This article has been translated from the Russian Interfax website and is reproduced here with thanks.
Russian ambassador to the DPRK Alexander Matsegora explains why there is no reason to doubt Pyongyang’s statements about the absence of coronavirus cases, discusses the prospects for the resumption of dialogue between north Korea and the United States, and details the fraternal assistance provided to Pyongyang by Russia.
I: The DPRK has set a kind of deadline for the US, indicating to Washington the need to fulfil its part of the obligations to ease sanctions in exchange for the steps already taken by Pyongyang to disarm. No tangible action on the part of Washington has followed.
Do you see any signs that the north Koreans have turned their back on the negotiation process with the United States and the dialogue has once again reached an impasse?
AM: You do not accurately convey the meaning of the demands made by Pyongyang both previously and now. Let’s start with what happened in 2019. In his political speech at the April session of the north Korean supreme council, chairman of the state council Kim Jong Un named as the condition for resuming dialogue with the United States “a new way of counting”, which the Americans had to offer and begin to implement in practice before the end of 2019.
On the sidelines of the 30 June US-DPRK leaders’ meeting in Panmunjom, the Americans were given detailed explanations about what Pyongyang means by this ‘new way of counting’. Namely, if earlier they were ready for a kind of exchange, in which every step of the north Koreans towards denuclearisation was accompanied by appropriate actions on the part of Washington – the lifting of part of the sanctions, for example – then, after Hanoi, this scheme was categorically rejected by the leadership of the DPRK.
As they said: “There will be no more trade.” In short, the Americans now had not only once and for all to renounce hostility towards the DPRK, but also to prove it with concrete actions. Only then would Pyongyang be ready to sit down again at the negotiating table.
In fact, an ultimatum was put forward regarding the complete reformatting of the basic approaches to the settlement of the nuclear question. This was a very emotional decision, due, apparently, to a deep disappointment following the Vietnam talks.
The failure of the US-DPRK consultations held in Stockholm on 5 October clearly demonstrated, on the one hand, Washington’s unwillingness to accept this new forumla, and, on the other, Pyongyang’s determination to follow it at all costs.
Nevertheless, the Koreans kept their promise and maintained a pause until the very end of the year, without taking any serious actions, although the United States, apart from calls to resume dialogue and vague hints that they are ready to meet the north “in some ways”, did not send out any significant signals.
In the last days of 2019, the fifth plenum of the WPK’s seventh central committee convocation was held, which summed up the disappointing results of the Korean detente initiated by the DPRK leadership in 2018 and they came to the conclusion that the aggressive policy of the US and sanctions against the DPRK are an objective reality that will last forever.
In the official statement that followed on 11 January, the first official statement of the coming year, made by north Korean foreign ministry adviser Kim Kyo Hwang, there was a phrase that clearly reflects the position of Pyongyang: “The resumption of the Korean-American dialogue is possible only if Washington fully accepts our demands. However, we are well aware that they are not ready for this and, moreover, are not able to do it.”
This understanding of the situation formed the basis for the new political course adopted at the plenum, called the “frontal breakthrough”. Its essence is that the country must focus on its internal affairs and return to the so-called “parallel” option that was taken before 2018 (simultaneous development of the civil economy and strengthening of defence capability).
As for the dialogue with Washington, it seems to have been postponed at least until the US presidential election. And then we’ll see.
I: Earlier, the leader of the DPRK announced plans to present to the world a fundamentally new type of weapon that will change the status of north Korea. In addition, Pyongyang has changed the head of the foreign ministry.
All this was interpreted by experts as steps by the north Koreans to curtail dialogue with the United States. How does Moscow collectively perceive these signals from Pyongyang?
AM: In all that concerns north Korean issues, we must be very precise in quoting. At the December plenum of the WPK central committee, Kim Jong Un said: “The world will soon see a new strategic weapon that the DPRK will have.”
What we are talking about, we can only guess, but we are aware that any country has a sovereign right to strengthen its defence capability. And the fact that the DPRK has acquired a new strategic status was mentioned here after the test of a ballistic missile that took place on 29 November 2017, which foreign experts, based on those parameters of its flight that became known, classified as an intercontinental one.
As for the appointment of the new foreign minister, I would not link this directly with the adjustment of policy in the American direction. The head of the foreign ministry has never been a prominent character in the dialogue with representatives of Washington. The topic of relations with the United States, and the nuclear issue derived from it, has always been the first deputy foreign minister’s prerogative.
This position, as far as we know, remains with Choi Song Hee, who, of course, does not pursue her own policy in the American direction, but strictly follows the line determined by the head of state.
Moscow, of course, cannot be happy about the deep freeze in the US-DPRK dialogue, which is fraught with increasing tension in the region directly adjacent to our far-eastern border. We believe that sooner or later the talks will be resumed, and we are ready, as they say, to offer our shoulder to Pyongyang and Washington.
In this regard, we continue to promote our joint action plan with our Chinese colleagues for a comprehensive settlement of the situation on the Korean peninsula.
I: Is the issue of easing sanctions against the DPRK in connection with the pandemic on the agenda? Or does the consideration of this issue in the UN security council still rest on the US-principled position that Pyongyang’s steps are insufficient for any exceptions?
Do restrictions prevent the supply of medical equipment to the DPRK?
AM: The issue of easing sanctions in the context of a pandemic, and not only against the DPRK but also against other countries whose populations suffer from these restrictions, was raised by a group of states at the United Nations general assembly on 26 March, but the decision was blocked by the US and its allies, who are known to be the main promoters of ‘human rights’.
It seems that the Americans themselves would not be able to formulate what they consider ‘sufficient steps’ that would remove their objections to easing restrictions. Meanwhile, they are seriously hindering the supply of medicines and medical equipment.
We are here on the spot and we get a lot of evidence of the extremely negative effect both of direct bans (on equipment necessary for the treatment of cancer, for example) and of the situation itself, in which the Americans literally persecute anyone who has any kind of trade contact with the DPRK – even if we are talking about the supply of totally harmless products.
I: According to the statements of the north Korean authorities, no cases of coronavirus have been registered in the country so far. How realistic do we think such statements are? Is Pyongyang informing us truthfully about the pandemic?
AM: I must say that the leadership of the DPRK has taken the most resolute and strict measures to prevent this infection from entering the country. And it did so before anyone else. Even China still kept its borders open, but here entry/exit restrictions were introduced at the end of January, and since the beginning of February, the outer borders were tightly closed with an iron lock.
Since then, it has become absolutely impossible to come here, even for north Korean citizens who are abroad – all of them still cannot get to their homeland (as you know, it is the compatriots returning from abroad who are the main distributors of infection for any country). The border provinces that have the most advanced ties with China were isolated from the rest of the country, as, by the way, was Pyongyang, where Chinese tourists came back in January.
As for those who entered here after the outbreak of the epidemic in China, all of them, including foreigners, were placed in an unconditional 30-day quarantine, followed by daily checks by visiting teams of doctors for another month.
Already in February, everyone here wore masks, and in every institution, in every entrance to residential buildings, their temperature was measured at the entrance and their hands and shoes were disinfected. School children and students were placed in complete isolation in mid-February, which began to weaken only in early May.
Now there has been further easing of the measures. We are able to visit the market and all major shopping centres and the country has gradually begun to import goods again, but there is no international passenger traffic, and masks and widespread disinfections remain.
I know that foreign experts doubt the accuracy of information about the lack of Covid-19 here, saying that if the DPRK did not have any cases, these conservation measures in a totally isolated country would be unnecessary. However, local infectious diseases experts have a different logic. They say that since that the coronavirus is so unpleasant, and since the distribution channels, pathogenicity and other properties are still not fully understood, it is better not to take risks but insure yourself.
By the way, I had a conversation with one of the European diplomats, who also doubted that the north Korean authorities were telling the whole truth. When I asked him to give at least one reason for hiding this information, he indicated two: the north Korean leadership, they say, does not want, first, to talk about their problems to an external audience (so as not to damage their image), and, secondly, they do not want to frighten their population (for fear of causing panic).
I strongly disagreed with him. Official Pyongyang does not hesitate to give World Health Organisation (WHO) and international humanitarian organisations comprehensive information about such diseases as tuberculosis or dysentery (and receives substantial assistance for their treatment). How does the coronavirus differ in this sense? As for panic, they are not afraid of it, because society here is monolithic and highly disciplined. It is, by the way, much more stress-resistant than any western society.
In general, given the circumstances, I am inclined to trust what is reported about the lack of infection in the DPRK. I have recently had several meetings with the leadership of the north Korean foreign ministry, including with the minister and his deputy. The topic of coronavirus was one of the main topics in our conversations.
I: It is known that China, Russia and international organisations have provided assistance to north Korea in the fight against the spread of coronavirus. Is the amount of assistance received sufficient? Does the DPRK need any other similar supplies against the background of the pandemic?
AM: According to the information available to us, the republic independently and fully provides itself with masks and disinfectants. I believe that things are not so good with medications and ventilators. The delivery of these items would be very appropriate and is in demand.
However, the main thing is to prevent the coronavirus from entering the country. The DPRK is coping with this very successfully.
I: Will Russia continue to supply north Korea with oil and petroleum products in the same volumes, despite the coronavirus pandemic, or will they be reduced?
AM: We do not supply oil to the DPRK, and after a short pause caused by antiviral measures, the export of petroleum products has already resumed in the amount of 2-3,000 tons per month. That is, approximately at the level of last year.
At the same time, we strictly comply with the requirements stipulated by the relevant UN security council resolutions, including in terms of regularly informing the sanctions committee about the volume of our shipments.
I: Earlier this year, you said that the issue of supplying north Korea with a large batch of wheat from Russia after the 2019 crop failure is being resolved. Is there an understanding of when such deliveries can take place and what volumes are being discussed? What other assistance do we plan to provide to Pyongyang in the foreseeable future?
AM: The first batch of Russian wheat of 25,000 tons as humanitarian aid was delivered to the DPRK in May this year. This is a very timely step, since the so-called ‘barley pass’ begins here in June – the most difficult period from the point of view of grain shortage when last year’s stocks are already coming to an end and the first harvest of a new crop (in the north of the Korean peninsula, winter barley is harvested in June) is still ahead.
We expect that we will soon be able to deliver another batch of our wheat. The DPRK greatly appreciates this selfless assistance, because, for a number of reasons, including the severe drought of last year, its own grain reserves were insufficient.
I: According to the Russian foreign ministry, at the end of January this year, about 1,000 former north Korean workers remained in Russia who should return to their homeland. Did the pandemic prevent their return? Do former Korean workers who have not yet been able to return home remain in Russia?
AM: As I have already said, due to the complete closure of borders, north Korean citizens who were abroad at the end of January have not yet been able to return to their homeland. This also applies to Korean workers who were in Russia.
I: The leader of the DPRK was invited to the Victory Parade in Moscow, which was scheduled for 9 May and which was postponed to a later date due to the pandemic. Did the Korean side inform us about the level at which it planned to be represented initially and whether Kim Jong Un was going to visit the Russian capital? Is there any understanding on what level north Korea will be represented at the celebrations after the new date of the parade is announced?
AM: I would like to ask you to address this question to the presidential administration of the Russian Federation.
I: Can I ask about the recent media coverage of the ‘disappearance’ of Kim Jong Un, who, as we know, has already reappeared in public? What do you think the constant discussions about the north Korean leader’s health status and various theories were aimed at? Was this an attempt to somehow destabilise the situation in the DPRK?
AM: I must say that I consider it inappropriate to discuss the state of health of the leader of the DPRK. To put it mildly, the wild insinuations that accompanied the whole story arouse very negative feelings.
I do not think that we are dealing here with a targeted campaign to destabilise the situation in the republic. Inside the country, few people knew what American newspapers wrote or what south Korean lawmakers were saying.
Most likely, we are talking about the fantasies of unscrupulous individuals who sought in any way to become ‘caliphs for an hour’, whose fabrications were picked up by the media, which was greedy for sensationalism but extremely unscrupulous in their medium.
Translation by Irina Malenko