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Russia Makes Diplomatic Play In Pyongyang, Possibly Further Eroding Trump’s Maximum Pressure Strategy

KCNA/via REUTERS

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Ryan Pickrell China/Asia Pacific Reporter

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un secured an invitation to Moscow Thursday as a top Russian diplomat visited Pyongyang.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met with Kim in the North Korean capital, clearly demonstrating Russia’s determination not to have its interests left out of the geopolitical shifts on the Korean Peninsula. “Come to Russia. We would be very happy to see you,” Lavrov told Kim, passing along Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “warmest regards and best wishes.”

The meeting, which occurred as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sits down with senior North Korean official Kim Yong Chol in New York City, is the latest in a series of meetings shattering North Korea’s diplomatic isolation.

In late March, Kim traveled secretly to China for a state visit with Chinese President Xi Jinping focused on repairing strained and tattered ties between Beijing and Pyongyang. The trip marked his first trip abroad since he took power six years ago. (RELATED: Kim Jong Un Met Xi Jinping In China)

Kim made another trip to China in early May, after he met South Korean President Moon Jae-in at their first inter-Korean summit. (RELATED: Kim Jong Un Visits China … Again)

The North Korean leader first met his South Korean counterpart on April 27, doing so on South Korean soil. The two leaders held a surprise second summit on North Korean soil just days after President Donald Trump canceled his summit with Kim, demonstrating that talks can continue regardless of U.S. actions. (RELATED: North, South Korean Leaders Hold Surprise Meeting At The Border)

Despite tensions, the two Korean leaders embraced one another as friends.

The Trump administration appears convinced that the maximum pressure strategy, which aimed to strangle the North Korean economy while isolating the country diplomatically, is bringing Kim to the negotiating table, a view not held by the North Koreans. The administration, currently engaging North Korean officials to salvage the scrapped Trump-Kim summit, has said that if talks fail, the U.S. will continue to exert pressure on North Korea until it decides to return to the negotiating table.

“I think we are looking for something historic. I think we’re looking for something that has never done before. And be it for whatever reason the North Koreans say they’re not ready to do something like that.” a senior State Department official explained to reporters Wednesday. “We will ramp up the pressure on them and we’ll be ready for the day that hopefully they are.”

But, it may be difficult to restart the maximum pressure campaign, as China, South Korea, and Russia are already discussing economic reform and cooperation, even possible sanctions relief, with North Korean officials, which are now also regularly meeting with their relevant foreign counterparts.

“The multilateral pressure coalition has fallen apart,” Mira Rapp-Hooper, an Asia expert at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center, recently told The Washington Post.

Kim’s ascension to the world stage as a statesman stands to potentially undermine the administration’s fallback plan should the Trump-Kim summit not occur or the two sides fail to reach an agreement, possibly leaving only the threat of force on the table. Pyongyang’s newfound connections to Beijing, Moscow, and Seoul may, however, make such threats less persuasive.

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