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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.
With relations between the DPRK and the Russian Federation on a completely even keel following the detention of a Russian fishing crew by North Korean authorities, Russian vice foreign minister Igor Morgulov visited Pyongyang from August 14-16.
In North Korea, Morgulov met with senior officials from the DPRK foreign ministry, including Choe Son Hui and Im Chon Il.
The two sides discussed their hopes for a diplomatic solution to the Korean security crisis and expressed resolve to continue the upward trajectory of DPRK-Russia relations following the Kim-Putin summit in April of this year.
Coinciding with the Russian vice foreign minister’s journey to Pyongyang, Russian President Vladimir Putin relayed a message to Kim Jong Un expressing hopes for a continued strengthening of DPRK-Russia ties following their meeting on April 24.
One day prior to his most recent trip to the DPRK, Igor Morgulov headed to Beijing for talks with his Chinese counterpart Luo Zhaohui. There, according to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the two sides discussed the current situation on the Korean Peninsula, among other issues.
Morgulov’s meeting with Chinese officials prior to traveling to Pyongyang underscores the continued Sino-Russian collaboration over North Korean affairs.
Aside from a mutual vision for a diplomatic solution to the standoff over Pyongyang’s security provocations, shared differences with the United States form a common denominator that unites Beijing and Moscow.
Igor Morgulov’s visit to Pyongyang occurred amid speculation that Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump may hold yet another round of talks on the DPRK nuclear crisis.
Indeed, Morgulov has been Moscow’s point man in ensuring Russia has a role amidst DPRK-U.S. negotiations.
At the beginning of this year, Morgulov traveled to Washington for talks. There, he said that Washington requested Moscow’s help in pursuing the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
Since October of last year, he has held several consultations with the U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Steve Biegun, who may soon leave that post to replace John Huntsman as ambassador to Russia.
Morgulov and Biegun, in fact, met just before Kim Jong Un’s summit with Vladimir Putin in April 2019 and held phone consultations weeks after the Kim-Putin meeting.
Prior to his trip to Pyongyang last week, Morgulov’s last known meeting with senior DPRK officials was with the North Korean charge d’affaires in Moscow while the Xiang Hai Lin 8 was being held. Although the resolution of the Xiang Hai Lin 8 incident was their top priority, the two sides also discussed the current situation on the Korean Peninsula.
Approximately one month prior to North Korea’s detention of the Russian crew, Morgulov held consultations in the Russian capital with Im Chon Il.
Morgulov’s most recent visit to the DPRK underscores the Kremlin’s track of moving slowly but steadily
Morgulov’s most recent visit to the Chinese and North Korean capitals highlights the core of the Kremlin’s strategy for North Korea: shore up bilateral ties with Pyongyang while maintaining coordination over Korean security with the PRC.
One of the core issues in trilateral coordination between China, the DPRK, and Russia is a push for eliminating sanctions against North Korea.
In October 2018, during a meeting between the Chinese, North Korean, and Russian vice foreign ministers in Moscow, all three parties agreed that they were in favor of sanctions relief being concurrent with progress in North Korean denuclearization.
In February of this year, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov declared before the UN Security Council that the time had come to either loosen or remove punitive economic measures in return for North Korea’s moratorium on nuclear testing.
Five months later Russia’s permanent representative at the UN, Vasily Nebenzya, iterated the joint Sino-Russian position that the time had come to partially lift punitive economic measures against Pyongyang as a result of the latter’s ostensible steps toward denuclearization.
At that time, however, Nebenzya also stated that prospects for sanctions relief for the DPRK were currently remote, a situation that he blamed primarily on the United States.
Nebenzya’s words echo a sentiment expressed last March by Yevgeny Kim, a Korea expert at the Far East Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
Kim roundly blamed the U.S.’s continued pressure on the DPRK through sanctions as the primary culprit for the lack of progress in North Korea-U.S. nuclear talks.
Yet even as Russia’s political and expert class appear to be in relative unison that U.S. policies pose significant challenges to Russian interests, Washington appears to be less united on the issue of how American interests on the Korean Peninsula coincide or clash with those of the Russian Federation.
Policymakers on Capitol Hill have taken an increasingly hard line against what they perceive to be a Russian challenge to U.S. interests on the Korean peninsula.
Likewise, American lawmakers have maintained a stance toward human rights in the DPRK that diverges significantly from Moscow’s position.
The Russian government is playing a long game in Korea
Further down Washington’s Pennsylvania Avenue, however, a different attitude prevails.
Morgulov’s meeting in Pyongyang comes at a time when U.S. President Donald Trump appears to be shaking the foundations of long-standing U.S. policy in East Asia.
The U.S. President has not only failed to outright condemn North Korea’s recent catalog of missile tests, but appears to be placing stress on the ROK-U.S. alliance itself, particularly with his exorbitant financial demands from Seoul for the maintenance of the U.S.’s military presence in South Korea.
This plays well into Russia’s own national interests. Any weakness in the ROK-U.S. alliance serves Moscow’s foreign policy aims of diminishing the American military presence in Northeast Asia, which is often likened to an East Asian version of NATO in Russian political discourse.
In addition to underscoring the Russian strategy of increasing both bilateral ties with North Korea and coordinating with China multilaterally, Morgulov’s most recent visit to the DPRK underscores the Kremlin’s track of moving slowly but steadily to increase its influence on the Korean Peninsula.
The April 24 meeting between Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin may not have ended with a bang in and of itself. Yet just as Moscow’s interests in Korea have deep geopolitical roots spanning centuries, the Russian government is playing a long game in Korea.
In sum, Moscow is also practicing its own form of “strategic patience,” building up its standing slowly where it can, even if the results are not immediately visible.
Edited by James Fretwell and Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Russian embassy in the DPRK