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Colin Zwirko is an NK News correspondent based in Seoul.
U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun will travel to Moscow this week to discuss the ongoing negotiations with Pyongyang, the State Department announced on Tuesday.
The meetings come at the tail end of a series of high-profile contacts in recent months between Russian and North Korean officials discussing increasing economic cooperation and ways of getting around UN sanctions.
It also comes as Russian and South Korean media are reporting on a potential first summit between Kim Jong Un and President Vladimir Putin in the Russian Far East city of Vladivostok next week.
Biegun “will travel to Moscow April 17-18 to meet with Russian officials to discuss efforts to advance the final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea,” according to the U.S. State Department.
No further details were provided, though a Russian foreign ministry source on Tuesday told Sputnik News that Biegun “will arrive [in Moscow] to take part in regular consultations with Igor Morgulov.”
It will be Biegun’s first meeting with Morgulov since January, when the deputy foreign minister traveled to Washington.
There, the two sides discussed issues on the Korean peninsula and promised to “continue to build up the Russian-American dialogue on the Korean direction in both bilateral and multilateral formats,” according to a report from the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Biegun last traveled to Moscow in October to discuss North Korea’s denuclearization with Morgulov and deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov.
While the agenda for the meetings in Moscow this week has not been officially released, it is likely the U.S. will press its position on maintaining strict UN sanctions enforcement in the face of pressure from Pyongyang to provide relief.
During talks in Pyongyang with a visiting delegation of Russian lawmakers earlier this week, North Korea reportedly asked Moscow to continue hiring laborers despite the requirement they be repatriated by the end of this year.
Artyom Lukin, an International Relations scholar at the Far Eastern Federal University in Vladivostok, told NK News that “Pyongyang has been insistently pushing Moscow to resume large-scale imports of guest workers from the DPRK” in recent months.
“On the one hand, it would like to do a favor to Kim Jong Un, whose visit to Russia is likely to take place soo,” he added.
“On the other hand, Russia cannot allow North Korean workers into Russia without breaching the UNSC decisions for which it itself voted in 2017 as a UNSC permanent member.”
The possible upcoming Kim-Putin summit may be another point of discussion in Biegun’s discussions this week, as the U.S. seeks to understand how growing Russia-DPRK ties may affect its negotiations with Pyongyang.
South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported on Monday that according to anonymous sources, the meeting may occur before April 26 in Vladivostok.
Various media then reported early Wednesday that a flight by North Korean national carrier Air Koryo was scheduled to arrive in the Far East city on April 23, outside the regular Monday/Friday schedule – possibly carrying security personnel or other summit participants.
This was reportedly denied by Air Koryo representatives in a phone call with RIA Novosti, though the existence of the additional flight itself was confirmed.
An official with the Vladivostok Airport told the news agency it was “an ordinary passenger flight” independently organized by the airline.
A similar situation occurred last July when a number of additional Air Koryo flights – including the type Kim Jong Un uses to transport his armored limousine overseas – landed in Vladivostok on the same day, raising speculation it may be in relation to a possible visit by the North Korean leader.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters Tuesday that while he could “confirm that preparations for the meeting are underway, we have been talking about it for quite a while,” he “can’t provide any specific information at the moment” on its schedule.
“As soon as there is full clarity on the date and place of the meeting, we will inform you,” he said in comments carried by TASS, appearing to suggest no final schedule had yet been decided.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs