20 May 2020

Russian Ambassador to North Korea Alexander Matsegora: Moscow cannot be happy with deep freeze in U.S. - North Korean dialogue

Russian Ambassador to North Korea Alexander Matsegora has given an interview to Interfax in which he speaks about prospects for resuming dialogue between Pyongyang and Washington, the current situation in North Korea, as well as Moscow's assistance to Pyongyang.

Question: North Korea has set a kind of a deadline, urging the United States to fulfill its part of obligations and ease sanctions in exchange to disarmament steps that Pyongyang had already taken. There have been no tangible actions on Washington's behalf. Do you see signs that North Korea has turned its back on the negotiations with the U.S. and that the dialogue has once again reached a stalemate?

Answer: You are not rendering absolutely correctly the essence of demands that Pyongyang put forth before and is putting now.

Let's start with what was in 2019. Chairman of the State Affairs Council Kim Jong Un in his political speech at the session of the DPRK's Supreme People's Assembly in April conditioned the resumption of the dialogue with "a new calculation method" that the Americans should propose and start implementing in the period left before the end of 2019. Detailed explanations regarding what Pyongyang thinks this "new calculation method" to be were offered to the Americans on the sidelines of the U.S.-North Korean summit in Panmunjom on June 30. If previously [Pyongyang] had been ready for a kind of an exchange where each North Korea's step towards denuclearization is accompanied by appropriate Washington's actions, for example the lifting of some sanctions, the North Korean leadership categorically rejected this scheme after Hanoi. It was said that "there would be no more bargaining". To put it short, the Americans must now not only give up enmity towards the DPRK but also prove this with certain actions. Only after this Pyongyang is ready to come to the negotiating table. In fact, an ultimatum dealing with the complete reformatting of the basic approaches to the settlement of the nuclear problem of the Korean Peninsula was put forward. And here we got an emotional decision likely to be explained by deep Vietnamese disappointment.

The failure of the American - North Korean consultations in Stockholm on October 5 clearly showed, on the one hand, Washington's unpreparedness to accept the new pattern, and on the other hand, Pyongyang's determination to adhere to it. Nevertheless, [Pyongyang] kept its promise and kept the pause and took no serious actions until the end of the year, although the U.S. did not send any significant signal but calls to resume the dialogue and vague hints that it is ready to meet the North halfway "in some things". In the last days of 2019 the fifth plenum of the Seventh Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea took place. It summed up disappointing results of the Korean détente initiated by the Korean leadership in 2018 and made a conclusion that it had become clear that the U.S. aggressive policy towards the DPRK and sanctions against the country is an objective reality that would last forever.

It was followed by an official statement on January 11, the first one this year, by North Korean Foreign Ministry advisor Kim Kye Gwan. There was a phrase that absolutely clearly reflects Pyongyang's position: "The resumption of the Korean-U.S. dialogue is only possible on the condition of full acceptance of our terms by Washington. However, we clearly understand that it is not ready for it, and moreover, is unable to do so."

This understanding of the situation is the foundation of the new political course, the so-called "frontal breakthrough", endorsed by the plenary meeting. It implies that the country will concentrate on domestic affairs and will reinstate the so-called "parallel" variant, which was in effect before 2018 (developing the civil economy while strengthening defense capabilities). As for the dialogue with Washington, which they deem to be pointless for now, it seems to have been postponed at least until after the U.S. presidential election. They shall see what happens next.

Q.: Earlier, the North Korean leader said that Pyongyang would soon present a totally new kind of weapons that will change the status of North Korea. Moreover, Pyongyang changed the foreign minister. Experts explained these as North Korean step to wind down the dialogue with the U.S. How does Moscow in general treat these Pyongyang's signals?

A.: As far as the North Korean problem is concerned, it is very important to give precise quotes. Kim Jong Un said at the last December plenum of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea, which I have already mentioned, that "the world will see new strategic weapon of North Korea soon enough." One can only guess what it is; however, one should keep in mind that any country has the sovereign right to strengthen its defense capacity. And it was widely discussed here [in Pyongyang] that North Korea got a new strategic status after the test of a ballistic missile on November 29, 2017, which foreign experts, based on parameters of its flight made known, classified as an intercontinental one.

Speaking of Ri Son Gwon's appointment as the new foreign minister, I'd rather not link it directly to the adjustment of the policy on the U.S. track. The foreign minister has never been a significant actor in the dialogue with representatives of Washington. The issue of relations with the U.S. and their derivative, the nuclear problem, has always been the area of the first deputy foreign minister. To our knowledge, Choe Son Hui remains in charge of this area. Naturally, the policy she is carrying out on the U.S. track is not her own, but strictly follows the course set by the chief of state.

Clearly, Moscow cannot be happy with the deep freeze in U.S. - North Korean dialogue, which is fraught with an escalation of tensions in the region adjacent to our Far Eastern border. We expect the negotiations to resume sooner or later and, as they say, are ready to stretch out a helping hand to Pyongyang and Washington. In this context, we continue to promote our plan of action prepared together with the Chinese colleagues to ensure a comprehensive settlement of the situation on the Korean Peninsula.

Q.: Is the issue of easing sanctions against North Korea amid the coronavirus pandemic on the agenda? Or is the principal position of the U.S. that Pyongyang's steps are insufficient for any exemptions still a stumbling block for the consideration of this issue in the UN Security Council? Do restrictions hinder the supplies of medical equipment to the DPRK?

A.: The issue of easing sanctions amid the pandemic - and not only with regards to the DPRK but also other countries whose population is suffering from these restrictions - was put forth by a group of countries at the UN General Assembly session on March 26, 2020; however, the U.S. and its allies, who as it is widely known are the main champions of human rights, blocked adoption of a decision to this end.

It seems that the Americans themselves were unable to formulate what they considered to be "sufficient moves" that would waive objections as far as easing restrictions is concerned. However, they seriously impede the supplies of medicines and medical equipment. We are, as it is said, present on the spot and get a lot of confirmations that direct bans very negatively impact this situation (for example, as far as equipment for treating cancer is concerned), just as the situation in which the Americans in fact pursue anyone who has any trade relations with the DPRK, even if we talk about absolutely harmless things.

Q.: According to statement by North Korean authorities, there are no Covid-19 cases in North Korea. In your opinion, how realistic and accurate are these statements? Does Pyongyang inform you about the pandemic?

A.: I must say that the North Korean administration undertook the most resolute and firm measures to prevent that infection from penetrating the country. And it was done before anyone else did so. Even China was keeping its borders open when they imposed travel restrictions in late January and completely locked the border in early February. Since then, it became absolutely impossible to arrive in the country even for North Korean residents staying abroad - still none of them is able to come home (as known, residents returning from abroad are the main source of infection in any country).

Border provinces, which have the closest relations with China, have been isolated from the rest of the country, just like Pyongyang, which was visited by Chinese tourists in January. As for persons who arrived before the start of the epidemic in China, including foreign citizens, they were put under obligatory 30-day quarantine and were daily checked by medical teams for one month after that. As early as in February, everyone was wearing a mask, temperature was taken at the doorstep of every institution and every residential building and hands and footwear were sanitized. In the middle of February, schoolchildren and students were completely isolated, and that regime was eased only in early May.

Some other exemptions can now be seen in the country. We were allowed to go to markets and all major shopping malls, imports have more or less resumed, but there is no international passenger traffic, and masks and total disinfection remain obligatory. We know that foreign experts doubt the reliability of information about the absence of Covid-19 cases here and say that preventive measure would be unnecessary in complete isolation if North Korea actually had no infections. However, local infectionists have different logic. They say that coronavirus is extremely bad and the ways of its transmission as well as pathogenic and other features have yet to be fully studied. So, they'd better stay cautious and take no risk.

By the way, I have spoken with a European diplomat who also doubted that the North Korean authorities were telling the whole truth. I dared him to give at least one reason why such information would be concealed and he gave me two: he said the North Korean authorities did not want to tell the foreign audience about their problems (for the image's sake) and, secondly, did not want to scare the population (for fear of panic). I strongly disagreed with him: Pyongyang does not hesitate to provide the WHO and international humanitarian organizations with comprehensive information about local diseases, such as tuberculosis and dysentery (and receives substantial assistance in their treatment). Why should coronavirus be any different? As for panic, no one fears it here, as the local public is monolithic and extremely disciplined. By the way, it is much more stress resistant than any Western society.

In general, given what I have said, I am inclined to trust the reports regarding the absence of infection in North Korea. I have lately had a number of meetings with heads of the North Korean Foreign Ministry, including the minister and his deputy, and the issue of coronavirus was high on our agenda.

Q.: China, Russia and international organization provided aid to North Korea in combating the spread of the coronavirus. Was the supplied aid enough? Does North Korea need more similar supplies against the pandemic backdrop?

A.: To our knowledge, the country independently provides itself with masks and disinfectants. I believe that things are not so good with medications and ventilators. The supply of these goods would be proper and relevant. The primary objective is to prevent coronavirus from penetrating the country. North Korea has been quite successful in doing so.

Q.: Will Russia keep oil and petrochemical supplies to North Korea at the same level despite the coronavirus pandemic, or they will be cut?

A.: We do not supply oil to North Korea, while we resumed the export of petrochemicals in the amount of 2,000-3,000 tonnes monthly after a pause caused by antiviral actions. This is roughly last year's level. While doing that, we are strictly complying with the requirements of relevant UN Security Council resolutions, including regular notification of the Sanctions Committee on the amount of our shipments.

Q.: Earlier this year you said that the issue of supplying a large batch of wheat to North Korea from Russia after a bad harvest in 2019 was being considered. Is there an understanding when such supplies may begin and what amount is in question? What other assistance are we going to provide to Pyongyang in the near future?

A.: The first batch of Russian wheat amounting to 25,000 tonnes was supplied to North Korea as humanitarian aid this May. It was a timely action, considering the beginning of the so-called "barley hump" here in June. This is the period of the most serious grain shortage - last year's stock is low, and the new harvest has yet to begin (winter barley is harvested in the north of the Korean Peninsula in June). Hopefully, we will be able to supply more wheat soon. North Korea appreciates this gratis assistance: for a number of reasons, including the severe drought of last year, it does not have enough grain.

Q.: According to the Russian Foreign Ministry, as of late January there were about 1,000 former North Korean workers who were to go home. Has the pandemic hindered their return? Have former North Korean workers who failed to go home remained in Russia?

A.: As I said, given the complete closure of borders, North Korean citizens, who were staying abroad as of late January, are still unable to return to the home country. North Korean workers staying in Russia found themselves in the same situation.

Q.: The North Korean leader was invited to attend the Victory Parade in Moscow that was to take place on May 9 and that was rescheduled because of the pandemic. Has the North Korean side informed Moscow of the level at which it was expected to be represented at this event? Was Kim Jong Un going to visit the Russian capital? Is there an understanding what will be the level of the representation of North Korea after the new date of the parade is announced?

A.: I would like to ask you to address this question to the Russian presidential administration.

Q.: One cannot fail to ask about the recent widely speculated "disappearance" of Kim Jong Un, who as it is known has reemerged in public. In your opinion, what was the constant discussion of the North Korean leader's health and elaboration of various theories aimed at? Was it an attempt to destabilize the situation in North Korea?

A.: I should say I believe it is wrong to discuss the health condition of the North Korean leader. The wild allegations made in this regard evoke quite negative feelings, to put it mildly. I do not think it's a purposeful campaign aimed to destabilize the republic. Few people inside the country knew what U.S. newspapers were writing about and what South Korean deputies were saying on those days. Most likely, it was a fantasy of unscrupulous individuals who wanted their "minute of glory", and those speculations were disseminated by mass media outlets which are greedy for sensations and, pardon my tautology, are highly unscrupulous.