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  • Lawrence White

Russia and North Korea talks are just a diplomatic spectacle

On the 25th of April, North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un met with Russian President, Vladimir Putin for talks focused on efforts to de-nuclearise the Korean peninsula. Importantly, this follows on from the failed Hanoi summit with President Trump in February, which ended in disagreement over sanctions relief.

To an extent, this development is unsurprising given the fact that North Korea and Russia are both under economic sanctions. Both sides have a mutual interest in undermining the international economic sanctions regime. However, Russia is committed to enforcing the UN approved measures against North Korea and therefore has little to offer in the way of relief. As such, this meeting between the Russian and North Korean leadership is unlikely to have any long term implications. Since the breakdown of the six-party talks in 2009, Russia has not had a significant amount of say over the Korean peninsula outside of the UN Security Council. Indeed, when taking into account that there is only a limited amount of trade between both countries, it becomes obvious that these talks will mostly just be a diplomatic spectacle.

Given the extensive sanctions on North Korea, it is unsurprising that Kim Jong Un would seek out any opportunity to alleviate the economic burdens that his country faces. States are currently banned from supplying North Korea with luxury goods, aviation fuel, military equipment and many other products. Since the Russian Federation has a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, forging closer relations with Russia could be an essential component for achieving sanctions relief. In addition, the North Korean leadership also has other reasons to be optimistic about Russian support. This is because Russia has previously been accused of purposely violating the UN imposed sanctions in order to help North Korea. In 2018, the United States suggested that illegal fuel transfers at sea were facilitated and covered up by the Russian government. As a consequence, the US questioned Russian commitment to act against North Korea. All of this suggests that the North Korean leadership may have good reasons to seek out closer relations with Russia to acquire more economic support.

Yet, Russia has so far supported many of the sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council. In doing so, Russia has taken measures to limit the number of North Korean migrant workers living within its borders and has thus actively reduced an important source of North Korean income. Whilst Russia has advocated reducing the level of sanctions on North Korea in response to their self-imposed ban on nuclear testing, it is hard to see how they can do this without US support. Indeed, the United States has outright refused to lift sanctions until North Korea makes concrete steps towards denuclearisation. Therefore, Vladimir Putin has very little to offer Kim Jong Un in the way of economic support because Russia is obligated to enforce UN sanctions. Given that previous Russian attempts to violate those sanctions have led to the United States unilaterally blacklisting Russian companies, there is little economic incentive to help North Korea evade UN sanctions.

As a result, the talks between Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin are likely to yield no major breakthrough. They will instead serve to remind the United States that North Korea is not without its supporters. This is unlikely to bring about immediate sanctions relief but may discourage the US from outright abandoning talks with North Korea over denuclearisation following the failed Hanoi summit. Furthermore, the Russian President will be able to try and claim that he is still a major player on the issue of denuclearisation despite being visited by Kim Jong Un only after the supreme leader had met the leaders of both the United States and China. This is underlined by the fact that the Russian president has called for more countries to be involved in providing security guarantees for North Korea in the event that the country agrees to denuclearisation.

These talks are ultimately about producing a diplomatic spectacle rather than achieving anything meaningful. If anything, the minimal amount achieved by these talks should serve to remind the world that Russia is a regional power with little real influence over the Korean peninsula.

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