pacific territories, has been critical to Russia’s development of its ties with the DPRK.
Moving forward, Russian senators are hopeful that the cooperation between themselves and their North Korean colleagues can continue at a more substantive level.
Shortly after the opening of the North Korea-Russia legislators’ summit, Oleg Melnichenko announced that North Korean lawmakers had been invited for a reciprocal visit to Russia.
The specific purpose of the invitation was to spearhead the formation of a DPRK-Russia lawmakers’ group, which Valentina Matvienko had alluded to in the fall of 2018.
He also expressed hope that the recent parliamentary elections in North Korea would serve to strengthen DPRK-Russia ties.
This week’s gathering of legislators and ministers in the North Korean capital underscores one essential point regarding the DPRK’s relations with Russia: bilateral ties between the Kremlin and Pyongyang, even if focused on trade, will inevitably be shaped by the complexities of both the Korean security crisis and the related issue of sanctions, all of which go well beyond the scope of ties between the Kim regime and the Kremlin.
The strength of the ostensible North Korea-Russia friendship, therefore is but one element of the equation.Neither side will have an easy time pursuing their interests, even of Moscow-Pyongyang relations have recently been on the rebound.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Federation Council of the Russian Federal Assembly
Join the influential community of members who rely on NK News original news and in-depth reporting.
Subscribe to read the remaining 1095 words of this article.