Expert Opinions The Eastern Perspective
Russia-DPRK Summit: Freedom to Manoeuvre Regained

North Korea and Russia are planning to meet in the near future, amid the aftermath of the frustratingly unsuccessful US-DPRK summit. The state visit could increase both Russia's value in the Korean diplomatic process and Russia’s role as a mediator between other nations. This will give the summit’s participants more freedom to manoeuvre, Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) Professor Georgy Toloraya, executive director of Russian National Research Committee on BRICS research, says.

We should think of the highest-level contact between Russia and the DPRK in a wider context, which includes not only the relations between the two countries, but also Russia’s participation in the diplomatic process on the Korean Peninsula. It is well-known that in 2017, through Russia’s initiative at the foreign minister level, Russia and China created a joint roadmap for resolving the situation in the peninsula (although the United States and its allies regarded it with displeasure). It envisaged three stages, which are the freezing of the North Korean nuclear programmes as well as South Korean military exercises, bilateral negotiations and agreements, and, finally, a multilateral process establishing a system of security guarantees. The events have developed exactly this way, so now we are at the “bilateral negotiations” stage.

At the same time, we should admit that Russia has not actively participated in this process, since it was developed via US-North Korea and inter-Korean negotiations. In this bargaining, there was no need for unsolicited assistance. However, there was a rising concern that Russian interests would not be taken into account, and that it could not influence the Korean issue in the way it considered right and fair. That is why in recent months, Russia’s activity has significantly increased: it has established serious, multi-level interaction with China, including the coordination of positions at international platforms. It also has contacts with the United States, where it acts as a kind of “adviser” regarding a number of problems that Americans do not understand. Russia is also conducting a dialogue with the DPRK, albeit a regular one, but at the working level; in the DPRK, only the leader makes decisions.

A meeting at this level was inevitable; it had been prepared for a long time, considering the fact that Kim Jong-un held four meetings with Xi Jinping, three with South Korean President Mun Zhe Ying, and two summits with Trump. Perhaps it is fortunate that it did not take place earlier, because it could have been underestimated against the background of shifts in communication between the sworn enemies.

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Kim Jong-un was going to visit Russia in May 2015 at the invitation of Vladimir Putin, who wanted him to participate in the celebration of the 70th anniversary of Soviet victory in 1945. However, due to a number of purely internal reasons, this visit did not take place. Last year, at the end of May, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov held a meeting with Kim Jong-un and conveyed to him an invitation to visit Russia, for example, in September 2018, at the margins of the Eastern Economic Forum. Later, Valentina Matvienko confirmed this invitation. Again, in September, Kim Jong-un was busy with domestic events such as the 70th anniversary of the DPRK’s formation, so the visit never occurred.

Now, given the worsening of the situation in American-North Korean and inter-Korean negotiations, Russia’s help is more in demand than ever. Russia could play the role of an “honest broker”, able to smooth out the disagreements between the opponents, though it could also help in solving the Korean Peninsula’s problems independently.

We should not exclude that after a Russian-North Korean summit, a new round of summit diplomacy will begin. Both sides are interested in effectively discussing the current state of Korean issues, the denuclearisation process and certain security guarantees. For example, Vladimir Putin could find out how Kim Jong-un regards denuclearisation, what security guarantees Pyongyang wants and what role Russia could play in providing these guarantees.

The state visit could also provide the impetus for bilateral contacts. Of course, there are difficulties with sanctions. However, in the humanitarian field, culture, education, science and, to a certain degree, in the economy, contacts are possible. The DPRK will be interested in the economic component – logistic improvements, increasing trade where it is permitted, attracting labour force, and creating a trading house that would help Russia and North Korea perform all trade calculations in rubles. Before, the lion’s share of trade passed through third countries, but this has been prohibited by the sanctions. In addition, Russia wants to promote tripartite projects, in particular, a rail freight transport link with both North Korea and South Korea, a gas pipeline, and electric power networks.

The United States is likely to be displeased due to all this, but perhaps Pyongyang’s playing of the “Russian card” will make its approach with regard to the sanctions more realistic and make them search for compromise options with North Korea. South Korea, Japan and, first and foremost, China will respect Russia’s interests more.

The summit will offer the North Koreans greater freedom to manoeuvre. The situation in the Korean Peninsula is returning to a practice of multi-lateral balancing, which has always been the most suitable for ensuring peace and stability. Any attempt to reduce all the interactions to the bilateral talks with a degree of pressure from both sides never led to anything good. The freedom of manoeuvre that Russia and North Korea will obtain thanks to the planned summit represents a great diplomatic success for both countries.

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