The State Department’s top official dealing with North Korea made a quiet trip to Moscow on Monday to urge Russia to support new United Nations sanctions on North Korea. But though Russia agreed to a watered-down measure, the two countries are still far apart on how to resolve the crisis.
Joseph Yun, the State Department’s special representative for North Korea policy, arrived in Moscow ahead of the Security Council vote on a new package of sanctions, on the regime of Kim Jong Un, which curtail its energy imports and textile exports but fall short of the full oil embargo the United States had initially proposed.
The Russian government had invited Yun as part of President Vladimir Putin’s larger effort to elevate Russia’s role in the ongoing North Korea crisis, which involves resistance by Moscow to further sanctions and a push for a return to the negotiating table with Pyongyang. As of last week, Yun’s trip was on hold, administration officials said. But after the Kim regime’s latest nuclear test, the drive for another Security Council resolution created new urgency and Yun was dispatched to Moscow.
“This visit is an example of our ongoing discussions with the international community to increase pressure on [North Korea],” said State Department spokesman Justin Higgins. “The United States seeks stability and the peaceful denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. We remain open to negotiations toward that goal.”
The Russia foreign ministry issued a statement Tuesday with a very different take on Yun’s meeting with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov. According to Moscow, the meeting was about dialogue, not pressure.
“The Russian side stressed that there is no other way to settle the problems of the Korean Peninsula, including the nuclear problem, other than by political and diplomatic means,” the ministry said. “The sides noted readiness for joint efforts in the interests of finding comprehensive approaches to ensuring security [in] Northeastern Asia, including in the context of the implementation of the Russian-Chinese roadmap for the Korean settlement.” For several months, Russia and China have been proposing a “freeze for freeze” option whereby the United States and South Korea would curtail military exercises in exchange for North Korea freezing its missile and nuclear tests. Both Washington and Seoul have publicly rejected that idea multiple times.
President Donald Trump played down the new Security Council resolution and promised further sanctions Tuesday at the White House, speaking to the press after his meeting with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak.
“We think it’s just another very small step - not a big deal,” Trump said about the latest U.N. resolution. “[Secretary of State] Rex [Tillerson] and I were just discussing not knowing if it has any impact, but it’s nice to get a 15-to-nothing vote. Those sanctions are nothing compared to ultimately what will have to happen.”
A senior administration official briefed reporters last week and also said that the Trump administration has no intention of sitting down with the Kim regime under current conditions and that the plan is to continue to increase pressure on Pyongyang.
“The amount of pressure North Korea has been put under economically is still far short of what we applied to Iran or even Iraq,” the official said. “There is a long way to go before North Korea is going to feel the pressure they would need to feel to change their calculus.”
Yun last visited Moscow in April. He has also kept open a channel to the North Korean regime through its U.N. representatives in New York. Working with the Russian government is a part of his diplomatic responsibilities, and he often travels to other countries involved in the North Korea issue as well.
Some experts hold out hope that Yun’s efforts will produce an opening for direct dialogue with the Kim regime that the Trump White House might take advantage of.
“The smart strategy is to keep pushing the sanctions ball forward with the [Russians and Chinese], but at the same time showing them we are serious about their interests, which is starting a dialogue,” said former nuclear negotiator Joel Wit. “It takes away their opportunity to blame us, and probably makes them willing to be more cooperative with us.”
Others are skeptical there is enough common ground between the United States on one side and Russia and China on the other to build on. On Capitol Hill on Tuesday, lawmakers from both parties grilled Trump administration officials to move forward with tougher sanctions on North Korea, even without China’s or Russia’s permission.
“Unfortunately, years have been wasted as sanctions have been weak, allowing North Korea to have the financial access to build its nuclear and missile programs,” said House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Edward Royce, R-Calif. “The time for that pressure is now.”
Josh Rogin is a Washington Post columnist.