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Russia and North Korea: Key areas for cooperation

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The April 25 meeting in Vladivostok between President Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un was their first since the North Korean leader came to power in 2011. Arriving on his armored train, Kim Jong-un said that he had always dreamed of visiting Russia and hoped that his first visit would not be the last.

“We talked about the history of our bilateral relations, about the current situation and the development of relations between our two countries,” Vladimir Putin said wrapping up the opening phase of the negotiations, which lasted for two hours – twice longer than originally planned.

Kim Jong-un said that the two leaders “had a very meaningful and constructive exchange of views tete-a-tete on all pressing issues of mutual interest.”

“I am grateful for the wonderful time I have spent here, and I hope that our negotiations will similarly continue in a useful and constructive way,” he added.    

The talks later continued in an expanded format and ran for three and a half hours.

“We had a detailed discussion of all issues on our agenda: bilateral relations, matters related to sanctions, the United Nations, our relations with the United States and, of course, the central issue of the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, focusing on different aspects of all these problems,” Vladimir Putin said during the final press conference.

The main outcome of the talks, however, was the two leaders’ repeated emphasis on the need to restart the six-party talks on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, as well as Russia’s readiness to act as a de-facto mediator between Pyongyang and Washington. Representatives of Russia, North and South Koreas, China, Japan and the United States regularly met between 2003 and 2008 (under Kim Jong-il), but those meetings were eventually suspended by Pyongyang following Washington’s refusal to ease the sanctions regime and its attempts to revise existing accords.

Ahead of the Vladivostok summit, the US Special Envoy for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, made a brief visit to Moscow to discuss the terms of the new Korean settlement parley. The US State Department described the diplomat’s visit as a desire to “discuss respective bilateral engagements with North Korea and efforts to achieve the final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea.”

However, Mr. Biegun’s visit only underscored the lingering differences in the negotiating sides’ views on resolving the situation on the Korean Peninsula and regarding the mechanisms and mutual steps needed to make this happen. While North Korea, Russia and China are holding out for a phased lifting of sanctions on Pyongyang in exchange for North Korea gradually rolling back its nuclear missile program under international security guarantees, the United States insists on Pyongyang’s prior cessation of its entire nuclear missile development effort. According to Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-un then asked him to convey his position and expectations to Washington.

“Chairman Kim Jong-un personally asked us to inform the American side about his position and the questions he has about what’s unfolding on the Korean Peninsula,” Vladimir Putin told reporters after the summit.  He promised to do this at upcoming international forums – including in China, as part of the Belt and Road Initiative.

The North Korean leader had thus decided to get back to Pyongyang’s previous practice of “balancing” between the leading world powers in an effort to achieve maximum possible concessions. This balancing act is important for Pyongyang primarily with Washington and Moscow – especially after the failure of the US-North Korean summit held in Hanoi in February.

According to Andrei Kortunov, director of the Russian International Affairs Council, “Kim Jong-un’s trip to Vladivostok means that he is looking for outside support amid his stuttering talks with the United States.”.

“With the failure of the Hanoi summit, Kim Jong-un needs to confirm that he is generally committed to denuclearization, but within the framework of the Russian-Chinese phased plan. Donald Trump and his team reject this and demand a complete denuclearization of the DPRK as a condition for lifting the sanctions,” Go Myung-hyun of Seoul’s ASAN Institute of Policy Studies said.

“What Pyongyang now needs following the failure the Vietnam summit is at least a semblance of minimal diplomatic success,” Andrei Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul, said.

The list of countries Kim Jong-un can now turn to for diplomatic support is very short. These are essentially Russia and China. However, his visit to Beijing is not in the best interest of China, which is currently locked in tense trade negotiations with the United States.

Therefore, Kim Jong-un apparently hopes that his talks with Russia will send a signal to Washington that since political pressure on Pyongyang is not working, the Americans should proceed to a phased lifting of sanctions against North Korea in exchange for Pyongyang partially coming across on its nuclear missile program.

“North Korea’s strategy always has been walking a tight-rope between the conflicts of the world powers and getting concessions that way,” the BBC commented.

With the successful Russian-North Korean summit, which reaffirmed the two countries’ shared desire to breathe new vigor into the Korean settlement process, the ball is now in the US court, and President Trump’s well-known predilection for quick fixes and spectacular moves inspires hope for his next, third, meeting with Kim Jong-un.

During his recent visit to Washington, South Korean President Moon Jae-in underscored the need for a new such meeting between Trump and Kim. When meeting with Donald Trump, President Moon stressed that his “important task” is to “maintain the momentum of dialogue” toward North Korea’s denuclearization while expressing “the positive outlook, regarding the third US-North Korea summit, to the international community that this will be held in the near future.” Donald Trump responded in his peremptory manner: “I enjoy the summits, I enjoy being with the chairman,” he said, adding that his previous meetings with the North Korean leader had been “really productive.”

Although there has been no word yet about when exactly this meeting could happen, Kim Jong-un has already made it clear that he is ready “to be patient and wait for the American president by the end of the year.”

Seoul, another target of Pyongyang’s political signals, factors in very importantly in the diplomatic activity currently swirling around North Korea. 

“Kim launched the inter-Korean phase of the “new way” immediately after the meeting in Hanoi. It involves ratcheting up pressure on South Korea to demonstrate greater independence from the US,” The Hill commented.

“Of course, while it is awkward for South Korea to say so openly, there is no gainsaying the fact that the failure to make really meaningful progress in implementing the detailed agreements negotiated during the inter-Korean summits in Panmunjom and Pyongyang is due to the constraints imposed by South Korea’s support for the US’ North Korea policy.”

“South Koreans truly may be the most effective mediators precisely because they are caught between the parties: the Americans with whom they share long-term, common interests; and the North Koreans with whom they share an existential, common national identity,” the publication concluded.

In addition to general political issues and the problem of the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, economic projects in energy and infrastructure, including the construction of a gas pipeline and a railway line linking the two countries are an equally important aspect of cooperation between Russia and North Korea.

All these things, however, depend very much on the overall situation on the Korean Peninsula and the prospects for the normalization of inter-Korean relations.

“I spoke about this. We have been talking about this matter for many years. This includes direct railway traffic between South Korea, North Korea and Russia, including our Trans-Siberian Mainline, opportunities for laying pipelines – we can talk about both oil and gas, as well as the possible construction of new power transmission lines. All of this is possible. Moreover, in my opinion, this also meets the interests of the Republic of Korea, I have always had this impression. But, apparently, there is a shortage of sovereignty during the adoption of final decisions, and the Republic of Korea has certain allied obligations to the United States. Therefore, everything stops at a certain moment. As I see it, if these and other similar projects were implemented, this would create essential conditions for increasing trust, which is vitally needed to resolve various problems,” President Vladimir Putin said about this particular aspect of the talks with his North Korean counterpart.

Any further progress in the Korean settlement process depends directly on the kind of relationship we are going to see happening within the framework of the “six” world powers. Anyway, the summit, which has just closed up shop in Vladivostok, gives reasons for optimism. 

 First published in our partner International Affairs

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Updating the USSR: A Test for Freedom

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Thirty years ago, on March 17, 1991, the only all-Union referendum in the history of the USSR took place. One question was put to a vote: “Do you consider it necessary to preserve the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics as a renewed federation of equal sovereign republics, in which the rights and freedoms of a person of any nationality will be fully guaranteed?” Almost 77 percent of those who voted said “yes” to the preservation of the USSR in an updated form. The authorities of Armenia, Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova and Estonia refused to hold the referendum on their territory. By that time, the legislative and executive bodies and institutions in these republics were already controlled by secessionist forces, which did not hide their intentions to leave the USSR.

The March 17 referendum at that time was the only convincing attempt to appeal to public opinion on the most important issue of the political life of a huge country. However, the results did not change anything — by December 8 of the same year, the leaders of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine decided to dissolve the USSR. The referendum itself became the beginning of the end of a unique state — an experiment in the vast expanses of Eurasia. By that time, the republican elites were already ready to take power and wealth into their own hands; the events of August 1991 spurred this readiness — in Turkmenistan, where almost 100 percent of the population voted to preserve the USSR, on August 22, 1991, all enterprises were placed under republican control.

All the republics of the USSR met the new year in 1992 as newly independent states. For some of them, this status was a long-awaited event, for which they had fought. Others were, according to former Prime Minister of Kyrgyzstan Apas Jumagulov, “thrown out of the union, cut off as an unnecessary part of the body.” Many economic ties broke off immediately, while others collapsed gradually; the rest survived and were even strengthened. In politics, everyone was left to their own problems. Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Moldova and Tajikistan plunged into bloody political and interethnic conflicts during their first years of independence.

The path of the countries that emerged from the ruins of the USSR over the years was the road to gaining their own subjectivity in international politics. With great difficulty and despite all odds, Armenia and Moldova are coping with this task. The majority — Russia, Azerbaijan and all the countries of Central Asia — were able to solve the problem more or less successfully. Georgia and two Slavic republics — Belarus and Ukraine, were hanging in the “limbo” between external management and full-fledged statehood. The three Baltic republics quickly transferred their sovereignty to the European Union and NATO. In their independent development, they had to make, in fact, the only decision, which, moreover, was due to historical reasons and external circumstances. This decision was made and now the fate of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia cannot be perceived outside the context of Russia-West interaction.

For the rest, the direct link between success in creating their own statehood and the scale of interaction with the West (Europe and the United States) is quite obvious. This historical fact reveals a relationship between the ability of small and medium states to ensure their sovereignty and the interests of the great powers in their neighbourhood. Such powers were Russia and the European states, united into the European Union simultaneously with the collapse of the USSR. Also, an important role was played by the United States, which always sought to limit Russian opportunities and supported the newly independent states. At the same time, an attempt to choose in favour of closer relations with the West to the detriment of Russian interests in all cases, without exception, led to a very shaky statehood and the loss of territory.

The dramatic fate of Armenia, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine shows that the strong collective institutions of the West are capable of exerting a stabilising effect only on those states that directly became part of them.

In all other cases, no matter how complete absorption becomes possible, an orientation towards these institutions only leads to the use of small countries in a diplomatic game with bigger partners.

Therefore, the experience of the development of such major players as Azerbaijan or Uzbekistan is indicative — they were able to confidently form their own statehood, without finding themselves in a situation of choosing between conflicting poles of power. Their main resource turned out to be a rather fair demographic situation. But not only this — the population of Ukraine has also been and remains large by European standards. Kazakhstan is a success by this indicator; equal to the average European country or small Asian states.

Therefore, the ability of most of the countries of the former USSR to build relatively independent and stable statehood played no less important role. In many ways, this ability was established during the years of the Soviet Union’s existence. Founded on December 30, 1922, it was not just a continuation of the Russian Empire, which had collapsed five years earlier. Its main distinguishing feature was its unique model of state administration, based on the full power of one political party. As long as the unique position of the Communist Party remained in the Soviet state, the experiment could exist. With the abolition of Article 6 of the Constitution of the USSR, its days were numbered regardless of the desire of the population or the real readiness of the elites to take full responsibility for what was happening.

The USSR model of state structure, new by historical standards, created the conditions for a rather unique experiment, within the framework of which union republics were created, none of which, except for Russia, Georgia and Armenia, had the experience of centralised state administration within the territorial boundaries that they acquired within the framework of the USSR. At least the peoples inhabiting them can boast of a significant experience of statehood as such. Thus, most of the countries of Central Asia trace their ancestry back to great empires or urban civilizations of past centuries.

The Baltic republics were always on the sidelines — their independent statehood arose during the collapse of the Russian Empire and existed as such for almost 20 years before being incorporated into the USSR in 1940. Russia has returned to its historical state of being a major European power or empire of the 19th century, with the development of a multinational and multi-faith society central to its development objectives. In fact, Russia has not lost anything really necessary for its survival in international politics.

The peculiar structure of the USSR formalised the situation in which the former outskirts of the Russian Empire ceased to be part of the Russian state, although Moscow served as the centre of the union. Russia among them was in the most ambiguous position — it did not have its own most important institutions of Soviet statehood — the party organisation and the republican State Security Committee. Russian nationalism was subjected to the most severe and consistent persecution by the Soviet authorities.

The vast majority of republics within the USSR, for the first time, received the experience of building their own state and their national elite.

The backbone of the ruling class was the Soviet and party nomenklatura, which all took power, with few exceptions, after 1991. Even in Tajikistan, where the first years of independence were overshadowed by the civil war, it was this part of society that was eventually able to establish control over the situation. In other Central Asian countries, elites formed on the basis of the state tradition established during the Soviet era, gradually supplemented by representatives of a new generation that grew professionally after the collapse of the USSR.

Thirty years is a sufficient period to assess the results of the independent development of the countries that emerged from the republics of the former USSR. Now the period of their growing up can be considered complete; ahead is an independent future. Russia is increasingly feeling independent and not particularly obligated to its neighbours. In any event, Moscow will continue to follow a moral imperative of responsibility for maintaining peace and strictly ensure that its neighbours correlate their actions with Russian security interests.

From our partner RIAC

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Fighting Covid-19 pandemic: The Russian Way

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With a strong structured plan and that includes President Vladimir Putin weekly meetings with regional governors and related ministry officials, Russia is indeed making headway in mobilizing first its own domestic resources in fighting and controlling the coronavirus pandemic.

Under these time-testing conditions, the Russian government also ponders on the necessity to adopt a concerted approach to the economic sectors related to public health system, making efforts to strengthen fundamental research in all health disciplines and close the pitfalls in its policy.

Arguably, Russia is really moving with innovative orientations, exploring and finding lasting solutions. Russia is far ahead, both in terms of medical tests and vaccines. Currently, it is partnering with India and South Korea in manufacturing vaccines for immunization of both foreigners and Russians.

“India and South Korea are already producing the vaccine, and many of these enterprises will reach full capacity in April. Thus, this is truly the greatest achievement of Russian science, which is widely  acknowledged by the entire world,” CEO of the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) Kirill Dmitriev told Russian President Vladimir Putin during an early April meeting to review developments as well as production and promotion of Russian vaccines.

In addition, he informed the president that RDIF and its partners are actively working with Russian manufacturers, it took us three months to build Sputnik Technopolis, one of the largest plants to produce the vaccine, and together with R-Pharm. Russia is setting up international production per agreements with 10 countries and 20 manufacturers, including the world’s largest producers.

Beyond that, the Russian Direct Investment Fund is actively implementing a programme, of course, with a focus on vaccinating Russian citizens, but part of the vaccine produced abroad will simultaneously be delivered to foreign markets, according Dmitriev.

According to his assessment, Russia is not only one of the current leaders in the world in terms of vaccination rate, but it can provide vaccines to all people in Russia who want to be vaccinated before June using the production capacities in Russia and abroad.

“As I understood from talking to experts, our vaccine is effective against all known strains of the virus,” Putin commented during the discussion, and Kirill Dmitriev smartly added that “due to the two jabs, it is better than the other vaccines as relates to mutations. We believe that our vaccine is one of the best in the world, including against new strains of COVID-19.”

Reports show that Russia has produced 20.1 million doses of the Sputnik V vaccine as of March 17, while 4.3 million people, out of a population of 144 million, have received both shots of the vaccine.

According to data from Johns Hopkins University, at 225,572, the total coronavirus-related death toll places Russia third after the United States, which has reported over 553,000 deaths, and Brazil, with over 325,000.

According to the Russian Statistics Service, this April Russia has recorded over 225,000 deaths related to coronavirus since the start of the pandemic. That Russia has the third highest death toll in the world.

The Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) is Russia’s sovereign wealth fund established in 2011 by the Russian government to make investments in leading companies of high-growth sectors of the Russian economy. Its mandate is to co-invest alongside the world’s largest institutional investors – direct investment funds, sovereign wealth funds and leading companies.

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Growing US Pressure Incentive to Make China-Russia Ties More Diverse

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image credit: kremlin.ru

Two months after the inauguration of Present Joe Biden, with the political dust in Washington settling down, it is becoming increasingly clear that the US Democratic administration policy toward Russia and China contains more elements of continuity than elements of change. Unfortunately, this continuity is not something that they would like to observe in Moscow and Beijing.

If someone has hoped that a swift and unconditional extension of the New START agreement might trigger a renewed US-Russian dialogue on strategic stability and arms control, these hopes have gone up in smoke after the US president labeled his Russia peer as a “killer.” Biden also unequivocally rejected the idea of security debates offered by President Vladimir Putin. Before the US-Chinese “2+2” meeting in Anchorage, Alaska, there could have been expectations of at least a limited détente between Washington and Beijing. But now after this very tense and not quite productive meeting, such expectations have just evaporated into thin air.

One can only guess why the Biden team opted to continue the “dual containment” approach of its predecessors toward the main US geopolitical opponents with such a relentless zeal and vigor. Maybe in the White House they decided that any shade of US flexibility would be interpreted in Moscow and in Beijing as a sign of an American weakness, and as an invitation to seek more concessions from the administration. Maybe Biden is concerned about potential criticism that a more flexible approach could generate powerful Republican reactions from neo-cons on the Hill and from a defeated, but not yet completely politically destroyed, Donald Trump. Maybe, by pursuing this tough line, the new administration intends to demonstrate to the US public and the American allies and partners abroad its unbreakable commitment to human rights and democracy promotion agenda.

In any case, with the change of guard in the White House the rules of the game on the Great Eurasian Chessboard have not changed a bit. The Biden administration, like the Trump administration before it, continues to push the world toward a new bipolarity. It should not be surprising, therefore, that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov rushed to Guilin to meet his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, marking his first visit to the country since the coronavirus outbreak.

The formal goal of the trip is to discuss the 20-year anniversary of the Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation between the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation signed in July of 2001. The treaty has indeed been a remarkable accomplishment of the two sides. But the ongoing conversation between Lavrov and Wang is not limited to expressions of mutual admiration; it focuses mostly on how Moscow and Beijing could work hand in hand with each other responding to the US assertiveness. There are many ways to do that—ranging from solidarity voting in international organizations to coordinating national information strategies, to working with like-minded countries across the globe and to exchanging best practices in preventing the US interference into Russia’s and China’s domestic affairs respectively.

Neither in Moscow nor in Beijing do they harbor illusions about opportunities to fix their problems with Washington anytime soon; the two foreign ministers are going to hammer out a new, enhanced model of the bilateral strategic partnership for years to come. Though a common interest in responding to the growing US pressure is definitely not the only driver for closer economic, political and military ties between Russia and China, the US factor is an important additional incentive for making these ties more diverse and intensive.

After China, Foreign Minister Lavrov is making an extended stop in South Korea. Here, again, the Russian minister can find plenty of issues to discuss with his hosts that have little or nothing to do with the US. After all, we are approaching 30 years since diplomatic relations between Moscow and Seoul were established—a remarkable jubilee and a nice opportunity to reflect on the next 30 years!

However, under the circumstances, Lavrov will undoubtedly try to test the limits of the ROK’s “strategic autonomy” from Washington. True, ROK is a US ally and it regards America as its prime security provider. Still, Seoul has special relations with Beijing and Moscow; these special relations are ones the ROK is not ready to give up. The ROK-China economic relations remain critical for the South Korea prosperity. The South Korean approach to North Korea is not a carbon copy of the US or Japanese positions. It is clear that the South Korean leadership is not ready to automatically subscribe to any new anti-Russian or anti-Chinese policies from Washington.

At the end of the day, the outcome of the Great Game on the Global Chessboard will depend on whether there are regional players bold enough to question the archaic bipolar thinking emanating from Washington today. The outcome of Lavrov’s trip to Seoul might be an interesting case to watch.

From our partner RIAC

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