5530296 14.06.2018 June 14, 2018. Russian President Vladimir Putin and President of the Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly of North Korea Kim Yong-nam, left, during a meeting. Alexei Druzhinin / Sputnik
5530296 14.06.2018 June 14, 2018. Russian President Vladimir Putin and President of the Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly of North Korea Kim Yong-nam, left, during a meeting. Alexei Druzhinin / Sputnik

When it comes to North Korea, Japan and Russia may seem like two “lost souls” in Northeast Asia, standing on the fringes anxiously looking on as China, South Korea and the United States dominate the headlines.

The tremors set in motion by the meeting between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore last Tuesday add to the angst.

In reality, Russia is way ahead of Japan. The meeting in the Kremlin on Wednesday between Russian President Vladimir Putin and the visiting Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly of North Korea Kim Yong-nam, the number two man in the hierarchy in Pyongyang, underscores this.

Clearly, the two countries are keeping up the momentum in high-level exchanges.

Japan out, Russia in

Japan, on the other hand, is groping for a way to somehow make an entry. Notionally, it is aligned with the US at the leadership level. But then, Trump is a lone ranger. Japan has no diplomatic relations with North Korea and setting up high-level contacts needs protracted efforts.

Besides, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been the most forceful proponent of the “maximum pressure” policy toward North Korea. He probably overreached, overlooking Trump’s propensity to make abrupt shifts. Indeed, the shift in the tectonic plates this week caught Tokyo flat-footed. Quick backtracking is necessary.

Kim must first decide when, how urgently or even whether to meet Abe. It’s a fraught situation for Tokyo, because Japan is a stakeholder and is most vulnerable to North Korea’s missiles. But with Kim having twice met both Chinese President Xi Jinping and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Abe is the only major regional leader yet to establish eye contact with the top man in Pyongyang.

Clearly, Kim is prioritizing Beijing and Moscow before Tokyo. The plane carrying Kim from Singapore to Pyongyang on the return journey reportedly landed in Beijing airport and someone “disembarked.” And, at the Kremlin meeting, Kim Young-nam handed over to Putin a letter from his supreme leader.

Putin’s remarks suggest that Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s visit to Pyongyang on May 31 has re-injected some dynamism into the longstanding ties between the two.

The Russians invited a dignitary from Pyongyang to the FIFA World Cup inaugural ceremony – although the North Korean soccer team has not qualified. Kim Young-nam represented North Korea at the opening ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi and Putin received him again just before the gala ceremony at the Luzhniki Stadium.

Putin recalled the “old and very good relations” between Russia and North Korea and took the opportunity to “welcome and praise the outcome of the meeting” in Singapore between Trump and Kim on Tuesday. He said that this has been “the first step towards a full settlement” and the goodwill of the two leaderships made it possible.

Putin assessed the meeting as creating conditions for further progress and reducing the overall level of tension in the region. Putin added that a large military conflict would have had a “very dire outcome,” and thanks to the meeting in Singapore, “a possible negative scenario has been postponed.” He noted, “now there are prospects of resolving the problems by peaceful political and diplomatic means.”

Meeting Kim – and selling gas?

Putin reiterated Russia’s cooperation and stressed its readiness to “establish ties” in economic cooperation. Without doubt, the long-standing Russian proposals to link the Trans-Siberian and Trans-Korean railways systems, and to run a new pipeline from the Russian Far East through North Korea to energy-thirsty South Korea, are high on Putin’s agenda. Kim Young-nam responded that North Korea’s new strategy aims to “concentrate all its resources and efforts on economic construction.”

Putin also showed an interest in an early meeting with Kim Jong-un. He suggested that the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok in September might provide an occasion for Kim to visit Russia, but added that a “stand-alone” visit is also possible.

The positive tone of all this is self-evident.

If the US is determined to keep Russia out of the peace process looming ahead, Moscow is equally determined to be present at center stage. Ideally, Russia would have preferred a resuscitation of the long-moribund, Beijing-sponsored six-party talks format, which gave it a habitation and name at the high table.

But that is unlikely to happen, given Trump’s preference for the Art of the Deal  – a “bilateral deal” with Kim, with Xi and Moon acting as facilitators. At any rate, Trump has disclosed that Washington intends to keep the negotiations on a peace treaty as a matter between North Korea, China, South Korea and the US.

However, Moscow can be expected to play an active role. Unsurprisingly, Russia emphasizes the “denuclearization” of the entire Korean Peninsula, which includes the future US military presence and a host of attendant issues.

From Kim’s perspective, Russia, by its sheer presence, creates more space for him to negotiate. In fact, Moscow is compelled to play an active role, since it shares a border with North Korea and any expansion of American influence in that country there impacts vital Russian interests.

North Korea’s integration into the region is a key template of Russia’s “pivot to the East.” The development of the Russian Far East is significantly dependent on the success of this pivot policy. North Korea’s re-construction opens up business opportunities for Russian companies and provides a transit route for Russia’s trade with the Asia-Pacific region.

Putin has a rare genius for optimizing geopolitics by combining it with geo-economics, although the two are often regarded as fundamentally different paths.

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