This past Thursday, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un during what was the first official face to face meeting between a Russian government official and Kim. The visit also happened to be Lavrov’s first visit to North Korea since 2009—that is despite Russia having a shared border with North Korea and relatively cordial relations. But Lavrov’s meeting with Kim suggests that Russia wants to become involved in the ongoing discussions for the June 12 summit between Donald Trump and Kim and also to make sure North Korea keeps it informed while taking into account Moscow’s concerns. To that end, the details of what was said during the meeting makes for interesting reading since it has now been revealed that during the talks, Kim Jong-un complained of “US hegemonism”. Interestingly, those comments were not carried by the North’s official Korean Central News Agency, which targets an external audience. Instead, it was Russian news agency Tass who published them and quoted Kim as saying that the North’s willingness for the “denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula still remains unchanged”, but also that the process should be on a “stage-by-stage basis by founding a solution to meet the interests of each other”.
The North Korean ruler also told Sergey Lavrov that he hoped to boost cooperation with Russia, which has remained largely on the sidelines in recent months as Kim has reached out diplomatically to the United States, South Korea and China. “As we move to adjust to the political situation in the face of US hegemonism, I am willing to exchange detailed and in-depth opinions with your leadership and hope to do so moving forward,” Kim told Lavrov.
This slightly under-reported visit by Lavrov comes at a delicate time for North Korea, which has significantly toned down much of its rhetoric against Washington and Seoul. The opposite was true last year, when tensions appeared to be at an all-time high, with increased fears of a war on the Korean Peninsula. But a return to blunt language by Kim led Trump last week to cancel the planned summit, though much has changed over the past few days, with the US President having confirming on Friday that the June 12 summit is back on.
For Russia though, this meeting represented an opportunity to boost cooperation with North Korea, owing to the fact that Russia has remained largely on the sidelines in recent months as Kim has reached out diplomatically to the United States, South Korea and China. That fact is exacerbated by the fact that unlike those three countries, it does not have an active military presence in the region and now holds very little economic clout with North Korea. With the potential establishing of ties between the US and North Korea, Russia could find itself faced with possibility of greater US influence on the Peninsula. That undesirable prospect would help to explain why Russia, which shares a border with North Korea, seems keen on developing closer ties with a country it established relations with 70 years ago. In doing so, Russia could sway the outcome of the US-North Korean talks in its favor. If that were to happen, Russia would then move from being a bit-part player to a key influencer in what is potentially one of the most significant chapters in the history of Korean Peninsula.
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