Russian President Vladimir Putin welcomes North Korean leader Kim Jong Un before their talks at the Far Eastern Federal University campus in the far-eastern Russian port of Vladivostok on April 25, 2019. Photo: AFP/Yuri Kadobnov

The first summit between North Korean leader Kim  Jong Un and Russian President Vladimir Putin ended on Thursday with platitudes but with little concrete apparently having been agreed upon – at least, in public.

While the only new option placed on the table was Putin’s suggestion for a multilateral framework to convene to guarantee North Korea’s security, it still appeared to be an optical win for both leaders.

Kim was seeking to expand his range of personal diplomatic contacts, while Putin wants Russia to have a louder voice in regional affairs. That voice may be heard on Friday, when the Russian president attends the Belt and Road Initiative forum in Beijing, hosted by Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Russia, as a core member of the UN Security Council, is severely constrained as it has agreed to a series of UNSC resolutions sanctioning North Korea. While Russia, as well as China and even South Korea, are known to favor an easing of sanctions, unless the United States, which holds veto power in the UNSC chamber agrees, the sanctions will remain.

Kim traveled to the Russian Far Eastern port city of Vladivostok on his private train on Wednesday. Putin arrived slightly late on Thursday afternoon in a fleet of helicopters, then welcomed Kim – who had, in fact, arrived earlier – at the venue, the Far Eastern Federal University.

Set on an island off Vladivostok, it is – like Sentosa, an island off Singapore that was the setting of 2018’s year’s first North Korea-US summit – an easily secured location.

The two leaders spoke for two hours – double the 50 minutes that had been scheduled – while their delegation spoke for three and a half hours, according to Russian news agency Tass.

On the same day as the summit, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has enthusiastically engaged with Kim, met Putin aide Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of the Security Council of the Russian Federation, for talks at the presidential residence.

Generalities, not details

In brief words delivered before TV cameras before their closed-door discussions, and later, as they sat at a banquet table following their meeting, the two made a series of broad statements.

“A peaceful, diplomatic solution is the only way to solve Korean problems,” Putin said, then quoted a Korean proverb: “Gathered strength can move even mountains.” This suggested that through united efforts, Russian and North Korea could achieve success.

“I had candid, meaningful talks with President Putin on the issues of developing the friendly relationship between North Korea and Russia, of guaranteeing peace and security on the Korean Peninsula and in the region, and common international issues,” Kim said before the cameras, according to translation provided by South Korea’s Yonhap news agency.

“It is my and the republic government’s firm, unwavering stance and strategic policy line to relentlessly strengthen and develop the strategic, traditional, friendly relationship between North Korea and Russia in line with the demands of the new century,” Kim added.

Kim – who on Wednesday wore a dark fedora and long coat, a direct copy of an outfit pioneered by his grandfather Kim Il Sung, who was emplaced in power by Soviet leader Josef Stalin – also made reference to the fact that Russians had fought for the Korean people.

It is unclear if he was referring to Soviet troops who invaded Japanese-occupied Manchuria and Korea in the final days of World War II or to the Soviet anti-aircraft troops and pilots who secretly fought for North Korea during the 1950-53 Korean War.

Both leaders also congratulated each other on their 2018 re-elections, according to Tass.

Later, at a press conference, Putin said: “I will be frankly talking about the results [of the summit] … with the US administration,” noting, that “in some aspects, [Russian-US] interests coincide on denuclearization and nonproliferation.” He also said he would brief Chinese President Xi Jinping on his meeting with Kim.

Putin added that when it comes to the quid pro quos of denuclearization, North Korea seeks “guarantees of its security, preserving its sovereignty” – an issue little discussed in North Korea-US negotiations, which broke down at February’s summit in Hanoi, Vietnam. A security guarantee could involve a new multilateral framework, the Russian president suggested.

A previous format, the Beijing-sponsored “six-party talks,” broke down in 2008-9 over verification protocols on North Korea’s denuclearization. Like South Korean President Moon Jae-in and US President Donald Trump, Putin appeared to be taken with Kim’s charisma.

“Chairman Kim Jong Un is a fairly open person who holds a free discussion on all issues, which were on the agenda,” he said, adding, that Kim “is quite an interesting and substantive interlocutor.”

What was not said

Although it is unknown what was agreed to in the two leaders’ closed-door meetings, none of their public comments hinted at a significant breakthrough in relations, in sanctions relief for North Korea or in the process of denuclearization.

There had been some expectations that the role of North Korean workers in Russia – there were believed to be 8,000-30,000 working in labor and logging – would be discussed. Under UN sanctions, they are required to return home in December. Nor was there any reference to upgraded transport links across the North Korea-Russia border.

While many experts had been confounded by the breakdown of the Kim-Trump summit in Hanoi, the Vladivostok summit confirmed to prior expectations.

“This is exactly what we expected: That Putin would reaffirm his support for North Korea but not make any promises to help him evade sanctions,” said Go Myong-hyun, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Asan Institute. “The only interesting thing is for a new multilateral format.”

Still, both leaders accomplished their mission – albeit, the missions were modest. “Putin wants to be seen to have a role in Korean and international issues,” Go said. “And Kim wanted to send a message to Washington that Russia, China and North Korea are together on step-by-step negotiations.”

The three countries – and South Korea, also – favor a gradual process of denuclearization in which sanctions are gradually lifted as North Korea takes disarmament steps. Washington, however, demands the surrender of weapons of mass destruction, followed by sanctions easing.

Kim is expected to remain in Vladivostok for at least one more day, though his agenda is unknown. Some reports suggest he may visit an aquarium – which is a possibility, given that Kim has, in recent years, been raising such luxury facilities as ski runs and water parks, and is now focusing on the development of Wonsan, an east coast resort area.

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