The development of relations between the Russian Federation and the DPRK continues to deepen after the Chairman of State Affairs, Comrade Kim Jong-un, paid a visit to Russia. A mirror response to the visit to Pyongyang by the Russian delegation headed by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was the visit of North Korean Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui to Moscow on January 14-18, 2024, during which she was received (https://t.me/MID_Russia/34213) by the President of the Russian Federation V.V. Putin.
A seasoned diplomat and Americanist by her primary specialty, Choi has been known as the iron lady of North Korean diplomacy, and it was she, in particular, who oversaw the US-North Korean rapprochement, often making harsh statements. Choe enjoys Kim’s great confidence, and the appointment of a woman to the post of foreign minister was perceived as a definite symbol of the changes of the era of Kim Jong-un, who is trying to move away from traditional management methods. It was Choe’s first solo trip abroad since she was appointed North Korea’s foreign minister in 2022.
From a protocol point of view, Choe Son-hui’s visit was held in a warm and friendly atmosphere and observance of official norms. On January 14, the delegation left Pyongyang and arrived in Russia, and on January 15 laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier near the Kremlin Wall. The wreath-laying ceremony was attended by members of the DPRK government delegation headed by the Minister and employees of the Russian Foreign Ministry, including Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Rudenko.
Also, on this day, members of the DPRK government delegation visited Zaryadye Park.
On 16 January, Sergey Lavrov and Choe Son-hui discussed the implementation of the agreements reached by the two heads of state in September 2023 and the schedule for further political contacts. The sides agreed on the need to maintain the current pace of interaction in practical areas, improve the legal framework, and intensify cultural and humanitarian exchanges. The Foreign Ministers also discussed the situation on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia and reaffirmed mutual commitment to resolving tensions in the region fuelled by the irresponsible and provocative actions of the United States and its satellites through political and diplomatic means.
Before the start of the talks, Sergey Lavrov presented Choe Son-hui with a bouquet of flowers and made an opening speech, in which he noted that the time chosen for the meeting “is just right to summarise the preliminary results of active work to implement the agreements” reached during the summit of the President of the Russian Federation and the Chairman of State Affairs of the DPRK at the Vostochny Cosmodrome. Among the important milestones of cooperation, the Minister recalled his visit to Pyongyang in October 2023, the 10th meeting of the Russian-Korean Intergovernmental Commission on Trade, Economic, Scientific and Technical Cooperation, the participation of the DPRK Minister of Physical Culture and Sports Kim Il Guk in the International Forum “Russia – a Sporting Power” in Perm in October 2023 and the DPRK Minister of Culture Seung Jong Gyu in the IX St. Petersburg International Cultural Forum in November 2023.
According to Sergey Lavrov, “these contacts are only the beginning of time-consuming but fruitful and grateful work aimed at the comprehensive development of our relations. A number of other important events are being prepared, including in the cultural and humanitarian sphere,” including a tour to Pyongyang by the Mariinsky Primorsky Theatre and the participation of Russian groups in the traditional April Spring festival.
The Russian Foreign Minister assessed relations between the two countries as a “trusting dialogue,” reaffirming “a principled position in favor of a comprehensive and fair settlement of existing problems” and a course toward “establishing a negotiation process without preconditions in order to achieve lasting peace and stability throughout Northeast Asia.” It was separately emphasised that Russia appreciates the DPRK’s support “on issues related to the ongoing special military operation in Ukraine”.
Calling “for the rejection of any steps leading to escalation of tension”, he criticised the policy of the USA and its regional satellites to create threats to the security of the DPRK and the aspiration of “the USA and its allies to create closed, block formats and try to promote the infrastructure of the North Atlantic Alliance in this region”.
Choe Son-hui said that regular meetings of the foreign ministers of the DPRK and Russia prove the energetic advancement of relations between the countries; the November meeting of the intergovernmental commission showed that the relations between the Russian Federation and the DPRK are developing dynamically; all efforts are being made to properly implement the agreements reached by the two heads of state; and the DPRK expects that in 2024 it will be possible to raise relations with the Russian Federation to a new level, including in terms of high-ranking visits. The invitation to V. Putin to visit North Korea at a convenient time, voiced by Kim Jong-un during the summit, was noted. The DPRK Foreign Minister stressed that the current situation is an important stage in the just struggle for joint opposition to military threats and provocations of imperialist forces.
The talks were attended by members of the delegation, including Deputy Foreign Minister Im Chong Il and Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to the Russian Federation Shin Hong Chol, and on the Russian side by Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Rudenko, Foreign Ministry officials and Russian Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to North Korea Alexander Matsegora. They discussed “issues on further development of friendly Korean-Russian relations based on the agreements reached at the historic Korean-Russian summit held in September 2023. They also touched upon issues on strengthening tactical and strategic cooperation between the foreign ministries of the two countries in actively promoting bilateral exchanges and cooperation in all fields, including economy and culture, this year, which marks the 75th anniversary of the agreement on economic and cultural cooperation between the DPRK and the Russian Federation.”
In addition, “the two sides exchanged in-depth views on strengthening joint action on various regional and international issues, including the situation on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia, and reached a common understanding.”
On the same day, late in the evening of 16 January, Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Sergey Lavrov and Choe Son-hui in the Kremlin. According to the Russian leader’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov on 17 January, the foreign ministers briefed the Russian leader on the agreements reached. Putin and Choe then discussed the situation on the Korean Peninsula and bilateral relations.
According to the KCNA report, Choe Son-hui “respectfully conveyed to Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin the warm greetings of Comrade Kim Jong-un.” The conversation, which was held in a warm and friendly atmosphere, “reaffirmed the positions of both sides to stimulate the dynamic development of the overall bilateral relations in line with the deep aspiration of the peoples of the two countries to open a new period of blossoming strategic and traditional Korean-Russian friendship relations to achieve joint prosperity and development, to cooperate and cooperate closely to ensure peace and security in the region and the world.”
On 17 January, Choe Son-hui met with Russian Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak and held a conversation with him, which was attended by members of the DPRK government delegation and Russian stakeholders, including the Deputy Minister of Transport. The talk discussed practical issues to intensify and expand bilateral exchanges and cooperation in various fields, including trade and economy, in line with the fact that Korea-Russia friendship and cooperation relations have risen to a new strategic level.
The meeting seems to be an important element of the visit, indicating what kind of working points were discussed in the closed-door talks. Novak, a former energy minister, became the country’s deputy prime minister for fuel and energy complex (FEC) in 2020.
Given that many of the DPRK’s problems are rooted in a lack of energy equipment, and Kim Jong-un explicitly mentioned the possibility of building a nuclear power plant at the January session of the SNC, this meeting could have a very important follow-up.
On 18 January, Choe Son-hui left Moscow and returned home the next day.
The specific delay of the visit was largely hidden behind streamlined language, with Sergei Lavrov describing the agenda as “intense”. In addition, the visit attracted additional attention also because almost parallel to the visit, Pyongyang hosted a session of the National People’s Congress, at which Kim Jong-un finally buried the previous paradigm of inter-Korean policy. Passages about “unification”, “reconciliation” and “compatriots” were rejected as inconsistent with objective reality and it was recognised that there are two states hostile to each other on the Korean peninsula. This created the impression that Pyongyang was actively seeking allies in its growing confrontation with the US and its satellites, including primarily the ROK. This has led to a new round of talk in the west that new arms deals were discussed in Moscow and corresponding expressions of concern.
“North Korea and Russia should clearly realise that (the international community) is closely following Choe’s visit to Russia,” said Koo Ben Sam, a spokesman for the ROK’s reunification ministry.
“The deepening cooperation between North Korea and Russia is a trend of great concern to all who have an interest in maintaining peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula, upholding the global nonproliferation regime, and supporting the people of Ukraine as they defend their freedom and independence from Russia’s brutal invasion,” the US State Department spokesman pointed out.
South Korean international relations experts told the Korea Times that “the North Korean capital is likely to be Putin’s first overseas destination after his almost certain election victory and inauguration on 7 May as part of his efforts to strengthen diplomatic and military ties with the North.” They added that Putin could fly there even before the election (15-17 March) as the move would not affect his popularity at home, where he enjoys stable approval ratings. Hyun Seung-soo, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification, even believes Putin will first visit Pyongyang and only then go to Beijing.
As for the visit’s agenda, experts suggested that key issues likely included sending North Korean workers to Russia, North Korea’s potential for further arms support, and Donald Trump’s possible return to the White House. Hyun Seung-soo, who is clearly prone to overreaching, suggests that “North Korea’s possible involvement in rebuilding the eastern region of Ukraine under Russian control was probably seen as a major issue. Evidence already suggests that an increasing number of North Koreans have recently entered Russia, probably on fake visas, to fill the void in the Russian labour market under the Special Military Operation. If the Russian military manages to stabilise its control over the region, which I believe is not out of the question this year, Russia will try to expand this cooperation to hire workers it lacks.”
On 17 January, the United States warned of North Korea possibly providing additional military assistance to Russia for use in Ukraine “as Pyongyang’s top diplomat visited Moscow this week in a clear sign of deepening bilateral ties.” Moreover, Pranay Waddy, senior director for arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation at the US National Security Council, said “that the threat from the DPRK could radically increase because of Russian Federation.”
According to Waddy, over the next decade, because of the unprecedented level of military cooperation between Pyongyang and Moscow, “the nature of North Korea as a threat in the region could change dramatically.” In exchange for Russian arms support, the Kremlin will supply Kim with fighter jets, surface-to-air missiles, armoured vehicles, equipment or materials for ballistic missile production and other advanced technologies. This co-operation adds a new element that Seoul and Washington need to take into account during talks on extended deterrence.
From the author’s perspective, the topics of the discussions were rather different and concerned the formation of two blocs: the US, Japan and South Korea on the one hand, and Russia, China and the DPRK on the other. At a minimum, this means that the countries are becoming more aware of each other’s plans for a more coordinated foreign policy.
The public part of the statements following the visit, which took place without a special communiqué, included an indication of the parties’ commitment to “political and diplomatic resolution of tensions in the region fuelled by the irresponsible and provocative actions of the United States and its satellites”.
A very important point in this context is the Russian President’s visit to the DPRK. Dmitry Peskov, press secretary to the head of state, told reporters that “Vladimir Putin has an active invitation to pay an official visit to Pyongyang. We hope that such a visit will take place, that the Russian President will visit the DPRK in the foreseeable future.”
The second block concerned economic co-operation, where Moscow and Pyongyang face a serious dilemma. On the one hand, there is a desire to establish cooperation in a variety of areas, including potentially military and technical cooperation. On the other hand, this co-operation should not at least openly violate the UN Security Council sanctions that Russia voted in favour of. At least for now, Moscow has emphasised that although it is against the imposition of additional sanctions, it is not going to disavow the previous ones.
Therefore, “a common opinion was openly expressed regarding the need to maintain the given pace of co-operation in practical areas, further improve the legal framework, and intensify exchanges in the humanitarian and cultural spheres”.
However, after Choe’s meeting with Putin, the Kremlin said that Russia was interested in further developing relations with North Korea in all areas, including “sensitive” ones, and Dmitry Peskov stressed that dialogue with the DPRK would continue at all levels. The meeting between Choe and Novak points to working out cooperation in energy and infrastructure (participation of a representative of the DPRK’s Ministry of Transport), while a photo published by foreign media before her meeting with Putin allegedly showed a member of the North Korean delegation with a document entitled “List of Observations in Space Technology” in Korean. According to the South Koreans, the document “suggests possible continued cooperation between the two sides in space technology after Putin said at the September summit that his country would help Pyongyang build satellites.”
Thus, while the implications of the visit will be known in time, we are seeing a significant strengthening of Moscow-Pyongyang relations. As Dmitry Peskov notes, “North Korea is our closest neighbour, our partner, with whom we are developing and intend to continue to develop partnership relations in all areas.”
Konstantin ASMOLOV, Candidate of Historical Sciences, Leading research fellow of the Center for Korean Studies at the Institute of China and Modern Asia of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.