Russia-North Korea Summit: Five Key Questions Answered

Chatham House experts analyse the summit meeting between President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, and examine wider contexts for international security.

South Koreans watching Kim Jong-un meeting with Vladimir Putin on TV at Seoul railway station. Photo: Getty Images.

1) Why does Russia want this summit?

James Nixey, Head of Russia and Eurasia Programme, Chatham House

The opportunity to upstage the US — even its most Russia-friendly president in living memory — is too delicious for the Kremlin to pass up. And while Donald Trump may have wanted to do a deal with Kim Jong-un, the constraints the American president is placed under have dashed his chances.

Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, has far greater freedom of manoeuvre and has eased himself into a win-win situation. Either he will extract a genuine concession from the North Korean leader and achieve rare (and deserved) ‘world statesman points’; or — far more likely — he will achieve little, if anything, of substance but declare a ‘peoples’ friendship’, ‘strategic partnership’ or some similar empty commendation.

Putin has an outstanding record with fellow hard-liners — particularly those in conflict with the US — Maduro, Erdogan, Assad etc. His skill in dealing with them all is aided enormously by the asymmetry of the relationships. Russia is dominant.

But he has also won real admiration from these ‘besieged’ countries’ presidents for what he has achieved (Russia’s ‘resurgence’, ‘indispensable’ Russia…), for standing up to the US, and for his length of stay in power. Kim Jong-un’s fawning praise of Putin in the run-up to the summit, suggests North Korea is no different — another notch in the Russian president’s bedpost.

2) What do the two countries have in common?

James Nixey, Head of Russia and Eurasia Programme, Chatham House

Lest cynicism rule, it is fair to point out the two countries have genuine issues to discuss. North Korea needs remittance income and direct food aid from Russia. There are approximately 10,000 North Korean labourers working in eastern Russia — what is to be their fate now they are mandated to leave by the end of the year?

Both countries wilt under and bristle up against sanctions imposed mostly by the West (although Russia has gone along with the UN’s toward North Korea and it will be interesting to see if it is willing to undermine the Security Council’s decision. Probably not).

Meanwhile, both countries are mobilized nuclear powers with designs on neighbours to the south (Moscow toward Kyiv primarily, and Pyongyang toward Seoul); Both have lingering concerns over China’s true intentions and will be watching to see how China handles great power politics in the region, even though Russia generally follows China’s lead in the area and Putin is likely to brief Chinese Premier Xi soon afterwards at the Belt and Road Forum. Indeed, it is doubtful how much Russia can achieve over North Korea, without China. Least of all — in terms of priority issues to discuss — Russia and North Korea share an 11-mile land border.

Bet on cynicism though. True love is hard between authoritarian regimes. Putin has no shame in cosying up to dictators, but that doesn’t mean he wants to be seen glued to a failed state like North Korea. A brief fling to humiliate his preferred world stage interlocutor (the US) and to re-establish Russia’s place at the Six Party Talks table, will do nicely.

3) What is North Korea’s strategy for this summit?

Dr. John Nilsson-Wright, Senior Fellow for Northeast Asia, Asia-Pacific Programme, Chatham House

After the failure of the Trump-Kim Hanoi summit at the end of February, Kim Jong-un has been looking for a clear diplomatic win to erase any impression he might have lost out in his earlier talks with Donald Trump.

Simply by showing up and by being seen to engage as an equal in “a very meaningful dialogue” (Kim’s own words) with a fellow international leader, Kim demonstrates his status, agency and independence.

This helps bolster his legitimacy with his public at home while signaling to the international community — and most importantly the US — that the North will not simply wait passively for the US to return to bilateral talks and offer it the relaxation of sanctions and political and security reassurances it was hoping to secure at Hanoi.

In pursuing the “art of the deal”, Kim once again has shown himself, with a little help from his new Russian friend, to be a remarkably agile and astute strategist.

Cartoon: Rebecca Hendin via Chatham House.

4) Why is Russia important to North Korea?

Dr. John Nilsson-Wright, Senior Fellow for Northeast Asia, Asia-Pacific Programme, Chatham House

In effect, Putin has reiterated and amplified the North’s negotiating position in Hanoi and by extension put pressure on the US to return to talks. Kim’s characterization of the Vladivostok summit as developing “relations (with Russia) in a sound and solid way” underlines the convergence of interests between Pyongyang and Moscow.

Washington will doubtless baulk at the dilution of its control over talks with the North and the potential weakening of international sanctions (a concern that probably explains the decision to send Stephen Biegun, the US special representative to North Korea, to Moscow in advance of the summit).

Putin can present himself as a constructive mediator but in reality he acts more as an irritant and a potential spoiler by complicating already sensitive relations between the US and its allies (most notably South Korea and Japan) in maintaining a unified approach when dealing with the North.

5) Has anything concrete come out of the summit?

Dr. John Nilsson-Wright, Senior Fellow for Northeast Asia, Asia-Pacific Programme, Chatham House

Kim will have been delighted by Putin’s public commitment to “…work…to develop bilateral relations in trade and exchanges of human resources”. Now that he has secured a credible nuclear deterrent and security guarantee, the North Korea’s leader primary goal is economic growth.

The summit discussions regarding a possible trans-Siberian railway connection and future gas pipeline construction are a powerful (for now merely potential) reminder of what Kim is determined to secure and what sympathetic partners in the region such as Russia may be willing to provide, even it risks (or perhaps, mischievously, precisely because) it undermines Trump’s negotiating tactics of pressure and brinkmanship.

While the Vladivostok talks were undersold in advance (perhaps intentionally) with no formal agenda and no anticipated joint statement, the public comments from both leaders reveal the eagerness of both North Korea and Russia to fill the diplomatic vacuum created by Trump’s decision to walk away from the Hanoi talks.

Putin’s post-summit press conference remarks, most notably his stress on providing the North with a security guarantee and the need to restart the Six Party Talks (last convened in 2008) as a means of establishing a multilateral security regime in the region, will have been music to the ears of Kim.

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