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Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, prepares to sign documents as Sergei Naryshkin, right, speaker of Russia's lower parliament house, and Valentina Matviyenko, head of the upper house, look on during a ceremony in Moscow's Kremlin on March 21, 2014.   © Reuters
North Korea Crisis

Russia steps up as go-between on North Korea

Moscow sees rogue state as key to mending fences with Washington

MOSCOW -- Russia has been setting up a number of high-profile meetings with North Korean officials, positioning itself as an intermediary for negotiations with the isolated state in a bid to improve Moscow's strained relations with the U.S.

Valentina Matviyenko, the speaker of Russia's upper house, met separately with North and South Korean representatives on Monday on the sidelines of an international meeting in St. Petersburg. Matviyenko had called for a direct dialogue between the two Koreas, but Pyongyang rejected the idea in protest of joint U.S.-South Korean military drills.

The vice chair of North Korea's Supreme People's Assembly is believed to have given Matviyenko a statement from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, while arguing that nuclear weapons were the only way for the country to defend itself. Matviyenko's meeting with the North Korean official lasted about an hour and a half, compared with just 30 minutes or so with the South Korean envoy.

The Russian speaker later called for the resumption of six-party talks on the North Korean issue, and stressed that she will continue making every effort to foster dialogue.

Russia is also hosting an international conference on nuclear nonproliferation starting Thursday, to be attended by Choe Son Hui, director of North American affairs at the North Korean Foreign Ministry, and Wendy Sherman, former U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs. Some expect the two countries to have some type of contact during the event.

Russia is eager to strengthen its ties with North Korea. A group of Russian parliamentarians met with a top North Korean official in Pyongyang earlier this month. Sergei Mikhailov, director-general of Russia's state-run TASS news agency, also met with North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho on Wednesday.

"The current situation, when the U.S.A. resorts to the maximum pressure and sanctions and utmost military threats against [North Korea], is not the atmosphere in which negotiations could be held," Ri said, according to a piece published later by TASS.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and China have urged U.S. President Donald Trump to pursue a dialogue with North Korea. Moscow also opposed, until the last minute, the fresh round of sanctions on the North passed by the United Nations Security Council in September.

These moves suggest that Russia hopes to turn North Korea into a diplomatic card of its own. Russia has been sanctioned by the U.S. and Europe over its actions in Ukraine. Its suspected interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election has further eroded its ties with Washington.

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