Russia Sends Foreign Minister to North Korea Prior to Planned Kim Talks with U.S.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov speaks during a press conference in Moscow on April 10, 2018
AFP Kirill KUDRYAVTSEV

After speaking with North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho in Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that his government supports denuclearization talks between North Korea and the United States.

Lavrov also announced that he has accepted an invitation to visit Pyongyang, presumably before any possible meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un could occur. Lavrov did not give any indication that a meeting between Kim and Russian President Vladimir Putin could be in the works.

“We welcome the gradual normalization of the situation and the cessation of mutual threats, and the readiness for contacts between North Korea and the United States,” Lavrov said after the meeting.

Lavrov said Russia is ready to work on trilateral trade and scientific projects with North and South Korea.

“Russia is invariably set to develop good neighborly relations with North Korea. October will mark 70 years since our countries established diplomatic relations and now our colleagues are agreeing on a program of measures to celebrate this jubilee,” he said.

Ri did not address reporters after talking with Lavrov but, before the meeting, he obliquely suggested that North Korea and Russia find themselves allied against sanctions and diplomatic pressure from the Western world, so Pyongyang and Moscow should grow closer. His remarks were of particular interest given speculation that Russia is looking to replace China as North Korea’s patron, taking advantage of cooling relations between Beijing and Pyongyang, as well as alleged personal animosity between Kim and the Chinese Communist elite.

“The current situation on the Korean peninsula and around your country, and the overall international political situation, require our two countries to further strengthen friendly cooperation, to increase our strategic communication and coordination of action between our countries,” said Ri.

The North Korean foreign minister also met with the secretary of the Russian Security Council to discuss North Korea’s diplomatic opening to South Korea. Lavrov said that Russia supports a proposed meeting between Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

CNN portrays Ri’s visit to Moscow as part of North Korea’s “steroid diplomacy” as it scrambles to escape its current defiant isolation.

The punishing weight of sanctions under the Trump administration may have finally eroded North Korea’s “Juche” ideology of dogged self-reliance, from which the outside world is a frivolous distraction.

Among other things, the sanctions illustrated just how dependent North Korea is upon support from China. Beijing’s willingness to get serious about reining in Pyongyang and support U.N. sanctions was clearly devastating. Several of CNN’s analysts suggested that Trump’s “unpredictability” and the appointment of hawkish officials and advisors, such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton, may have further unsettled the North Koreans.

The result is a burst of diplomacy that could be fairly described as frantic, given the preceding years of isolation. Much of that diplomacy appears to be oriented around getting Russia and a somewhat nonplussed China to stand in North Korea’s corner as Kim talks with the United States, South Korea, and possibly Japan.

China and Russia will do it because they both have security interests at stake on the Korean peninsula and because they both consider it vital to be seen as major players in the negotiating process. Russia has the added incentive of expanding its influence at China’s expense and positioning Putin as a new colossus bestriding the world alongside Chinese President Xi Jinping.

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