The visit by the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to Pyongyang on May 31 was a poignant moment for both countries. This was a rare meeting between a senior Russian official and a member of the Kim dynasty. Yet, Russia has been the oldest friend and mentor of the ruling family in Pyongyang.
Kim’s family escaped from Japanese-occupied Korea to the Soviet Union in 1920 when the revered founder of North Korea, Kim Il Sung, was only eight years old. He grew up in Russia, joined the Red Army and fought the Japanese in Manchuria. When World War II ended, Kim returned to his country and with some Soviet backing, went on to lead North Korea’s Communist Party and lay the foundations of the new state north of the 38th parallel.
Make no mistake, it was not a coincidence that Kim received Lavrov on the same day his deputy Vice-Chairman Kim Yong-chol met US President Donald Trump at the White House. Kim told Lavrov in front of TV cameras: “I highly value the fact that Putin’s administration strictly opposes the US’ hegemony. You strictly oppose, and we are always ready to conduct negotiations and a profound exchange of opinions with the Russian side on this issue.” Russia’s Cold War ally is picking up the threads with ease.
Unsurprisingly, Lavrov gave whole-hearted backing for the North Korean stance on the vexatious issue of denuclearization. In Lavrov’s words: “We assume that a complete resolution cannot be achieved until all the sanctions are lifted. It is up to the negotiators to make this happen, but in any case, it would be impossible to achieve this in a single round. The same applies to denuclearization. For this reason, this should be a step-by-step process with reciprocal moves at each of the stages.”
Denuclearization not a stand-alone issue
Lavrov called for a “judicious approach” not to rush things and cautioned against any “rash actions”, bearing in mind the need for “careful consideration and coordination of all elements of a package decision.” The carefully-chosen expression “package decision” implies that denuclearization is not a stand-alone issue.
He underscored: “Russia and North Korea hold a common view… We know that this is an extremely complicated problem and that the goal of denuclearization is inseparably connected with the eventual restoration of peace, stability and a system of interaction, cooperation and equal and indivisible security in Northeast Asia.” Simply put, Lavrov asserted Russia’s role in the current process as a stakeholder in the stability and security of its region. Interestingly, Lavrov flagged the need at some point to revive the format of six-party talks (involving the two Koreas, US, China, Japan and Russia.)
The Russian Foreign Minister also discussed substantive issues of bilateral cooperation in the economic sphere in anticipation of a post-sanctions future. In particular, he brought up the languishing 10-year-old idea of linking the Trans-Siberian and Trans-Korean railway systems to connect Moscow with Seoul via Pyongyang and to build a parallel gas pipeline.
Meeting between Putin and Kim soon?
Meanwhile, the speaker of the upper house of the Russian parliament, Valentina Matviyenko, is expected to visit North Korea soon. Most importantly, a meeting between Putin and Kim is on the cards. Reports speculate that the meeting may take place as early as next week during Putin’s state visit to China following the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Qingdao (June 9-10).
The Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov who accompanied Lavrov to Pyongyang was in Beijing on May 29 and would have discussed the forthcoming trip with Chinese officials. While in Beijing, Morgulov made some highly critical remarks about US policies in the Asia-Pacific, which reflected the thrust of Lavrov’s mission:
“I am referring… to the idea of the Indo-Pacific region, which the United States and Japan are actively advocating. Essentially, it is designed to divide the regional countries into friends and foes… Both Russia and China hold a diametrically opposite view. They are against creating blocs and believe that an effective and system-wide response to security challenges in the Asia Pacific must include a comprehensive military and political détente and uniform rules of the game… This architecture must be based on the universal principles of indivisible security and the supremacy of international law, as well as non-use of force or threat of force.”
Beijing has welcomed “Russia’s positive role” and said high-level exchanges between Russia and North Korea are “conducive to promoting the political settlement process of Korean Peninsula issue and upholding the peace and stability of the peninsula and Northeast Asia.” Russia is airing opinions supportive of North Korean concerns and vital interests, which Beijing shares but for obvious reasons is not in a position to voice openly.
Process will be a long haul
Clearly, Lavrov’s mission is making it more difficult for Washington to pressure the North Korean leadership or dictate the dynamics of the current process. Moscow is signaling that it will not remain a passive bystander (as in the negotiations over the Iran nuclear issue). And, it has taken a common position with Beijing that the denuclearization of North Korea impacts on the regional security matrix in Northeast Asia. Given this developing situation, the final outcome is almost certainly going to be a long haul.
Simply put, the US’ containment strategy against Russia and China has created a complex regional security environment in Northeast Asia. On one side there is talk of a new US military base in Poland and additional deployment of 30,000 NATO troops to Central Europe on Russia’s western fringe, while on the other side US Secretary of Defence James Mattis promised at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore on the weekend to step up military pressure on China in the South China Sea, and Trump is beating the drums of a trade war with Beijing.
However, somewhat incredibly, in this milieu of growing big-power tensions, Washington still expects Moscow and Beijing to remain docile as Trump and his team go about denuclearizing North Korea and reset the regional security calculus. This expectation is plainly unrealistic. Moscow has signaled that as a stakeholder, it will push back and will not allow a replay of what happened over the Iran nuclear deal.
Significantly, Lavrov disclosed that the North Korean leadership is “fully aware” of developments relating to the US’ exit from the Iran nuclear deal, and “will determine its position taking into consideration all these factors.”