North Korean leader Kim Jong Un walks past honor guards during a welcome ceremony after arriving at the railway station in Vladivostok on April 24, 2019. Photo: Kirill Kudryavtsev / AFP

Arriving in the Russian Far East a day ahead of his first-ever summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Vladivostok, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un granted what is believed to be his first-ever interview with overseas media.

Russian TV footage showed Kim, in black coat and a natty fedora, alighting from his private train and visiting the so-called “Kim Il Sung house” in the border village of Khasan. The house was established to memorialize a 1986 visit by Kim’s grandfather – the man who had been chosen by Stalin to head the North Korean state in 1948. It remains a symbol of cross-border amity.

In a short stand-up interview with TV reporters from Russia24, Kim said, “I come to Russia with a warm heart of the North Korean people. . . . I have been warmly treated by Russia. . . . I will meet your president  and exchange opinions on ways to solve many problems peacefully.”

Kim briefly responded to a US reporter’s question in February’s North Korea-US summit in Hanoi, Vietnam – but that was during a photo opportunity, which left it to Wednesday’s actual interview with Russian journalists to claim the status of a first.

Subsequent footage from the Vladivostok railway station showed Kim conferring with officials, being greeted by a Russian military band and then being whisked away by limousine.

The Kim-Putin summit will take place on Thursday on the easy-to-secure Russky Island, on the campus of Vladivostok’s Far Eastern Federal University.

It will be the first North Korea-Russian summit since Kim’s late father, Kim Jong Il, met then-President Dmitri Medvedev in 2011. However, since the big strategic game is being played between Kim and US President Donald Trump, it is unclear how much of substance can be achieved in Vladivostok.

Wants out of ‘sanctions box’

The impromptu interview, and – more significantly – the Putin summit, are the latest moves in Kim’s personal brand of high-profile diplomacy.

In 2018, breaking spectacularly out of the isolation that had marked his reign since he’d assumed power in 2012, Kim deployed a charm offensive that saw him meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Trump. It is as yet unknown what kind of relationship Kim will strike up with Putin, but he has clearly won the affection of Moon and the respect of Trump.

Last year, despite signals from Putin and from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Kim did not visit Russia. That suggested Kim’s priorities lay with Beijing, Seoul and Washington. But following the failure of the highly anticipated Hanoi summit to reach a deal, Kim’s economy continues to labor under the heaviest sanctions on earth, suggesting he needs to widen his diplomatic and economic net.

“I think Kim, like his predecessors, is trying to play several ends against the middle,” said Bruce Klinger, a North Korean watcher at the Heritage Foundation, a US think tank. “He is sending a message to Washington and to Beijing that he has alternatives.”

While the United States has declined to waive or lift UN sanctions against North Korea, it is also widely believed that Kim, whose economy is massively dependent upon China, is seeking to diversify.

Putin, like Xi, favors a phased process in which North Korea receives sanctions relief in return for step-by-step denuclearization, as opposed to the US position, which is surrender of weapons of mass destruction to the US, followed by sanctions removal. No official sanction relief is feasible unless the US, which holds a UN Security Council veto, agrees.

Recently Russian, as well as Chinese, vessels stand accused of illegally fueling North Korean vessels on the high seas, but such ad hoc measures offer North Korea only limited sanctions relief.

“Even if Putin is willing” to provide illicit sanctions relief, “he is constrained,” Klinger said. “Kim is in a sanctions box looking for an exit. But though there is sanctions leakage, it is make-do.”

There are estimated to be around 30,000 North Korean laborers in Russia, working in occupations such as logging; under UN sanctions, they are required to return home in December.  It is unclear if their number or stay could be expanded. However, even though they are earning rubles to send home, the economic impact of their staying or leaving is minimal. The bigger focus for Kim, whose publicly stated aim is to advance his economy, must be sanctions relief.

Putin in the spotlight

On top of the fact that Putin is widely known for his publicity stunts, and appears to enjoy the spotlight at international fora, the Kim visit also offers him the opportunity to position himself as an alternative to the United States. “Putin enjoys being meddlesome!” said American Klinger.

Clearly, though, atomic-armed Russia has a legitimate interest in regional affairs and arms-control issues. It provided North Korea with its first nuclear reactor and was a participant in the “six-party talks” – Beijing-sponsored multilateral talks that tried but eventually failed to denuclearize the country. In this sense, meeting Kim adds to Putin’s regional credibility.

Moreover, Russia, like China, is wary of having a nuclear power – and a potential target for nuclear strikes – on its border. For this reason, Putin is expected to push Kim on denuclearization.

“Putin will surely encourage Kim to do his utmost to maintain his relations with Trump and come to some nuclear and arms control agreements,” said Mark P. Barry, an independent Asian affairs analyst. Barry noted that, despite Russia-US strategic rivalry, Stephen Biegun, Washington’s envoy on North Korea, recently travelled to Moscow to coordinate with Russian officials.

Putin also has a domestic goal, which is to upgrade the Russian Far East demographically and economically. The vast territory is losing its population, and its massive natural wealth is not being fully tapped.

To help achieve this, Putin has aimed publicity at the region: In addition to the Kim visit, Russia’s biggest-ever post-Cold War military exercise took place in Siberia and the Russian Far East last year, and every year Putin attends an economic forum in Vladivostok.

After meeting Kim on Thursday, Putin is expected to fly to Beijing for the two-day Belt and Road Initiative forum hosted by his close ally, China’s Xi. The event will be attended by almost 40 national leaders.

There is speculation in media that, in his meeting with Kim, Putin may suggest resurrecting the six-party talks – a move that could win favor in Beijing, which basked in its sponsorship of the original series of talks.

Kim is expected to continue his Russia visit after Putin departs, but his agenda has not been released.

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