Kim Jong-un Meets Putin in Vladivostok
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un traveled to Russia on April 24 ahead of a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. He arrived at the Khasan train station, near the Russian-North Korean border, and met with Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister and several local officials. He then set off for Vladivostok for a dinner reception with the Deputy Prime Minister, a summit with President Putin, and a tour of local facilities and landmarks,
The top agenda item is, predictably, North Korea’s nuclear program. Kim has participated in two summits with U.S. President Donald Trump on the issue, but the most recent one in Hanoi abruptly ended without an agreement. There have been no public contacts between the two in the nearly three months since. Meanwhile, North Korea claims to have conducted a “new tactical guided weapons firing test” last week, though U.S. intelligence believes that they only test parts of a new anti-tank weapon.
Thus, for Kim, the Putin summit is likely an attempt to find a diplomatic foothold outside these faltering U.S. negotiations. Russia has joined the United States in imposing sanctions on North Korea for its nuclear program, but it has also called for loosening those penalties in the past. Kim could be hoping for Russia’s support in moving towards sanctions relief.
Yet while North Korean diplomacy is dominated by its nuclear weapons program, other bilateral issues with Russia are crucial as well. Improving the countries’ economic relationship is a particularly urgent priority. There are approximately 10,000 North Korean laborers employed in Russia, all of whom will be required to leave the country at the end of the year in accordance with a 2017 UN sanctions resolution. These laborers have historically provided about $500 million annually for their home country. North Korea is also expecting a food shortage this summer, and Kim may be hoping to solicit Russian humanitarian aid.
Whether or not any new economic or security measures are adopted, each leader has already gained something from holding the meeting at all. For Kim, a talk outside of his usual Chinese, American, and South Korean counterparts bolsters the image of a serious, global leader he tries to project. Meanwhile, Putin can assert himself as a major player on the Korean peninsula, where China and the United States both have a more noticeable presence.
This reputation-building will likely be the extent of the meeting’s results. The two have already ruled out holding a joint press conference or signing agreements, meaning that any significant policy change is off the table. Instead, this first meeting between the two heads of state will, at most, serve as a foundation for better economic ties. For the time being, however, it is simply a public performance of leaders’ diplomatic clout.