The opportunity that has arisen to help the world step back from the nuclear abyss and make progress toward resolving the issue of North Korea is too important to let slip. The US has done its best to spoil things, true to its “bull in a china shop” policy. It is left for the other relevant actors to find ways to salvage the situation. That is exactly what the Europeans are trying to do now that Washington has withdrawn from the Iran nuclear deal. This is the time when actors who enjoy international credibility need to step in and give diplomacy a chance.
On May 31, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to discuss the prospects for the still fragile negotiation process and to invite him to visit Moscow. The parties agreed to schedule a summit. This year marks the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries. There has been no Russian-N. Korean summit since 2000, when President Putin visited Pyongyang.
Russia supports the phased lifting of sanctions against the DPRK, in tandem with gradual denuclearization, which cannot be achieved at one go. The talks revealed Pyongyang’s readiness to denuclearize step-by-step — which is a good basis for further talks, but Washington wants it to disarm all at once, without any security guarantees in return. The fate of the US-N.Korean top-level meeting slated for June 12 in Singapore is still hanging in the balance.
Moscow has expressed its support of the joint Panmunjom Declaration on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, which was made public in April. Its push for peace is aligned with the goals and efforts initiated by South Korea, Japan, and China and is based on the Russian-Chinese joint statement on North Korea’s problems that was issued last July. That document proposes a joint initiative for a gradual settlement of the nuclear problem.
During the visit, Mr. Lavrov also discussed ways to expand relations during the meeting with his N. Korean counterpart, Ri Yong Ho. In addition, he conveyed the message that Russia is interested in pursuing joint economic projects, including railway construction, that are a win-win for everyone. A railway could connect Seoul with Europe by passing through Russian territory.
The reduction of tensions could make it possible to open up oil and gas pipelines stretching from Russia to South Korea and China. Ships would visit N. Korean ports. The parties are involved in talks on building a new bridge across the Tumen River that would allow traffic to cross directly, without making a lengthy detour through China. The two nations have their eyes on a trading future beyond the sanctions and military tensions. Moscow does not view punitive measures as an effective foreign-policy tool. And Pyongyang has been subject to them since 2006. They haven’t stopped it from going nuclear and have had no influence on Pyongyang’s foreign policy.
Russia can make a substantial contribution to the budding peace process. It has lucrative economic projects to offer and its clout in the Asia-Pacific region is rising. Moscow has welcomed the planned summit between the US and North Korea. Actually, Lavrov’s visit contributed to galvanizing the N. Korea-US dialog. Washington needs a foreign policy breakthrough before the November mid-term elections, but a framework agreement serving as a basis for further long, hard talks is the most realistic scenario. Even if the anticipated meeting does not take place, the negotiation process is likely to start with Russia playing an important role.
Moscow is not doing any of this just to score points before the elections, but because normalizing the situation on the peninsula is of vital interest. After all, the recently demolished N. Korean nuclear test site was located only 200 km. from its border. For the US, the DPRK is a security problem, which could potentially turn into a threat, but Russia views that nation as a neighbor with whom it shares a border. Moscow is not trying to beat America to the punch, but is rather protecting its own vital national interests.
Now that the US has left the Paris climate accord, the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, and the Iran deal and is teetering on the edge of tearing up the INF Treaty with Russia, it’s hardly a reliable partner with whom to sign binding agreements. Any deal, if reached, would need guarantors. If security guarantees ever become part of the agreement between Pyongyang and the other parties, Russia is perfectly suited for this role as one of the few nations the DPRK trusts, thus making Moscow an indispensable part of the process.