Russian foreign minister offers security talks with North Korea, China as he visits Pyongyang

The recent flurry of diplomacy between the Kremlin and PyongYang underscores how their interests are aligning in the face of their confrontations with the United States

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un welcomes Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during a meeting in Pyongyang, North Korea, October 19, 2023.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un welcomes Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during a meeting in Pyongyang, North Korea, October 19, 2023.RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTRY (via REUTERS)

Russia’s foreign minister proposed regular security talks with North Korea and China to deal with what he described as increasing U.S.-led regional military threats, as he met North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his top diplomat on Thursday during a visit to Pyongyang.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov arrived in North Korea’s capital on Wednesday on a two-day trip expected to focus on how to boost the two countries’ defense ties following a September summit between Kim and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Last week, the United States said North Korea had transferred munitions to Russia to boost its fighting capabilities in Ukraine in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions that ban any weapons trading involving North Korea.

On Thursday, Lavrov met Kim for talks that lasted about an hour, Russia’s state-run Tass news agency reported, without elaborating. Lavrov met his North Korean counterpart, Choe Son Hui, earlier Thursday and lauded deepening bilateral collaboration.

Lavrov and Choe discussed “resuming full-fledged contacts” and intensifying economic cooperation, the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement. It added that Lavrov invited Choe to visit Moscow “at her convenience.” The ministry also said Lavrov recommended that Russian tourists start holidaying in North Korea. Tass also quoted Lavrov as telling reporters that he supports holding regular talks on security issues on the Korean Peninsula with North Korea and China.

The Lavrov-Kim meeting “means that the recent fleet of containers likely caring munitions from North Korea to Russia was not the last Kim-Putin transaction the world has to worry about,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha University in Seoul.

“After accepting Pyongyang’s help to resupply the illegal invasion of Ukraine, Moscow is set to commit further violations of U.N. Security Council resolutions by providing North Korea with weapons technology that could threaten stability in East Asia,” Easley said.

“The United States, Japan and South Korea intensifying military activity here and Washington working toward moving strategic infrastructure, including nuclear aspects, here, are of great concern to us and our North Korean friends,” Lavrov said, according to Tass. “We oppose this unconstructive and dangerous policy with a course toward de-escalation and inadmissibility of escalating tensions here.”

The recent flurry of diplomacy between Russia and North Korea underscores how their interests are aligning in the face of their separate, intensifying confrontations with the United States — North Korea over its advancing nuclear program and Russia over its war with Ukraine.

The U.S. has been expanding regular military drills with South Korea and temporarily deploying more powerful military assets around the Korean Peninsula in response to North Korea’s barrage of missile tests since last year. The U.S. and South Korea have also resumed some trilateral military exercises with Japan.

The focus of outside attention during Lavrov’s visit is whether the two countries will provide any hints of how they will solidify their security cooperation or announce the timing of Putin’s promised trip to Pyongyang to reciprocate Kim’s visit to Russia’s Far East.

During his travel to Russia, Kim met Putin at the Vostochny Cosmodrome, Russia’s most important domestic space launch center, and inspected other key Russian weapon-making sites. That triggered intense speculation that Kim seeks sophisticated Russian technologies to modernize his nuclear arsenal in return for supplying conventional arms to refill Russia’s declining weapons inventory. Neither Russia nor North Korea has disclosed what Putin and Kim agreed to during the summit.

“After the historic summit between President Putin and Chairman of State Affairs Kim Jong Un at the Vostochny Cosmodrome on September 13, we can confidently say that the relations have reached a qualitatively new strategic level,” Lavrov said at the start of his meeting with Choe, according to Russia’s state-run Interfax news agency.

Choe said her meeting with Lavrov “will become an important stage in terms of the implementation of the agreements” reached by Kim and Putin, Tass said.

During a dinner banquet held for him on Wednesday, Lavrov said Russia deeply values North Korea’s “unwavering and principled support” for its war on Ukraine as well as Pyongyang’s decision to recognize the independence of Russian-backed separatist regions in eastern Ukraine, according to Russia’s Foreign Ministry.

North Korean state media said Lavrov also praised North Korea for “remaining unfazed by any pressure of the U.S. and the West,” and said that Russia fully supports Kim’s push to protect its security and economic interests. Choe said Pyongyang and Moscow were building an “unbreakable comradely relationship” under the leadership of Kim and Putin.

The White House said Friday that North Korea had delivered more than 1,000 containers of military equipment and munitions to Russia. The White House released images that it said showed the containers were loaded onto a Russian-flagged ship before being moved via train to southwestern Russia.

Since last year, the U.S. has accused North Korea of providing ammunition, artillery shells and rockets to Russia, likely much of them copies of Soviet-era munitions. North Korea has steadfastly denied it shipped arms to Russia, but South Korean officials said North Korean weapons provided to Russia have already been used in Ukraine.

Lim Soosuk, spokesperson of South Korea’s Foreign Ministry, told reporters Thursday that Seoul was closely monitoring Lavrov’s visit to North Korea and that any cooperation between Moscow and Pyongyang should be conducted in a way that complies with U.N. Security Council resolutions.

When asked whether Lavrov’s comments stating that Russia fully supports Kim’s policies could be interpreted as an acceptance of North Korea’s nuclear weapons status, Lim insisted that the North “no matter what it does, will never be recognized as a nuclear power and will face increasing international sanctions.”

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