In North Korea, Russia Sees a Key to Asia

 Paul D. Shinkman

In January, Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulated Kim Jong Un for establishing a nuclear weapons program that "solved his strategic task," calling the reclusive 30-something North Korean leader "an absolutely competent and already mature politician."

Then Putin said the Korean Peninsula needed to be denuclearized.

Moscow's wavering relationship with its former Cold War ally has become a lynchpin to its ambitions for Asia, and was on display this week in a new meeting in the North Korean capital between Kim and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. The Thursday gathering had been planned in advance but took place at a highly contentious time as Western and Asian diplomats scramble to arrange an on-again, off-again summit between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump, which Trump now says is "hopefully" scheduled for June 12.

Lavrov's meeting, part of a broader campaign by Putin's government to warm relations with North Korea, serves as the latest evidence of Russia's increased desire not to be left behind in international negotiations, and a belief among some in Moscow that it can play a unique role as mediator between Pyongyang, Beijing and other members of the six-party talks involved in the peace process.

But all that depends on whether Russia can successfully exert influence in and around Asia.

"It does because that makes Russia a global player," says Elizabeth Wishnick, a regional expert and professor at Montclair State University in New Jersey. Recent years have witnessed Russia's sharp pullback from a decade of strengthening relations with Western partners to instead challenge U.S.-led influence in Europe and the Middle East.

Political thinkers in Russia believe that relations with North Korea were more effective than China's because, unlike China, Moscow was not in a position to exert similar levels of economic pressure on Pyongyang, Wishnick says.

"So Russia had fewer levers and had long-term economic interests in collaborating with North Korea," Wishnick says. "I think that's an optimistic spin on it…Russia didn't have the leverage, but Russian scholars felt their country could play the role of honest broker."

Despite serving as North Korea's most faithful patron, Beijing began turning the screws on Pyongyang after it sharply increased nuclear and missile tests, largely by cutting off vital petroleum exports.

In some ways Russia's renewed interest in securing relations with North Korea is the latest example of the Putin government turning back the clock on Moscow's post-Cold War turn toward democracy. In the early 1990s, then-President Boris Yeltsin devoted less attention to North Korea than other world leaders at the time, opting instead for opening up more ties with the West.

Putin, however, has hesitated to join international sanctions against North Korea, levied as retaliation for its prohibited weapons testing, as a part of a stated common purpose of offsetting U.S. ambitions to act as hegemon in Asia.

Now Russia sees the Korean Peninsula as a stepping stone toward its goals.

"Any arrangement that reduced the danger of violence in Korea would benefit Russia," says Walter Clemens, an associate with Harvard University's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, "as well as the other neighbors and the United States."

Denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula and restoring a semblance of peace in the region could allow Moscow to open up pipelines carrying Russian oil to South Korea as well as China. Russia could access North Korean harbors to accommodate its ships. Trains leaving South Korea could pass through North Korea to get to Russia before arriving in Europe. And diplomatic improvements could have a knock-on effect to other Russian problems, like territorial disputes with Japan that would open up investment from Tokyo in Siberia.

Russia and China would benefit if Washington and Pyongyang could forge an agreement that results in any drawdown of U.S. forces in the region or a reduction in joint military exercises with South Korea – a condition commonly known as the "double freeze" or "freeze for freeze" deal.

"Both Russia and the United States – as well as China – are investing heavily in new weapons, but each would be pleased if North Korea froze, reduced or eliminated its weapons of mass destruction," Clemens says.

Lavrov appeared publicly optimistic about Russia's future role in the region after his meeting with Kim, lauding the recent Panmunjom Declaration signed by Pyongyang and Seoul and saying, "We are ready to facilitate its implementation in every possible way, particularly as it mentions railway projects that may involve Russia in the future."

Kim appeared to reciprocate, according to Russia state news service TASS, citing a common interest in strictly opposing "U.S.' dominance" in the region and adding, "we are always ready to conduct negotiations and a profound exchange of opinions with the Russian side on this issue."

Yet part of their discussions are sure to annoy Washington, particularly Lavrov's indications that Russia would like to see international sanctions lifted before North Korea begins a process of denuclearization. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who met with senior North Korean official Kim Yong-chol this week, has said that denuclearization must come first.

Taiwan News also reported Tuesday that Putin, Xi, and Kim might meet before the June 12 summit at an annual meeting in Qingdao, China, on June 9, something Russian state media indirectly discounted but could allow for Moscow to push Pyongyang to demand more concessions.

"I don't know whether it's trying to facilitate U.S. policy goals, but it's trying to encourage a peaceful resolution," Wishnick says of Moscow.

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