The likelihood of a Russia-North Korea summit has been discussed repeatedly among pundits since the beginning of the detente on the Korean Peninsula. A face-to-face meeting between DPRK leader Kim Jong-un and Russian President Vladimir Putin could significantly enhance Russia’s role in the emerging multilateral process for resolving the nuclear issue. Given the uncertain conditions of the US-North Korea dialogue and a slowdown in inter-Korean talks, the main diplomatic task of Russia is to promote the negotiation process as the only viable option for resolving the problem on the Korean Peninsula.
During the past year, the main efforts of the DPRK in the international arena were to pursue rapprochement with Beijing and engage in a constructive dialogue with Seoul and Washington. Pyongyang has managed to achieve some success. In particular, in June 2018, the first summit between North Korea and the United States was held, realising a long-term goal of North Korean diplomacy.
Pyongyang and Washington expected a lot from the second American-North Korean summit. The DPRK hoped to see the easing of some of the international sanctions against the country in exchange for the dismantling of the Yongbyon nuclear centre. The Americans seemed to be seriously preparing for a “big deal”, implying the complete, unconditional and verifiable denuclearisation of North Korea. As a result, the parties were not able to agree on anything except to continue negotiations in the future. The aftertaste of the summit was a clear sense of disappointment, expressed in the North Korean statements from the second US-DPRK summit, including the speech of DPRK Deputy Foreign Minister Choi Son-hee at a press conference for foreign journalists (March 15, 2019), and Kim Jong-un’s speech at the first session of the renewed 14th Supreme National Assembly of the DPRK.
So, Pyongyang has seemingly decided to return to the idea of a Russian-North Korean summit. Incidentally, a visit to Russia by Kim Jong-un was first expected four years ago, in 2015. However, at the time, the chairman of the DPRK Supreme People’s Assembly, Kim Yong-nam, arrived in Moscow to celebrate the 70th anniversary of victory in the Great Patriotic War (World War II).
The possibility of preparing for a Russian-North Korean summit was considered after the visit of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to Pyongyang (May 31, 2018). He conveyed to Kim Jong-un the invitation of the Russian leadership to pay an official visit to Russia. In August 2018, a delegation of Russian legislators from the Federation Council, headed by its chairman, Valentina Matvienko, visited the DPRK. Earlier in April 2019, Russian Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev visited North Korea. All these visits were accompanied by rumours about a forthcoming summit.
At the time of this writing (April 20), it’s known for certain that Kim Jong-un plans to visit Russia “in the second half of April”. Before that, reports began to come from Vladivostok that the campus of the Far Eastern Federal University was being prepared for a summit with the North Korean leader. In the South Korean media there were reports of the visit to the Russian Federation by Deputy Chairman of the DPRK State Council Kim Chang-son, the appearance of an “unscheduled” Air Koryo aircraft, which was to deliver either the advanced ad hoc group to prepare the summit, or the Supreme Leader himself. It is noteworthy that the South Korean media also vividly mentioned the dates when, “according to unnamed sources,” the head of the DPRK could meet with the Russian president. However, the exact date and venue were a well-kept secret until the last moment for security reasons.
The agenda of the upcoming meeting may include issues related to the current situation on the Korean Peninsula and the prospects for the development of Russian-Korean relations. Moscow’s position on resolving the nuclear problem on the peninsula is well known. It includes the idea that there is no viable alternative to diplomacy in the settlement of the nuclear problem, the inadmissibility of unilateral steps in this matter, and the need to soften the sanctions, which have dealt a tangible blow to trade and economic cooperation between the two countries. Unfortunately, the existing restrictions seriously narrow the possibilities for manoeuvring in Russian-North Korean cooperation.
In this context, Russia is interested in continuing the “detente” in the region, resuming the negotiation process on the nuclear issue and reviewing the sanctions regime established by the UN Security Council. Without a softening of sanctions, the implementation of tripartite projects remains practically impossible, including such “long-term” ones as a gas pipeline (first discussed after Boris Yeltsin’s visit to the Republic of Korea in 1992) and the reconnection of the Trans-Korean Main Line.
Moreover, Russian business might be interested in developing economic cooperation with the DPRK, which, despite the sanctions, is now experiencing an economic boom. Moreover, there are already successful precedents for such cooperation, in particular, the activities of the RasonConTrans joint-venture in the Rason FEZ in the north-east of North Korea.The creation of a multilateral mechanism to resolve the Korean problem in the framework of six-party talks in the future is also in line with Russia’s long-term interests in Northeast Asia. At present, there is a considerable danger that the handful of agreements that were concluded during 2018 could be disavowed in the event of a power change in the United States or the Republic of Korea. Under certain conditions, the creation of a multilateral mechanism could be the key to cementing old agreements and achieving new ones. In this regard, Russian diplomacy can contribute a lot to prolonging the detente on the Korean Peninsula.