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Kremlin Speaks Out After North Korea Rhetoric Heats Up


Little comment from Moscow about the confrontation between the U.S. and North Korea. There are reports that Russia and China are working quietly to try to reduce the tension. But after the rhetoric turned to outright threats, the Kremlin finally spoke out. NPR's Lucian Kim reports from Moscow.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov broke Moscow's silence Friday when he spoke to a youth forum.


SERGEY LAVROV: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: Lavrov said risk of a conflict is very high, especially considering the level of rhetoric between Pyongyang and Washington. Moscow is concerned about North Korea not only because Russia is a nuclear power and a member of the U.N. Security Council but because, like China, it shares a border with North Korea.

ANDREI LANKOV: Ideally, Russia and China would like to see Korean peninsula stable, divided between two countries, North and South, and, well, in the best of the possible worlds, non-nuclear.

KIM: That's Andrei Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul. At the end of World War II, the Soviet Union created North Korea and, together with China, supported the North in fighting the United States during the Korean War. Lankov says it's only logical the two countries are coordinating their current policies toward Pyongyang.

LANKOV: Russia is likely to basically follow China's lead on such issues. China is in driving seat because China's interests, China's stakes are far higher than stakes of Russia.

KIM: Only last month, Russia and China jointly called on North Korea to freeze its nuclear weapons program. In return, they said, the U.S. should halt its military exercises with South Korea. Russia's U.N. ambassador, Vasily Nebenzya, told reporters in New York this week that Moscow and Beijing still think political dialogue is necessary.


VASILY NEBENZYA: Russia and China - we're proposing them constantly for more than a month now - in fact, earlier.

KIM: The two countries have made clear they don't want North Korea to have nuclear weapons. But stability on the Korean Peninsula is just as important. Konstantin Asmolov is a research fellow at Moscow's Center for Korean Studies.

KONSTANTIN ASMOLOV: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: He says Russia's main goal is stopping an armed conflict in one of its neighbors. Russia has ambitious plans to build pipelines and a railroad across North Korea to the lucrative markets of South Korea. But for that to happen, there needs to be peace. Like Beijing, Moscow is not enthusiastic about Korean unification on the South's terms, since South Korea is a close U.S. military ally. Nevertheless, both Russia and China voted for new U.N. sanctions against North Korea last weekend, winning praise from the White House. Andrei Lankov.

LANKOV: If North Korea is not sanctioned, it will appear as if the nuclear powers, including Russia and China, are sort of condoning the North Korean attempts to develop nuclear weapons and undermines the nonproliferation regime.

KIM: Lankov is skeptical about the effectiveness of sanctions and isn't optimistic that negotiations would work, either. As a crisis heated up this week, Russia's foreign minister said it was time for cooler heads to prevail.


LAVROV: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: "Before it comes to a fist fight," Sergey Lavrov said, "the first guy to take a step back should be the one who's stronger and smarter." He wasn't talking about North Korea. Lucian Kim, NPR News, Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lucian Kim is NPR's international correspondent based in Moscow. He has been reporting on Europe and the former Soviet Union for the past two decades.