South Korean President Moon Jae In is set to visit Russia today to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin to seek support for his pressure- with-dialogue approach towards North Korea.
They spoke on the phone on Monday, a day after Pyongyang's sixth nuclear test, and agreed to seek a peaceful diplomatic solution, though Mr Moon also stressed the need for the North to stop its provocations.
North Korea drew wide condemnation after it hailed on Sunday the successful testing of a missile-ready hydrogen bomb, which created a blast said to be more destructive than the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in World War II.
Analysts said the test has made it more urgent for Seoul to deal with Pyongyang, and Seoul is eager to leverage on the Kremlin to break the nuclear impasse.
The United States has been trying to put more pressure on China to rein in Pyongyang, but China insists it is doing its fair share and urges restraint.
The North has conducted a series of missile and nuclear tests in the past year despite sanctions, testing two intercontinental ballistic missiles in July and firing a missile over Japan last week.
With its relations with China still sour over its deployment of a US missile shield, South Korea is looking to Russia for support. Russia is seen to have some influence over North Korea: While China accounts for almost 90 per cent of trade with North Korea, Russia is the North's second- largest trade partner, with bilateral trade reaching US$84 million (S$114 million) in 2015, according to South Korean statistics.
Analysts said it makes good sense for Mr Moon to cosy up to Mr Putin, as both sides want denuclearisation in the long run. Korea University's politics and international relations professor Kim Byung Ki noted that Russia is "distant enough for comfort and has no conflict of interest" with South Korea - unlike its closer neighbours Japan and China.
It is as if Russia is playing good cop now, while China is playing bad cop, said Dr Choi Kang of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies.
"What Mr Moon wants is Russian endorsement of his policy of pressure and dialogue, and Russia will go along with it in principle, but he will have to underscore pressure at this point in time," he said.
Professor Kim said Mr Moon will seek to "pressure Russia to use diplomatic efforts to defuse the situation on the Korean peninsula".
In talks with Mr Putin on Monday, Mr Moon brought up the idea of getting the United Nations Security Council to block North Korea's foreign currency income, including banning the export of labour, and cutting off oil supplies.
This would require China and Russia's cooperation, but both have been reluctant to impose measures that inflict hardship on ordinary North Koreans. Analysts say it remains to be seen if Russia, seen to be siding with North Korea at times, will agree to the tougher measures.
"The escalation of military hysteria will not do any good. It may lead to a planetary catastrophe and a colossal casualty rate," Mr Putin told reporters yesterday at the summit of Brics nations - Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa - in Xiamen, China. He added that there was no other way to resolve the North Korea nuclear problem but a peaceful and diplomatic approach.
After North Korea sent a missile over Japan last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in a phone call that seeking new sanctions could be "counterproductive and dangerous".
Mr Moon will arrive in Vladivostok around noon local time today and meet Mr Putin, after which they will hold a joint press conference.
They first met in July at a Group of 20 meeting in Germany, at which Mr Putin invited Mr Moon to attend the Eastern Economic Forum. Mr Moon is slated to make a key speech tomorrow at the forum, which is expected to draw North Korean participation.
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