May 31st, marked a historic meeting in the United States when U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with the former spy chief and vice-chairman of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ party Kim Yong-chol in New York in attempts to prepare for a landmark summit between North Korean President Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald Trump. The summit is set to take place in Singapore on June 12th, with plans for Kim and Trump to discuss the de-nuclearization of North Korea as well as US-imposed sanctions.
Not one but two historic meetings occurred yesterday when Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met with Kim Jong-un and North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho in Pyongyang. It seems that this meeting was an attempt by Moscow to make its voice heard amid all the negotiations going on regarding North Korea’s nuclear disarmament.
While the purpose of both meetings was to discuss de-nuclearization it has become clear that Washington and Moscow have vastly different agendas. Washington is pressing North Korea to quickly give up all its nuclear weapons, and only once that is done will it lift its sanctions and institute economic incentives. Trump has been quoted by Reuters saying, “I’d like to see a total denuclearization in as quick a period of time as is practicable.”
On the other hand, Moscow has implied that sanctions against North Korea must be lifted before any real progress can be made towards de-nuclearization. Lavrov said at a press conference, “It is absolutely obvious that – as we start discussions on how to resolve the nuclear problem on the Korean Peninsula – it is understood that the solution cannot be comprehensive without the lifting of sanctions.”
Russia’s insistence that the United States lift its sanctions prior to denuclearization is cause for concern. It is possible that this could slow and/or stop the process of nuclear disarmament in North Korea all together. While Pompeo stated that “real progress” was made during his meeting with Kim Yong-chol and that he was “confident we are moving in the right direction,” Kim Jong-un seemed to be leaning towards the Russian position after his meeting with Lavrov. He was quoted in the Russian media saying, “I’m glad that Putin’s government is acting in opposition to the domination of the United States, and we are always ready to negotiate with the Russian side.”
Russia pushing its position onto North Korea could not only put a dent in the progress that the U.S. has already made towards achieving a summit, but it could promote greater hostility with the U.S. Adding to the strains we have seen in the U.S.-Russia relationship over the past decade, Russia has been particularly bothered by President Trump’s decision to pull out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). In fact, the Director General of the Department for Non-Proliferation and Arms Control at Russia’s Foreign Ministry Vladimir Yermakov was quoted saying, “If the United States breaks an international agreement backed by UN Security Council resolutions, it will be the United States that should suffer the consequences.”
As the situation with North Korea unfolds it is important to keep an eye out for Russia. If events continue to unfold in this direction, it is possible that Russia could undermine the efforts of the U.S. towards a nuclear disarmament deal and subsequently widen the rift between the two nations.