Russian President Vladimir Putin is planning to host a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in the coming days, at a time when U.S.-North Korea and U.S.-Russia relations are both tense and fragile.
In the meeting, which is set to take place before the end of April, Russia may try to pressure Pyongyang into negotiating with the larger world community, said Theodore Karasik, project investigator for the Russia in the Middle East Project at the Jamestown Foundation.
“If there is an agreement with North Korea, the Russians want to make sure that they’re in there for the financial rewards for that new era,” said Karasik. In return, he said, North Korea will want “guarantees that Pyongyang’s interests will continue to be met and that Russia will continue to represent those interests in international negotiations.”
This puts Russia in the position of the middleman, which, Karasik added, “is exactly where they want to be,” affording them the opportunity to signal to the U.S. that Kim is willing to go to Putin to get what he wants.
President Donald Trump’s efforts to denuclearize North Korea have stalled after he refused to lift any sanctions off Pyongyang and walked away from the February Hanoi Summit with Kim.
The president also pulled the United States out of the Intermediate-Range Missile Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) with Russia earlier that month, effectively putting nonproliferation efforts between the U.S. and Russia — which possess 92 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons — in jeopardy.
It’s in the shadow of these uneasy realities that Putin will be meeting with Kim. Realizing that things could work against the U.S. in the Kim-Putin talks, U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun headed to Moscow on Wednesday to “discuss efforts to advance the final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea,” according to a brief State Department statement.
“This is a chance for North Korea to solidify this relationship with Russia, and it makes the U.S. and China very nervous and very uncomfortable, wondering what it is that they’re going to come up with,” said Jenny Town, managing editor of 38 North, a Stimson Center project focused on North Korean security, economy, and social issues.
North Korea has been cultivating the relationship with Russia, much as it has with China and South Korea in the past year, and Town told ThinkProgress that strengthening relations with Russia “helps North Korea build more points of leverage than just Beijing.”
But Biegun wasn’t the only Trump administration official to go to Russia last week: Fiona Hill, Trump’s European and Russian affairs director on the National Security Council, was also in Russia on Wednesday.
The visits of Biegun and Hill point toward the Trump administration seeking out Russia as an intermediary with North Korea, and makes it clear that there are “back channels” being employed to shape the outcome, said Karasik
“Despite the animosity between the U.S. and Russia… we’ve had numerous back channel, personality-driven negotiations that seem to be popping up in public all of a sudden,” he added.
Wrong messaging and broken talks
It’s worth noting that the U.S. has yet to agree on the definition of what complete denuclearization with North Korea might look like, and has thus far refused to engage in a reciprocal, step-by-step process. Russia, meanwhile, has helped Pyongyang circumvent sanctions — and has asked the U.N. Security Council to lift some of them — as they also adversely affect the Russian economy. (Those requests have heretofore been voted down.)
The Trump administration’s public messaging has communicated the need to coordinate with Russia and China on sanctions, said Town, who notes that this is the wrong messaging. “It should be to coordinate on getting support for negotiated solutions, or something that’s less punitive,” said Town.
So far, this punitive tactic hasn’t worked out so well. North Korea started construction at the Sohae missile testing facility after the failed Hanoi talks.
While dismantling the Sohae facility was offered up to the U.S. after the Singapore Summit in June (Trump’s first summit with Kim), it was something that was already agreed upon months before, in the The Panmunjom Declaration.
“So for them to reverse this, it shows the frustration, and is a reminder to South Korea that both Koreas have agreed to certain commitments, and if South Korea doesn’t live up to their part of it, then North Korea will roll back on its part of it as well,” Town told ThinkProgress.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in has has been working on economic deals with North Korea as part of his efforts to lower tensions between the two countries. He might have promised too much, because last week, when he came to the White House on April 11 asking Trump for sanctions exemptions in order to move forward with those agreements, he was outright denied.
Town said that in forging ahead, Moon might have undermined some of the leverage the U.S. could have had in the negotiations by presenting a united front between Seoul and Washington.
“It’s up to South Korea how to make that work — North Korea is not going to negotiate with two partners on the same things,” said Town.
So far, the negotiations with the U.S. have only grown more tense.
North Korea’s foreign ministry on Thursday asked that U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo be removed from the negotiation process, accusing him of “talking nonsense.”
This statement came shortly after North Korea tested a new weapon that is believed to be a tactical weapon intended for ground combat,
The weapon is thought to be short-range, which is more of a signal to South Korea, said Town, adding that whatever kind of weapon it was is “a reminder that they are continuing to develop their defenses — both conventional and WMD, as long as there’s no actual agreement to limit such activities.”