Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov arrived in Pyongyang on Thursday to meet with his opposite number, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho. Lavrov also met with dictator Kim Jong-un and invited him to visit Moscow for a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“We welcome contacts between North and South Korea, as well as between North Korea and the United States,” Lavrov said after his meeting with Ri.
He urged all parties involved in negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program to “fully realize their responsibility for preventing the failure of such an important but fragile process.”
Russia has maintained solid relations with North Korea – solid enough to help the North Koreans illegally evade the strongest U.N. sanctions – and seems interested in displacing China as Pyongyang’s patron and protector. Lavrov mentioned Moscow’s desire to pursue joint North-South economic projects on the Korean peninsula if relations between the two Koreas continue to improve.
“There was a substantive exchange of views on the situation surrounding the Korean Peninsula, with an emphasis on deepening coordination of efforts aimed at finding a political and diplomatic settlement to the entire range of issues in the subregion,” said a statement issued by Lavrov’s office after he met with Kim Jong-un.
The meeting between Lavrov and Kim was unusually open, with reporters taking photos throughout the conversation. According to Russia’s TASS news service, Lavrov was the first top Russian official to meet personally with Kim since he assumed the dictatorship.
“I highly value the fact that Putin’s administration strictly opposes U.S. dominance,” Kim told Lavrov. “You strictly oppose, and we are always ready to conduct negotiations and a profound exchange of opinions with the Russian side on this issue.”
“I think your visit shows how much attention the Russian leadership and President Putin pay to the further development and strengthening of our relations,” Kim added.
Contrary to the Trump administration’s stance on denuclearization, Lavrov called for sanctions against North Korea to be lifted before a serious effort to eliminate the nuclear program is made.
“How to move to this, it is a question of the art of negotiators, but this cannot be done in one fell swoop,” he said. “Therefore, there should be stages and counter movement at each of these stages.”
This is not much different from China’s advice on how to proceed, but it is completely at odds with the Trump administration’s conviction that exchanging sanctions relief for incremental progress toward denuclearization will end with the same Lucy-and-the-football scam North Korea has invariably pulled in the past.
It may cheer the Russians and Chinese to learn that President Trump at least entertained the possibility of holding multiple summits to work out the details of denuclearization on Thursday, although he did not indicate any willingness to grant North Korea incremental concessions for taking steps in the right direction.
“I want it to be meaningful, It doesn’t mean it gets all done at one meeting. Maybe you have to have a second or a third. And maybe we’ll have none,” Trump said of his scheduled meeting with Kim Jong-un in Singapore on June 12.
A State Department official added that if the summit is to succeed, “the North Koreans have to do things that they have not done before.”