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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.
No stranger to the Russian capital, North Korean First Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Choe Son Hui paid an official visit to Moscow from November 19-22 for a series of meetings with top Russian diplomats. Accompanying Choe was Im Chon Il, a vice foreign minister responsible for Russian affairs.
Igor Morgulov, a deputy foreign minister in charge of Russia’s Asia-Pacific affairs, stated that the purpose of Choe’s visit to Moscow was to conduct strategic dialogue with Russia on a range of bilateral as well as regional issues.
Russia’s vice defense minister Alexander Fomin also participated in discussions between Choe and the Russian Federation’s top diplomatic leadership.
Fomin’s presence at a primarily diplomatic summit was likely due to the fact that a prospective meeting between North Korea’s defense minister No Kwang Chol and his Russian opposite number Sergei Shoigu, anticipated to potentially take place by the end of October, didn’t materialize.
On her second day in Moscow, Choe convened with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, who described North Korea-Russia relations as having reached a “golden age” and vowed continued strategic cooperation.
The supposed golden age, however, while perhaps existing at the bilateral level, is tempered by more sobering realities in the Korean peninsula’s security environment.
Choe’s most recent trip to the Russian capital comes a month after chairman of the Supreme People’s Assembly Park Thae Song participated in talks in Moscow with members of the Russian senate. At that time the two sides reaffirmed their resolve to cooperate on a scope of issues at the regional and international level.
While Choe Son Hui’s so-called “strategic dialogue” with Russian diplomats could be seen as a logical follow-up on last month’s legislative meeting, North Korea’s first vice foreign minister arrived in the Russian capital at a time of mixed highs and lows for the DPRK and the Russian Federation’s mutual interests.
Pyongyang will undoubtedly continue seeking Russian diplomatic support as talks with Washington yield little progress. As for the Kremlin, although there have been some positive developments for Russia’s interests on the Korean peninsula, the stalling of diplomatic talks between the DPRK and the U.S. is a major setback.
The lack of progress in denuclearization talks appears to be the motivating factor in the most recent high-level summit between North Korean and Russian diplomats.
Igor Morgulov is one of the principal figures in Russia’s relations with North Korea, given his role as Russia’s vice foreign minister for Asia-Pacific affairs. Nevertheless, Choe Son Hui’s visit to Moscow reportedly came at the behest of Vladimir Titov.
Titov, who also holds the rank of deputy foreign minister, is responsible for Russia’s European affairs.
The most likely reason why a Russian foreign ministry official responsible for Europe would invite Choe is because of recent developments in Moscow’s diplomatic strategy regarding North Korean security affairs.
At the recently-concluded Moscow Nonproliferation Conference, the Russian government expressed interest in resolving the Korean security crisis via the P5+1 format.
Following the nonproliferation summit in Moscow, Russian diplomats participated in a closed-door meeting with the European members of the P5+1 – France, Germany and the United Kingdom – to discuss sanctions against the DPRK.
Up to the present, the Russian government has considered the lack of North Korean ICBM tests, the dismantling of the Punggye-ri nuclear site, and Pyongyang’s direct engagement with the leadership of South Korea and the United States as positive steps toward the fulfillment of the Sino-Russian “roadmap” to Korean peace unveiled in 2017.
That roadmap proposes a staged approach to ending the Korean security crisis, starting with a halt in North Korean long-range missile tests in exchange for the cancellation of joint ROK-U.S. exercises.
Beijing and Moscow, according to a fact sheet from the Russian foreign ministry, have since the beginning of 2019 been developing an action plan for Korean peace that dovetails with the Sino-Russian roadmap.
North Korea’s first vice foreign minister arrived in the Russian capital at a time of mixed highs and lows
The Sino-Russian action plan takes a multi-pronged approach to the question of Korean security. In an official statement on the action plan, Lavrov outlined four focus areas that needed to be addressed: defense, economics, humanitarian and political affairs.
The idea behind having several different tracks by which to approach the peace process is so that the process as a whole does not become stalled if progress in one specific area stalls.
In relation to both the economic and humanitarian aspects of the action plan, Morgulov asserted that the time had come for gradual sanctions relief for the DPRK.
Despite the DPRK’s continued missile tests, Morgulov declared that the missiles the DPRK has test-fired in recent years were not long-range, and thus not as threatening to regional security as some of the North’s previously-tested weapons.
Moscow’s desire to see a reduction in South Korea-U.S. military drills has been partially fulfilled, which could leave the impression that it is showing a degree of flexibility in the conditions it wishes to see realized as part of its roadmap proposal.
Nevertheless, the Kremlin has practical reasons for declaring that sufficient diplomatic progress has been made regarding the DPRK, namely so as to have grounds to call for sanctions relief toward Pyongyang.
Approximately one month remains before Russia must be in full compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 2397, which requires countries with North Korean guest workers to repatriate all DPRK citizens by December 2019.
The Sino-Russian action plan takes a multi-pronged approach to the question of Korean security
Allegations continue to emerge of Russian authorities using visa loopholes to provide North Korean citizens with work opportunities, although, in recent days there have been reports that train tickets for trains traveling from Russia to North Korea have been sold out for the year, which some have linked to the sanctions deadline.
Choe’s visit comes as 2019 draws to a close with little to show for the series of high-level direct contact between Pyongyang and Washington. The most recent interaction between North Korea and U.S. officials (aside from a brief chat at the Moscow Nonproliferation Conference) was an unsuccessful meeting in Stockholm last October.
Moscow allegedly attempted to set up a structured meeting between North Korean and U.S. officials at the Moscow Nonproliferation Conference in early November, but this fell through.
And amid speculation that Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump may attempt to hold a third summit before the year’s end, Pyongyang has now made it unequivocally clear that this was unlikely. Just before Choe Son Hui’s voyage to Moscow, senior North Korean foreign ministry official Kim Kye Gwan declared that Pyongyang was no longer interested in talks with Washington.
Choe Son Hui reaffirmed this point in Moscow in response to comments from U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Steve Biegun, who indicated that Washington remained open to continued discussions with Pyongyang.
The Kremlin, for its part, appears concerned at the current trajectory of DPRK-U.S. negotiations.
Russian deputy foreign minister Igor Morgulov called upon the DPRK and the U.S. to resume talks at a press conference in Moscow. Morgulov alluded to a declaration Kim Jong Un had made warning of negative consequences if no major breakthroughs were reached by the beginning of 2020.
Choe Son Hui’s visit to the Russian capital for strategic talks comes five years to the month to a visit she made that led to several important developments in DPRK-Russia bilateral ties. Although Moscow-Pyongyang relations have strengthened since then, the Korean diplomatic and security environment has developed in a mix of positive and negative for both countries.
As upbeat as Moscow’s assessment of their relationship is, the anticipated “golden age” may be hamstrung by negative extenuating realities.
A solid relationship with Pyongyang is cold comfort to a Russian government eager for the DPRK and the U.S. to remain at the negotiating table, something with in which the North has grown visibly uninterested.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation