Russian and North Korean officials held talks on Friday, further expanding Moscow’s diplomatic role and influence over the Korean Peninsula.
Choe Son-hui, director-general of the North American department of North Korea’s foreign ministry, traveled to Moscow to meet with Russian ambassador-at-large Oleg Burmistrov and Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov.
“The Russian side reaffirmed its readiness for joint efforts to find ways to solve the problems in the subregion by peaceful, political and diplomatic means, including in the context of promoting the Korean settlement roadmap jointly proposed by Russia and China,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement following the consultations.
The U.S. said it welcomed Moscow’s efforts, even though the Russian-Chinese roadmap proposes an end to the U.S joint military exercises with South Korea in exchange for Pyongyang giving up on the nuclear development programme—a proposal the U.S. has already rejected.
Referring to the talks, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told a regular press briefing on Thursday: “I can’t see that as a bad thing.”
“Diplomacy is our preferred approach,” she added. “If Russia can be successful in getting North Korea to move in a better direction, we would certainly welcome that.”
Other senior administration officials are more suspicious. “They want to be at the table, they want to be relevant, they want to have leverage to either play a spoiler role or play a broker role,” a senior administration official told The Washington Post earlier this month, adding, “They are definitely up to something.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin has said before that his country, which shares a border with North Korea, cannot accept the possibility of a nuclear North Korea, but acknowledged that the current standoff could not be resolved by sanctions alone.
“Russia did not veto the recent U.N. sanctions resolutions on Pyongyang, showing that Moscow does share at least one aspect of the US and the wider global community’s perspective, namely that a response is required to North Korea’s undesirable nuclear testing,” Sarah Lain, research fellow at the U.K.-based think tank Rusi, wrote this week.
“However, it does not necessarily share the exact same approach. Moscow lobbied to weaken the sanctions, particularly regarding a full oil embargo. It argues that crippling North Korea’s economy is undesirable since it will lead to potential political instability and Russia’s worst fear—regime change,” she added.
Fear of regime change was also one of the reasons why Russia got involved in the Syrian conflict, supporting President Bashar al-Assad's regime, vetoing numerous U.S.-led resolutions at the U.N. Security Council condemning the violence, and leading peace talks negotiations.
But in the Korean Peninsula, Russia’s increasing involvement is welcomed by one of the U.S.'s key allies in the region, too.
"Russia is the most important country in resolving emergency situations such as the North's nuclear problem that are in the way to the reunification of the Korean Peninsula and mediating between the interests of the U.S. and China," South Korea's next ambassador to Russia, Woo Yoon-keun, said at a conference on Korea-Russia relations in Seoul on Friday, quoted in Yonhap.