Finally, a Putin-Kim summit is underway. In recent years it has been frequently rumored that a summit is just about to happen, but every time these rumors were eventually proven to be unfounded.
Now, with the meeting set to take place tomorrow in Russia’s Far East, it is probably a good time to recall the earlier summits between leaders of the two countries.
The first-ever meeting between the de facto North Korean leader and the leader of the state which at the time was known as the Soviet Union occurred in summer 1946.
Kim Il Sung, whose official standing back home was still unclear, came to the Soviet Union to meet with Joseph Stalin and other top Soviet dignitaries. The meeting was considered top secret and, to this day, many of the relevant papers have not been made public.
The 1946 talks were not a summit in the strict sense and were by no means a meeting of equals. At the time Kim Il Sung was, first and foremost, a recent captain of the Red Army, who just a few months earlier had been tentatively selected as the possible head of the emerging pro-Soviet regime. The hierarchy, then, was painfully clear.
Things had changed slightly by March 1949, when Kim Il Sung paid his first official visit in his new capacity as prime minister of the then recently-established North Korean state.
The 1946 talks were not a summit in a strict sense and were by no means a meeting of equals
Far more important, however, was his next trip to Moscow in spring 1950. This time he, again, arrived secretly, to discuss the soon-to-happen invasion of South Korea.
Stalin, after much lobbying from Pyongyang, had grudgingly approved the idea in January 1950, and Kim came to Moscow to discuss details and also to persuade Stalin that the Americans would not have time to intervene as victory will be swift.
The 1950s saw Kim Il Sung travel to the USSR frequently. And as time went by, relations became less and less unequal: the former Russian Army captain was proving himself to be a smart politician.
Kim was good at pursuing two seemingly incompatible goals: keeping the Soviets at bay, while also maximizing aid from Moscow. He succeeded, against all odds.
One also should mention the 1956 visit, when Kim Il Sung traveled not only to Moscow, but also to a number of Eastern European states where he planned to ask for additional economic assistance.
The trip was not pleasant: Soviet leaders met with the North Korean leader and spent a great deal of time lecturing him about his alleged political mistakes.
In those days of de-Stalinization, Moscow wanted its allies to become more liberal, to open their prison camps and reduce censorship.
After 1961, trips to the Soviet Union became far less frequent
Kim Il Sung had very different ideas about his country’s future, but he could not yet challenge his mighty neighbor, so he obediently listened to Nikita Khrushchev and other Soviet dignitaries.
He promised to follow the Soviet liberalization course, but once back home he began to do what he could to distance his country from the dangerously permissive Russia.
After 1961, trips to the Soviet Union became far less frequent, reflecting a significant deterioration of relations between Moscow and Pyongyang.
One should also mention the top-secret May 1966 trip, which also was the first time when a summit was held in Far East: Kim Il Sung and Leonid Brezhnev, the then Soviet leader, held a day of talks aboard a Russian missile cruiser as it sailed around Russky island.
Back then the island was an empty area with a number of naval installations, but now it is the site of the Far Eastern University Campus, where the Putin-Kim summit is expected to happen. The change of site, from a cruiser to a University, is somewhat symbolic.
The “cruiser summit” of 1966 was devoted to relations with China. Kim Il Sung promised to remain neutral in the ongoing Sino-Soviet feud, in exchange for Soviet willingness to keep providing North Korea with generous aid. Neither side was happy, but the compromise was acceptable and persisted for a quarter century.
Another prominent visit took place in spring and summer 1984, when Kim Il Sung visited Moscow and then Eastern Europe.
He traveled by train, so the trip took a long time, allowing him to see a part of the world where, at the time, decades of communist rule were beginning to fall apart.
One thing is noteworthy: in the Soviet days, it was always the North Korean leaders who traveled to Russia, and never vice versa.
Only once, in 1959, was a trip by the top Soviet leader to Pyongyang seriously considered and actually prepared for. Nikita Khrushchev promised to visit, and this promise, made public by the media, triggered a massive wave of expensive preparations in the North Korean capital.
However, the trip was first postponed and then canceled by the Soviet side, to the great dismay of Kim Il Sung and many Koreans, who saw themselves humiliated by what they (not incorrectly) saw as a manifestation of the great power’s arrogance. As far as we know, after 1959 not a single Soviet leader ever considered a trip to Pyongyang.
Somewhat surprisingly, and tellingly, it was Mikhail Gorbachev, Soviet leader from 1985 to 1991, who became the first Soviet/Russian ruler to travel to Korea in his official capacity.
The 1990s saw relations between Russia and North Korea reach their lowest point
However, it was not North, but South Korea: Gorbachev visited Jeju island in November 1991. It took another decade before a Russian-DPRK summit was held on North Korean soil.
The 1990s saw relations between Russia and North Korea reach their lowest point. Many Moscow analysts believed that the North Korean regime was on the brink of collapse, and DPRK decision-makers, who always looked at Russia with suspicion, perceived this as a proverbial “stab in the back.”
However, things began to change around 2000. The Russian government and public began to feel growing disappointment about the West, while the North Korean regime, which had survived the disastrous 1990s, appeared likely to persist for a long time.
So, in July 2000 Vladimir Putin came to Pyongyang, becoming the first-ever head of the Soviet/Russian state to visit the country. His trip was something of a detour, made on the way to Okinawa where he was attending a G8 meeting.
The summit was marked by promises to increase trade, which throughout the 1990s had decreased twenty-fold, by talks about the eventual linkage of railway lines and by nebulous declarations of mutual good feelings.
Since then the trade volume has remained largely static, and the railways are as unlikely to be connected in 2019 as they were in 2000.
At any rate, the 2000 Pyongyang summit established a tradition, of a sort: all subsequent DPRK-Russia summits have been conducted in a friendly atmosphere, and produced nebulous declarations and promises of further economic cooperation which invariably yield no results.
The most memorable part of the 2000 summit was the moment when Kim Jong Il allegedly told Vladimir Putin that North Korea would stop its missile program if other countries agree to help it launch its satellites.
Coming at a time when the North Korean missile program had begun to speed up, this was understandably seen as a diplomatic breakthrough, and was widely reported by media as well as by Putin himself.
However, the North Koreans soon clarified that the remark was merely a “joke.” President Putin, likely, did not appreciate such humor.
The 2000 Pyongyang summit established a tradition
In 2001 Kim Jong Il again paid a visit to Russia – the country of his birth, and which he had visited in 1959 when he accompanied his father on an official visit there.
He traveled in style by train, so it took more than a week for his train to reach Moscow. This leisurely trip wreaked havoc on the Transsiberian railway, where many regular trains had to be delayed or canceled.
Some people even sued the railway companies for damages and, in some cases, won compensation.
The diplomatic results of the 2001 trip were not much different from those of 2000: smiles, nice words, and promises to do something to increase the microscopic trade between the two.
Subsequent summits did not involve travel to the two countries’ respective capitals: the leaders began to meet in the middle ground in Eastern Siberia.
Given that North Korean leaders like to travel by train, it makes perfect sense. In 2002 Vladimir Putin met Kim Jong Il again, in Vladivostok this time, and in 2011 Kim Jong Il met the-then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Ulan Ude.
Interestingly, during his train trips Kim Jong Il behaved like a tourist: he often visited local places of interest, as well as industrial enterprises and farms.
It has been rumored that these trips, especially the first one in 2001, greatly influenced Kim Jong Il’s attitude to Russia.
North Korean media in the 1990s was fond of discussing the end of the communism and the disaster it wrought on Russia, with life in the country depicted in the darkest possible way.
It was propaganda, of course, but as is often the case, it influenced its own creators, so Kim Jong Il was surprised to see Russia in the early 2000s, which was going through something of a minor economic boom.
Now Kim Jong Un is set to repeat the trip his father made in 2002, after years of speculation and false starts. The timing is noteworthy: it comes as talks with the U.S. are in a deep stalemate.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Kremlin
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