- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 3, 2019

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is deepening his regime’s relations with Russia just as South Korea engages in a charm offensive with the Trump administration five weeks after U.S.-North Korean denuclearization talks broke down.

A visit by Russia’s interior minister to Pyongyang this week has sparked concern among U.S. officials that Mr. Kim is cultivating a powerful backer in Moscow should tensions rise with Washington, all while Seoul is seen to be scrambling to keep nuclear diplomacy alive between Washington and North Korea.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in will push Seoul’s position as a diplomatic go-between when he sees President Trump at the White House next week, just days after trips to Washington by South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha and Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo.

With all sides still measuring the fallout from late February’s failed Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi, Mr. Moon has been seeking to tamp down any speculation of “conflict in Washington-Seoul relations,” said one person familiar with the visit.

“There have been reports of U.S.-South Korea alliance problems, of a difference of policy toward North Korea because South Korea is trying to accelerate inter-Korean cooperation while the U.S. is trying to maintain strong sanctions against Pyongyang,” said the source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “But both governments are now trying to show they’re on the same page and the visits by Ministers Kang and Jeong showed that last week.”



Mr. Moon is planning his visit as frustration mounts in Washington over North Korea’s actions in the wake of the Hanoi summit, which was cut short after Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim failed to strike a far-reaching deal to end the North’s nuclear and missile programs. Mr. Trump said he had to walk away because Mr. Kim was demanding sweeping sanctions relief in exchange for only a limited commitment to destroy part of the North’s nuclear arsenal, a characterization Pyongyang has challenged.

While there have been reports of renewed North Korean ballistic missile and nuclear activity, Pyongyang has not launched any rockets or tested any bombs since Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim held a summit in Singapore last June. But U.S. officials say they remain concerned about activity at the North’s Tongchang-ri rocket launch site.

South Korean officials say they share such concern. Mr. Jeong told reporters after a meeting with acting Defense Secretary Patrick M. Shanahan on Monday that Seoul is working closely with Washington to monitor Tongchang-ri, a site Pyongyang previously vowed to destroy.

But Mr. Jeong was circumspect about the North’s intentions behind restoring the launch site.

“At this point in time, it is difficult to judge whether it is intended to bolster [the North’s] bargaining power or to prepare for a missile launch,” he said, according to the South’s Yonhap News Agency.

Seeking options

With the Trump administration refusing to ease crippling international economic sanctions on the North, the Kim regime is eager to show it has options ahead of any further talks with Washington. The Tongchang-ri activity and the ramped-up contact with Russia are both part of the strategy, said Patrick M. Cronin, a top Asia-Pacific Security fellow at the Hudson Institute.

“It makes a lot of sense for Kim, who’s trying to strengthen his balance-of-power game,” Mr. Cronin said last week. “He’s looking for leverage.”

Kim’s been hinting for months that he’ll make a visit to Moscow or Vladivostok for a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin,” Mr. Cronin said. “This would be to show Washington he has the support of a Russia, a U.N. Security Council member, a big nuclear neighbor of North Korea and a big economic partner.”

Mr. Kim may also want to show he is not heavily reliant on China, which is widely considered to be Pyongyang’s closest economic partner and which U.S. officials have struggled to gain support for upholding sanctions again North Korea.

The Tass news agency in Moscow reported Tuesday that Russian Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev arrived a day earlier in Pyongyang as part of a “planned exchange” that would involve officials from the Russian and North Korean law enforcement agencies. The visit follows up on an invitation presented in December by a North Korean delegation that visited Moscow, the agency said.

The outreach comes at a sensitive moment in wider peace diplomacy that has been playing out between South Korea and North Korea, which has proceeded on its own track alongside Mr. Trump’s summit diplomacy.

April 27 will mark one year since the signing of the Panmunjom Declaration to culminate a summit between Mr. Moon and Mr. Kim. The two leaders met on the South Korean side of the Demilitarized Zone, which has divided North and South since the 1950s war on the divided peninsula. The declaration featured pledges of cooperation and peace, as well as a broad commitment to pursue denuclearization, and was widely seen to have paved the way for the first Trump-Kim summit in Singapore last June.

Losing influence

Mr. Kim has since shown little measurable progress toward abandoning his nuclear weapons. With the more recent failure of the Hanoi summit, some say the Moon government is increasingly wary of losing its influence.

Mr. Moon’s visit next week will be “an attempt to revive U.S.-North Korean negotiations,” according to former CIA Korea Deputy Division Chief Bruce Klingner, a fellow at The Heritage Foundation.

“President Trump’s decision to walk away from a bad deal in Hanoi undermined South Korea’s plans for further improving relations with Pyongyang. Recently, the North has been dismissing Seoul’s efforts at mediation,” Mr. Klingner said in an analysis. “Moon will likely seek to encourage Trump to eschew Washington’s recent firmer policy and lower the bar for North Korean required actions, and advocate for Trump to offer some sanctions relief in return for North Korean steps toward denuclearization.”

Mr. Cronin added, “President Moon is going to be lobbying Trump to accept a small deal with North Korea because the South Koreans mistakenly believe that the administration turned down a small deal in Hanoi when what really happened is that President Trump turned down a bad deal.

Moon desperately needs to sustain the peace process peace and the denuclearization process because the one-year anniversary of Panmunjom is coming and then we’re going to get to the one-year anniversary of the Singapore summit,” he said. “The South Koreans know that will be a break point at which they’re going to lose support for institutionalizing the peace process. That’s why Moon is coming here.”

Mr. Moon has expressed concern over how the North Koreans might react to his visit to the White House. According to the Reuters news agency, he told his Cabinet that his Washington visit will focus on restarting U.S.-North Korean talks, advancing a peace process and creating a “virtuous cycle” of improving relations with North Korea.

Ms. Kang pushed a similar message on meeting with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Washington last week. “What’s most important at this stage after the Hanoi summit,” she said, “is to restart negotiations between North Korea and the United States.”

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