North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has met Russia’s foreign minister in Pyongyang in a move that Moscow hopes will reassert its role as a force to be reckoned with ahead of Kim’s expected summit with Donald Trump next month.
Moscow has remained largely on the sidelines as Kim has made a major diplomatic outreach to Seoul, Beijing and Washington over the past several months.
However, Sergey Lavrov’s visit suggests Russia wants to make sure it is informed of North Korea’s intentions.
Mr Lavrov relayed President Vladimir Putin’s “warmest regards and best wishes” for Kim’s “big endeavours” on the Korean Peninsula.
He also expressed Moscow’s support for an agreement Kim reached with South Korean President Moon Jae-in at a summit last month that focused on measures to ease hostilities and increase exchanges between the two Koreas.
Video of the beginning of their meeting showed Mr Lavrov inviting Kim to Moscow and complimenting the North Korean leader on the many new projects that have brightened up the capital.
According to Russian media, he also discussed ways to expand relations during a meeting with Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho.
“We welcome the contacts that have been developing in the recent months between North and South Korea, between North Korea and the United States,” Mr Lavrov said in comments to the media.
“We welcome the summits that already took place between Pyongyang and Seoul as well as planned meetings between North Korean and US leadership.”
He vowed Russia’s support for denuclearisation and a broader effort to create a stable and long-lasting peace in the region, but indicated that Moscow believes sanctions can be eased while the process is in progress, which diverges from the US position that denuclearisation must come first.
“It’s absolutely obvious that when a conversation starts about solving the nuclear problem and other problems of the Korean Peninsula, we proceed from the fact that the decision can’t be complete while sanctions are still in place,” he said.
Despite having a border with North Korea and relatively cordial relations that Mr Putin has seemed to want to develop further, Russia has kept a surprisingly low profile as Kim has emerged onto the world stage this year, meeting twice with Chinese President Xi Jinping and South Korea’s Moon.
As Mr Lavrov was visiting Pyongyang, one of Kim’s top lieutenants, former intelligence chief Kim Yong Chol, was in New York to discuss the agenda for the Trump summit with US officials.