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Russia edges into nuclear talks ahead of Kim-Trump summit

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stand together after a signing ceremony in Wuzhen, Zhejiang province, China on Tuesday.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stand together after a signing ceremony in Wuzhen, Zhejiang province, China on Tuesday. (China Daily/Reuters)
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HANOI — Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov inserted himself into the high-stakes nuclear talks between the United States and North Korea ahead of the second meeting between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Vietnam’s capital on Wednesday.

Lavrov told reporters during a visit to Vietnam’s commercial capital, Ho Chi Minh City, earlier this week that the “Americans are seeking our advice” on the negotiations and that Washington should end its strategy of issuing ultimatums to Pyongyang.

The Russians and Chinese have long sought a bigger role in the negotiations akin to the Six Party Talks for North Korea that took place during the George W. Bush administration. And last year, Moscow went so far as to secretly offer Pyongyang a nuclear power plant in exchange for the dismantling of its nuclear and ballistic missile program.

On the first day of their second summit, Kim Jong Un and President Trump greeted each other and gave remarks to the assembled media ahead of a dinner in Hanoi. (Video: The Washington Post)

On Wednesday, Trump tweeted that he believed Russia, as well as China, Japan and South Korea would be “very helpful” in securing a nuclear deal with Pyongyang.

The specifics of Lavrov’s claim that the United States was seeking advice from Moscow were not clear, and U.S. and Asian diplomats said privately that Moscow is a bit player in the negotiations.

Trump offers public embrace of Kim Jong Un hours before summit begins

Still, the two Cold War adversaries have discussed North Korea recently, including a February meeting between the State Department’s special representative for Korea policy Mark Lambert and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Oleg Burmistrov, and an October meeting between Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov and Special Envoy for North Korea Stephen Biegun.

Given its proximity to North Korea and the need to cooperate over sanctions, Russia has been a natural player in denuclearization talks for previous U.S. presidents, but Trump’s warm rhetoric to Moscow and the country’s interference in the 2016 election have raised concerns in Washington about any role for the Kremlin in the high-stakes negotiations.

Analysts have said Russia’s interest stems from its desire to build an energy link between Siberia and the Far East by using North Korea as an energy foothold.

Russia and China have angered the United States by proposing a loosening of U.N. Security Council sanctions on North Korea — moves the United States wants to forestall until Pyongyang completely dismantles its nuclear program.

Lavrov said that Washington’s maximalist approach “won’t work, and I think the Americans have realized that such ultimatums will not force people to disarm.”

“First it would be necessary to build confidence and to avoid provocative steps such as nuclear or missile tests of North Korea and disproportionately large-scale naval and air force drills of the United States and South Korea,” Lavrov told reporters on Monday at a forum in Ho Chi Minh City.

Before his departure, Trump lowered the urgency of striking a big deal, saying he was “not in a rush. . . . I just don’t want [nuclear or missile] testing.”

North Korea has not launched missiles or tested a nuclear weapon since November 2017, but it has been slow to demonstrate progress in denuclearizing following Trump’s first meeting with Kim in Singapore eight months ago.

Trump is set to meet with Kim on Wednesday for a dinner at the Metropole Hotel in Hanoi. Depending on how the negotiations pan out, the United States could declare an end to the Korean War in exchange for steps to dismantle facilities in North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear plan.

Lavrov left Vietnam for Hong Kong on Monday for a two-day official visit.

Amie Ferris-Rotman in Moscow contributed to this report.