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Russia’s top envoy to meet Ri Yong-ho in Pyongyang

May 31,2018
Russia’s foreign minister plans to visit North Korea today to discuss bilateral relations and “pressing international issues” with the North Korean minister, Moscow announced Wednesday.

Sergey Lavrov’s meeting with North Korea’s Ri Yong-ho could be part of North Korea’s effort to gain negotiating power against the United States ahead of a possible summit between its leader, Kim Jong-un, and U.S. President Donald Trump on June 12 in Singapore. South Korean analysts believe Russia could be seeking a role in the recent flurry of diplomacy, especially since it was one of the six parties in talks about North Korea’s denuclearization during the 2000s.

Neither North Korea nor Russia went into the specifics of Lavrov’s itinerary in the North. They did not say whether he planned to meet with Kim Jong-un. When Ri visited Moscow last month, he met Lavrov but not Russian President Vladimir Putin. During that meeting, Lavrov accepted an invitation from Ri to visit Pyongyang.

“North Korea has already started dialogue with the United States, but it doesn’t trust Washington yet,” said Jeon Hyun-joon, vice chairman of the board of directors at the Korea Peace Forum. “North Korea’s contingency plan is to gain support from Russia and China and use that in pressuring the United States in ongoing talks.”

A retired official from South Korea’s spy agency, the National Intelligence Service, said the North might have meticulously planned the announcement of Lavrov’s arrival. The state-run Korean Central News Agency published the news on Wednesday morning, a day after Kim Yong-chol, director of North Korea’s United Front Department, which handles inter-Korean affairs, arrived in Beijing and was about to board a flight to New York to meet U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for discussions on the North-U.S. summit.

Getting the news out before Kim Yong-chol landed in New York, the former intelligence official said, could have been a sign to Washington that Pyongyang was building ties with Moscow at home.

Some Hong Kong media outlets on Wednesday raised the possibility of a trilateral summit involving North Korea, Russia and China before the U.S.-North summit next month, saying the three leaders could convene on June 9 when China hosts the 18th Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit in Qingdao. Russia and China are members of the organization, which would mean Kim Jong-un would have to be specially invited.

But a source with knowledge of Chinese government affairs told the JoongAng Ilbo that there were no tangible signs yet that Beijing was actually preparing for a trilateral meeting.

BY LEE SUNG-EUN, JEONG YONG-SOO AND YEH YOUNG-JUNE [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]