Trump Says Russia ‘Agreed to Help with North Korea’ but Envoy Wants Sanctions Lifted

President Donald Trump (L) met with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Finland, taking the strongman at his word that Moscow did not interfere in the 2016 US presidential vote
AFP/Brendan Smialowski

President Donald Trump said on Wednesday morning that one important outcome of his summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki is that Russia “has agreed to help with North Korea.”

On the very same morning, Russia’s envoy to North Korea called on the U.N. Security Council to relax sanctions against Pyongyang, even though the United States is pushing for even tougher sanctions on oil.

President Trump issued his comments on Twitter, as is his custom:

Perhaps Russian Ambassador Alexander Matsegora has yet to open a Twitter account. He was quoted by Russian media on Wednesday declaring that “positive change on the Korean peninsula is now obvious” and calling on the U.N. Security Council to relax sanctions. He even offered Russian assistance with modernizing North Korea’s energy infrastructure after sanctions are relaxed.

Just a few weeks ago, the U.S. blocked a Chinese effort to “adjust the measures on the DPRK” in light of President Trump’s ostensibly successful summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo plans to brief the U.N. Security Council this Friday on the need to keep all sanctions in place.

The Trump administration has generally presented negotiations with North Korea as moving forward, but stressed the need to maintain full sanctions pressure until key denuclearization objectives are achieved. Secretary Pompeo on Wednesday applauded Pyongyang’s repatriation of American remains from the Korean War as a positive development.

Veterans of North Korean negotiations are wearily familiar with the regime’s strategy of making a few symbolic concessions, pocketing concessions it was offered, and resuming its bad behavior at the earliest opportunity. It would be wise to postpone celebrating the return of Korean War dead until the remains are actually in American custody and their identities have been verified.

Last Thursday, the United States asked the U.N. Security Council to halt the delivery of all refined oil products to North Korea as punishment for North Korean oil smuggling. Pyongyang was able to procure far more oil than sanctions permitted by transferring oil at sea from Russian and Chinese tankers. The Trump administration asked the United Nations to formally reprimand Russia and China for their role in helping North Korea evade sanctions.

President Trump did not specify what sort of help he expects from Moscow, but his expectations might be based more on a clear understanding of Russian objectives than Trump’s personal contact with Putin. Quite simply, Russia stands to gain enormously if sanctions on North Korea are lifted and the reclusive dictatorship opens itself to outside investment and trade.

It is anyone’s guess what paranoid Russian defense planners think about the prospect of North Korea developing reliable long-range nuclear missiles, but Russia has not been able to exploit North Korea’s psychotic behavior for political gain the way China does.

There are reasons to think Russia is at least somewhat amenable to the idea of denuclearizing North Korea, and they might want it badly enough to stick with the program even if the U.S. refuses to be shaken down for additional concessions.

The key will be standing firm on sanctions despite Russian and Chinese efforts to get them lifted prematurely. Pompeo’s U.N. briefing on Friday will be an early test of whether the Trump administration is prepared to drive all the way to full denuclearization with Russia and China in the back seat yelling, “Are we there yet?”