Russia’s diplomatic relations with North Korea could play an important role in shaping outcomes on Peninsula. This might include humanising North Korean people in the eyes of the rest of the world, Olga Krasnyak writes.
Donald Trump’s trip to East Asia this week is a landmark event. Not only does it have the potential to clarify US foreign policy in the region, but it could also be Trump’s most significant attempt to resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis.
In anticipation of the visit, a choir of politicians, journalists, and academics are all offering recommendations on how to deal with North Korea, and among them, reasonable voices promoting dialogue are fighting to be heard over the sabre-rattlers. However it is traditional diplomacy, rather than non-state commentators, that will ultimately determine the course of events.
In the case of Russia, viable diplomatic negotiations can play an important role in dealing with Pyongyang. Despite their controversial image in the international arena and ongoing scandals with the US State Department, Russian diplomats have a unique role to play in keeping channels open with North Korea.
Over the last few months, the Russian Embassy in Pyongyang has been particularly active on social media in an attempt to highlight some aspects of its work in North Korea. The embassy should be considered a key player in diplomatic negotiations with the Hermit Kingdom. For their part, Russian diplomats are often honoured to represent their North Korean counterparts and help their voices be heard internationally.
As some examples, the director of the North American department of the North Korean Foreign Ministry, Choe Son Hui, made two visits to Russia for consultations in September, following up by participating in the Moscow Non-proliferation Conference in October. Meanwhile, the chairman of Pyongyang City Committee, Kim Soo Gil, visited Russia to take part in events related to the 100th Anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution.
The Russian embassy in Pyongyang frequently hosts delegations, diplomats and politicians from both Russia and North Korea. The themes of such meetings are various – from official receptions and informal dinners, to joint trips to the Paektu Mountain and celebrating ‘Chuseok’, to pay homage to Korean traditions and customs.
These events might not seem extraordinary because they are common diplomatic practices almost everywhere in the world. Yet in case of North Korea, this kind of diplomacy is the exception rather than the rule. These formal and informal occasions provide an opportunity for Russian diplomats to influence their counterparts and provide them with insights into the foreign policy approaches of both countries.
With an increased possibility of pre-emptive strikes against North Korea, diplomatic activities have become more visible. But beyond meetings and negotiations with officials, the Russian embassy’s work in the country has another important role: re-humanising the people of North Korea.
At a time when ramped-up political rhetoric increases the chance of conflict, this appeal to people’s humanity is crucial – particularly when such conflict involves weapons of mass destruction capable of killing enormous numbers of otherwise faceless people.
This call for humanity may help those outside the Hermit Kingdom to see North Koreans as people, recognising themselves in North Korean faces, and dispelling stereotypes of North Koreans as little more than mindless cogs in a wheel.
Through its social media channels, the Russian embassy shows North Koreans as people who play traditional music and sing traditional songs, run marathons and commemorate their ancestors, enter foreign language contests and hold trade fairs, cook food and enjoy sport. The imagery shows off the best of Koreans north of 38th parallel.
That being said, it’s important to remember that the embassy’s use of social media goes hand in hand with official directions given by Russia’s Foreign Ministry. Alongside attempting to resolve the nuclear crisis, the ministry is engaged in attempts to improve Russia’s international branding, which has been particularly damaged in recent years. Softening the hard edges of political rhetoric, showcasing negotiations and strengthening bilateral relations might help improve Russia’s image on the world stage.
Using digital diplomacy helps to create a narrative about North Korea and the role of Russia as a peacemaker. This type of activity is addressed primarily to foreign audiences, with many posts published on the embassy Facebook account translated into English. Similarly, the language used by the embassy’s Twitter account is equal parts Russian and English.
It is true that Russia’s diplomatic efforts with North Korea are ultimately geared towards serving Russian interests. Yet by shrinking gaps between the people of North Korea and the people of the rest of the world, the Russian embassy in North Korea could have a positive impact well beyond Moscow and Pyongyang.