Russian foreign minister meets Kim Jong Un

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during a trip to Pyongyang Thursday, as Moscow steps up efforts to increase its influence in the region ahead of proposed talks between Kim and US President Donald Trump.

Speaking to reporters after meeting with his North Korean counterpart Ri Yong Ho, Lavrov called for the phased lifting of sanctions on North Korea, suggesting that denuclearization would only be achievable if sanctions were scaled back.

“As we start discussions on how to resolve the nuclear problem on the Korean Peninsula, it is understood that the solution cannot be comprehensive without the lifting of sanctions,” Lavrov said according to state news agency Sputnik.

Lavrov’s comments are likely to be met with frustration in Washington, where efforts are underway to convince North Korea to begin the process of nuclear disarmament ahead of the on-again off-again summit, tentatively scheduled for June 12.

The Trump administration has long maintained that the lifting of sanctions is dependent on the North’s willingness to begin the process of full denuclearization. The success of the policy, known as the “maximum pressure campaign” remains dependent on the support of the international community, including Russia.

On Wednesday, Senior North Korean official Kim Yong Chol met with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in New York, their third meeting this year, as the two sides attempt to finalize their summit preconditions.

Lavrov said he welcomed increasing contact between North Korea, South Korea and the United States and added that Russia had a “common understanding with the North Korean side about the need to take the utmost care about what is happening now in terms of establishing contacts, normalizing relations between the two Koreas, between the DPRK and the United States, and avoiding the temptation to demand ‘everything at once.'”

However he cautioned against making “sudden moves, to artificially speed the process, which requires a considerable amount of time and a more detailed alignment of all components of the package.”

Asked if he was concerned that Trump or the next US president might renege on a deal, Lavrov said: “I am sure that the North Korean side knows perfectly well the history of recent years and, of course, will determine its position taking into account all factors.”

Old allies

On Thursday during his visit to Pyongyang, Lavrov laid a floral tribute before the statues of President Kim Il Sung and leader Kim Jong Il. The long-time Russian foreign minister has been to the North Korean capital before, including in 2009 during an earlier round of negotiations on North Korean disarmament. It’s not known whether Lavrov’s meeting with Kim Jong Un was planned prior to his latest visit.

During their encounter, Lavrov invited Kim to visit Moscow. “Come to Russia, we’ll be happy to have you,” Lavrov told Kim, according to Russian state media.

The entry of Russia into the fray surrounding North Korea comes amid a flurry of international diplomatic activity, as regional powers look to build alliances ahead of the possible June 12 Trump-Kim summit.

Earlier this month, Kim Jong Un traveled to the northeastern Chinese city of Dalian to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping, the second meeting between the two leaders since March.

However despite the fact that Russia and North Korea nations established relations 70 years ago, the shadow once cast by Russia has lessened in North Korea as Moscow’s global influence has waned and its own economy has been shaken by international sanctions.

“Russia has far less influence or leverage with North Korea than China does, and that’s not because of the military stuff, it’s purely because of money,” said Bruce Bechtol, a professor of political science at Angelo State University who has authored several books on North Korea.

He said Russia is the only country other than China that presents a “semblance of being an ally” to the isolated regime.

“During the Cold War, Russia subsidized everything in North Korea. North Korea was not a poor country, it was simply a subsidized member of what we can now call the Soviet Union’s satellite states,” he told CNN.

That all ended in 1991, said Bechtol, when the Berlin Wall came down, communism in the Soviet Union and its member states collapsed, and Russia opened its economic doors to the West.