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Russia makes a game-changing appearance

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Singapore. 01 May 2019. In the latest context of resolving the North Korean nuclear challenge, Russia now makes a bold entrance.

The world’s eyes will be watching: What role, then, does Russia now seriously play to show that it can be a global negotiator?

Will it be as a behind-the-scenes negotiator, spoiler, and unholy ally? It is not front and center, but it now looks central.

Russia President Vladimir Putin is gearing up to play a bigger role in Pyongyang’s nuclear negotiations and has called for the UN sanctions to be eased.

To put into perspective, North Korea leader Kim Jong-un has reignited the spark that eased off. Turn the clock back and recollect how the late Kim Jong II and the former President Dmitry Medvedev last met in 2011 in Siberia.

And now Mr Putin has extended the invitation to Mr Kim a year ago which led to the meeting for the first time in Vladivostok.

RUSSIA SET FOR OWN TERMS?

Now that Kim has met Mr Putin, it simply shows that Russia could have a bigger play in the whole denuclearisation. But how will they do it?

Historically, Russia is Pyongyang’s second biggest customer after China according to the United Nations (UN). In 2018, figure shows a whopping US$32.1 million of exports to North Korea from Russia.

And for North Korea labour is one of the key exports to Russia. To date, around 10,000 North Koreans are labouring in Russia. More may well be employed with an export of US$1.98 million to Russia in 2018.

So Russia could have potential long-term plans. And one of the most important is having an access to North Korea’s cheap labour on top of its mineral resources. And second, North Korea holds most of the peninsula’s raw material reserves.

JOINT ECONOMIC PROJECTS

Between October 2017 and May 2018, it was reported that fuel was transferred to North Korea’s ship in the international waters at least four times by a Russian tanker. By doing so, it extends the economic lifeline of the battered North Korea economy. But more critically, it has violated the international trade sanctions.

And before the UN sanctions, North Korea and Russia were working on a number of joint economic projects. That included restoring and expanding the 54km railway between the North Korean port of Rajin and Khasan in Russia. So both leaders share a strong common interest in easing the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) sanctions imposed on North Korea.

Every cloud has a silver lining and so the first Kim-Putin summit lasted over 200 minutes. Although full details weren’t shared,  Kim voiced hopes to continue “fruitful and constructive” talks with Russia in a way to further promote peace and harmony in the region.

CRUCIAL RUSSIAN SUPPORT

It further proves that Kim has achieved what he set for, to lobby for Russia support. And analysts expect Putin to have discreet discussions with his counterparts, including US President Donald Trump.

Rather significantly, Putin backs the full nuclearisation, hence there is an alignment with the US agenda as far as the Korea peninsula is concerned.

But he was also quick to add that a certain form of security and international guarantees must be on the cards. And that probably becomes the bedrock of confidence and trust building between North Korea and the US.

For Kim, he has met Chinese President Xi Jinping four times over a span of one year, met South Korean President Moon Jae-in who acted as a mediator between Kim-Trump summit and now with Putin.

VERSATILE CARDS-PLAYER?

Perhaps, he reckons he’s quite a versatile cards-player and using the Russian ‘ace’ at hand, taking into consideration that Russia and North Korea bilateral ties go way back, his approach may well win him considerable support back home.

Above all, it also shows that Kim is serious in reviving the economic life of his country and does not intend to go back to his old ways. However, he could also view nuclear weapons as critical to regime survival.

So in order to convince a man to put the gun down, he must first be convinced that no harm will come to him. A blatant common sense which we may have to come on terms with.

Russia’s behind-the-scenes ability to throw a wrench in the process should not be underestimated, say analysts. And perhaps even more important, it will be an essential player in any future discussions around North Korea’s chemical weapons stock.

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