Summits between members of the Six Parties are coming at a fast and furious pace, with the G20 meeting providing the opportunity for still more (see my analysis of the Trump-Moon summit here). It is worth looking briefly at the Xi-Putin summit, however, as it is a reminder of the complexities of coordinating the five parties.
Like China, Russia’s declaratory policy remains opposed to North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs and Moscow has signed on to the succession of multilateral sanctions contained in UNSC resolutions (although carving out some exceptions, for example on coal exports that are transshipped). Yet at the same time, the press statements following the meeting as well as a joint statement on the issue suggest that Russia has formally bought on to the Chinese “suspension-for-suspension” proposal. In return for a “voluntary” suspension of missile and nuclear tests, the US and South Korea should "accordingly refrain from large-scale joint maneuvers," an interesting nuance that suggests openness to scaling back rather than cancelling the exercises altogether. The parties would then sit down to agree on principles that would include a North Korean commitment to denuclearization and a US willingness to renounce the use of force.
Marc Noland and I argue in Hard Target that the Russian and North Korean economies enjoy few obvious complementarities. Yet this does not rule out business altogether, and even some sanctions busting as recent US secondary sanctions demonstrated. A recent Stratfor commentary notes a number of small ways that the Russians are still providing value for North Korea, including through transshipment fees, an increase in labor exports—including through visa-free North Korean travel to Vladivostok—and most importantly, a reopening of financial channels that would operate outside of the SWIFT system. Recently, we saw news that a new ferry service between Rajin and Vladivostok will carry 200 passengers and 1,000 tons of cargo six times a month, on the principle—shared by Beijing—that none of the multilateral sanctions prohibit congoing commercial trade.
Incidentally, this problem of weak links in sanctions chains pertains to the China-Russia relationship more generally. Putin’s comments following the summit focused overwhelmingly on building up an economic relationship that has been slower to catch fire than the Russians had hoped, particularly on the investment front. First rate reporting by Max Seddon and Kathrin Hille at the Financial Times details how the creation of a new renminbi funding mechanism will effectively dilute the effect of European and new US sanctions. That the same has been going on with respect to China’s relations with North Korea is beyond doubt, and has long been a theme of this blog.