Since March, Russia has watched with dismay as dialogue brokered by South Korea developed rapidly between the U.S. and North Korea, ultimately resulting in a planned nuclear summit next week in Singapore.
The Kremlin’s concerns about being left out of talks on North Korea’s nuclear capabilities and regional security were at least partly addressed by recent visits to North Korea and China by Russian leaders eager to solidify Moscow’s role in whatever happens next on the Korean peninsula.
Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived Friday in China, which provides much of North Korea’s food, energy and trade, for a state visit with President Xi Jinping.
In an interview with Chinese media ahead of his visit, Putin praised President Trump for what he called a “courageous and mature” decision to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
The Russian president emphasized, however, that North Korea would need “absolute security guarantees” if the U.S. managed to persuade Kim to give up the isolated nation’s nuclear arsenal, which few in the Kremlin or most anywhere believe is feasible.
In late May, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met with Kim in Pyongyang, the senior diplomat’s first visit to North Korea in a decade. Lavrov extended an invitation from Putin for the North Korean leader to visit Russia.
“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,” Lavrov said, according to Russian state news agencies.
Moscow fears being left outside looking in on a bilateral solution to the North Korean missile and nuclear issue, Vladimir Frolov, a former Russian diplomat and lawmaker who’s now an independent analyst in Moscow, wrote on the Republic online news site this week.
“This would threaten not only to clearly devalue … the narrative of the international role of Russia as a global great power, which is very important to the Kremlin,” Frolov wrote, “but also to create new and not very Russia-friendly … formats for the provision of security in East Asia, in which the United States and American security guarantees would play the key role.”
Many analysts and observers say that no one should expect Kim to agree to denuclearize and that, in fact, finding a common definition of what denuclearization means to each side may be an important early step in talks between the U.S. and North Korea.
Russian observers in general consider that Trump, for one, may be satisfied initially by accomplishing an unprecedented summit with the North Korean leader and understands that reaching an agreement on weapons may require a long process, said Georgy Kunadze, a former deputy foreign minister of Russia and former ambassador to South Korea.
“Trump may not be prepared to pronounce it a failure,” Kunadze said via email. “This is exactly what Russia expects.”
Russia shares a small border with North Korea, and what happens to North Korea’s nuclear arsenal matters to Russian national security. Any military conflict involving North Korea could send millions of refugees across Russia’s border.
“Russia is happy that the [Singapore] summit is happening and happy if war can be avoided, but it is not happy about being somewhere on the sidelines,” said Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow and the chair of the Russia in the Asia-Pacific Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “So, whenever there is talk about sanctions relief and rewards to North Korea for its good behavior, or anything which involves the United Nations Security Council, Russia is there and wants to be recognized as an important party.”
Historically, relations between Moscow and Pyongyang have gone up and down. The Soviet Union backed the Korean People’s Army in the Korean War. Once North Korea was established, the Soviets treated Pyongyang as a communist sister state, and along with China, supplied it with oil, rice, medicines and industrial equipment.
When the Soviet Union broke up, the economic benefits of that sister-state relationship with both Moscow and China fizzled. The North Korean economy collapsed as it was unable to repay some $10 billion in loans from China and Russia.
Since then, Russia’s relations with North Korea have been “neither good nor bad, but mainly symbolic,” Kunadze said.
Under Putin, Russia has condemned North Korea’s military drills and nuclear weapons tests, while forgiving 90% of Pyongyang’s outstanding Soviet-era debt.
Meanwhile, North Korean workers in the timber, construction, agriculture and fishing industries have filled a labor shortage in Russia’s Far East regions as well as helped bring back hard currency for a struggling North Korean economy. Last year, Russia began pushing Kim to bring North Korea’s workers back home, sending some 100,000 across the border.
Russia expelled workers under pressure from the United Nations, which accuses North Korea of exporting workers to other countries and employing them under “slave-like conditions.” Russian media have reported that hundreds of North Korean workers were involved in the building of the Zenit soccer stadium in St. Petersburg, which will host some of the FIFA World Cup games starting June 14.
Moscow views its relationship with Pyongyang similarly to how it sees its interests in Syria, where it supports the government of President Bashar Assad.
The Kremlin seeks leverage in areas to counter the weight of U.S. influence. If Syria is Russia’s stronghold in the Middle East, an area where the U.S. has been losing influence, then Russia would like North Korea to be the buffer state in Asia against U.S. troops stationed in South Korea.
“Since 2014, when Russia became an outcast of international politics, there has also been a growing feeling of shared destiny” between Moscow and Pyongyang, Kunadze said.
If the Trump-Kim summit in Singapore somehow helps North Korea break out of its isolation without conceding too much, Russia would try to learn from the experience for its own needs and expand its relationship with Pyongyang, Kunadze said.
Russia, which has been courting a better relationship with China, must be careful to balance any moves with North Korea that could irritate Beijing, Moscow’s biggest trade partner and an increasingly important source of foreign loans.
“Moscow’s maneuvering space is pretty limited because it has to cater to China’s agenda as well,” Gabuev said. “China has a clear agenda on the Korean peninsula, which is partially aligned to the Kremlin’s agenda, which is to sustain Kim’s regime.”
There is another possible Russian motivation for pushing to play a role in the North Korea talks.
This week, both Russia and the Unites States said they were starting talks about a proposed summit between Putin and Trump. Should that happen, the Kremlin will want “to have some agenda in which Russia can be relevant to the U.S.,” Gabuev said.
“Why should Trump talk to Putin at all? Putin definitely won’t give Crimea back to Ukraine, he will not pull out of Syria, so there must be something else,” he said. “This something else must be some big international crisis of great importance to the U.S., and to Trump in particular, such as this issue with North Korea.”
If Putin can portray himself as vital to any talks on North Korea, the topic could drive the agenda at a Trump-Putin summit, Gabuev said. Such a stance could benefit both men.
“Trump could play up meeting with Putin as, ‘Look, I know Putin is bad, but I’m talking to him because of North Korea,’” Gabuev said.
Ayres is a special correspondent.