Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, will meet with North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un, right, in Vladivostok on April 24. Photo: AFP/KCNA/KNS

In their first ever summit on Wednesday, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Vladivostok. The usual secrecy that accompanies Kim’s foreign travels will keep finer details on the exact timings and venues of Kim’s interactions under wraps until very last minute.

Vladivostok will be a stop for Putin on his way to Beijing to attend China’s Belt & Road Forum for International Cooperation, starting Thursday. The city has come to symbolize Putin’s preferred window towards Asia and his bridgehead for sustaining Russia’s access and influence across the Asia-Pacific region.

Russia now holds an annual Far Eastern Economic Forum and this is where Putin hosted the 2012 Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum summit. He recently signed an order shifting all the major administrative agencies of the Far East Federal District to Vladivostok.

Sputnik and Kyodo have reported that Kim Chang Son, described variously as a close aide, protocol chief or even “butler” of Kim Jong Un, spent the whole of last week examining various venues including the Mariinsky Ballet Theatre, a public aquarium, Russia’s Pacific Fleet headquarters and other places like the Russky Island and its Far Eastern Federal University situated off the cost of Vladivostok.

He also checked out the railway station where Kim Jong Un will arrive by – as usual – his special train. Something may happen at Russky Island’s Far Eastern Federal University’s Sports Building, where the copy center desk has reportedly posted a notification: “In connection with the arrival of Kim Jong Un, the copy center is closed from April 17 to April 24.”

Timing is important

Other than its venue, the timing of this summit remains perhaps most important. First, the meeting takes place after Kim Jong Un’s much-hyped denuclearization talks with President Trump derailed – their second summit in February in Hanoi ending abruptly without even a joint statement, let alone signing of their much anticipated peace treaty.

Second, the situation since then has not been one of suspended animation. News analysis of satellite imagery had indicated renewed activity at the Yongbyon nuclear facility, and then North Korea earlier this month tested its first new tactical guided weapon with a “powerful warhead” signaling the onset of brinkmanship with Washington.

The two Kim-Tump summits have apparently failed to evolve understanding over the lowering of sanctions in exchange for Pyongyang’s scaling down its nuclear weapons program. And now, as President Trump moves closer to his next presidential election, in his April 13 address to his countrymen, Kim Jong-un has given Trump a deadline of year’s end to come up with some mutually acceptable proposals.

In such a scenario, can President Putin unlock the stalled nuclear dialogue between Pyongyang and Washington? Can he even create any maneuvering space for various interlocutors? 

To begin with, Russia has in principle consistently argued in favor of dialogue and advocated sanctions relief since Kim Jong Un opened nuclear negotiations. Russia has advocated a phased sanctions relief for North Korea’s step-by-step denuclearization.

The US and its allies on the other hand have sought far greater demonstration of Kim’s commitment to dismantle his nuclear weapons program before lifting of any part of sanctions is even considered. More than this, Russia (along with China) has also played a critical role in supporting Kim’s assertions in engaging American interlocutors.

Skirting sanctions

China and Russia are suspected of having helped Kim in skirting sustained severe sanctions imposed by Western nations. A UN Panel of Experts that oversees sanctions implementation accused Russia of continuing with ship-to-ship transfers of oil and other fuel and of joint business ventures based in Russia that are proscribed under extant sanctions.

But at the same time, sanctions have apparently dented their bilateral trade that fell to $34 million for 2018 compared to $78 million for 2017. 

What perhaps most aptly projects their evolving equations is the frequency of other summit meetings, with this one being the 17th summit between their leaders. Kim Il Sung, Soviet supported founder of North Korea, visited 13 times, including four unannounced and unofficial trips, followed by his son and successor Kim Jong Il’s meeting Russian leaders four times.

This will be the first such summit by the third in line, Kim Jong Un, since he took office in 2011. Also, it’s interesting that the grandfather Kim Il Sung traveled all the way to Moscow nine times while the grandson has lured Putin to meet him over a thousand kilometers from Moscow in a city that is barely 80 km from the North Korean border.

From Kim’s side, this summit is an attempt to reach out to his family’s long-time ally, having failed to engage Trump’s “maximum pressure” policies. Successive Soviet/Russia leaders have had a long history and relatively warm and close relations with North Korea’s first family, which has been in power since 1945 when Soviets set him up as leader of a North Korea newly liberated from Japanese occupation.

Shortly before his death in 2011, Kim Jong Un’s father Kim Jong Il also held a summit with then President Dmitry Medvedev at the city of Ulan-Ude in Eastern Siberia, close to the Mongolian border. That second Kim ruler is believed to have told the Russian president then about his readiness to renounce nuclear weapons.

Reviving camaraderie

Kim will be trying to revive that camaraderie, exploring how President Putin can help him skirt UN and US sanctions. Kim may seek Russian indulgence with unblocking their energy pipeline from Russia, regularizing their cross-border train services, permitting North Koreans to work in Russia. (Expat North Korean workers’ numbers there last year shrank from 30,000 to 10,000 causing serious problems of foreign exchange and employment.)

As for President Putin, since Kim’s nuclear weapons do not directly threaten Russia’s core interests, his approach has continue to be one of “limited participation,” implying that he may not be willing to pay too high a price or strike some agreement at variance with President Trump, who has been equally seriously engaged in preparations for this Kim-Putin summit.

By most estimates the Kim-Putin summit is taking place with due diligence from the American administration. Fiona Hill, an advisor to President Trump, recently visited Moscow for discussions with her counterpart Yuri Ushakov. This was followed this weekend by Stephen Biegun, Trump’s special envoy for North Korean, rushing to Moscow for last minute consultations.

But Russia nevertheless remains a nuclear superpower and can surely seek its space by extending symbolic “security guarantees” to the North Korean leader. It may also echo Russia’s superpower status.

But even without any tangible gains, for Kim, this “pivot” to Russia marks his expanding maneuvering space in his nuclear negotiations, alternatives to withstand sanctions and finally his expanding acceptance amongst major powers.

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