September 22, 2019
September 22, 2019
Kim Jong Un heads to Russia: why now, and what to expect?
Kim Jong Un heads to Russia: why now, and what to expect?
Experts weigh in on prospects for the first DPRK-Russia summit in almost eight years
April 19th, 2019

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Following months of speculation, the Kremlin on Thursday confirmed that Kim Jong Un will travel to Russia later in the month for a summit with President Vladimir Putin.

The planned meeting will take place almost a year after Russia first extended an invitation to Kim Jong Un to visit Russia, and comes at a noteworthy time: with U.S.-DPRK diplomacy currently at an impasse, it’s likely the two leaders will have plenty to discuss.

So what to make of the news, and what is likely to emerge from what will be the first DPRK-Russian summit in eight years?

The following experts responded in time for NK News‘s deadline:

  • Andray Abrahamian, Koret Fellow at Stanford University
  • Anthony V. Rinna, analyst on Russian foreign policy in East Asia for the Sino-NK research group, NK News columnist
  • Artyom Lukin, Deputy Director for Research at the School of Regional and International Studies, Far Eastern Federal University
  • Fyodor Tertitskiy, expert in North Korean politics and the military, contributor to NK News and NK Pro
  • Hoo Chiew Ping, Senior Lecturer in Strategic Studies and International Relations, National University of Malaysia (UKM)
  • Liudmila Zakharova, Senior Researcher at the Centre for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences
  • Mintaro Oba, former State Department Korea Desk Officer and NK Pro contributing writer
  • Naoko Aoki, Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow, RAND Corporation
  • Tereza Novotná, Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellow at Free University Berlin and a Senior Associate Research Fellow at EUROPEUM

Russia has been pushing for a summit with North Korea for almost a year | Photo: Kremlin


Does the timing of this come as a surprise? Why/why not?


Andray Abrahamian: Russia, while no longer the central player on the Korean Peninsula that was during the 20th Century, still has security interests that they need to look out for.

Moscow, along with Tokyo, has been a distant fifth and sixth, as the two Koreas, the United States and China have engaged in intense summit diplomacy over the past year. At some point it would only be natural for Russia to re-connect to the process.


Anthony V. Rinna: Of course, the process of going from speculation to concrete plans happened relatively quickly, taking less than a month. Yet the timing itself is not particularly surprising. Moscow had been waiting for almost a year for a concrete answer, and with the prospect of a Kim-Putin summit having been made public for all that time, Pyongyang could not afford to keep the Kremlin waiting.

Furthermore, meeting with Putin approximately five months prior to this year’s Eastern Economic Forum could allow the DPRK and Russia to make preparations for collaborative economic projects ahead of that multilateral gathering.


Artyom Lukin: Sooner or later Kim’s trip to Russia was inevitable. Russia is an important and friendly neighbor. Also, in terms of maintaining a dynastic tradition, both Kim’s father and grandfather visited Russia repeatedly.

That Kim has chosen to go to Russia at this moment looks absolutely logical. He has had a standing invitation since last May when Russian foreign minister Lavrov visited Pyongyang and invited Kim, on behalf of Putin, to come to Russia. However, throughout 2018 and up to the Hanoi summit Kim was too busy pursuing summit diplomacy with the U.S., South Korea and China.

He apparently didn’t have much time left for Russia, relegating relations with Moscow to his senior diplomats. Neither was he particularly interested in going to Russia because it was not clear what material benefits such a visit would bring to Pyongyang. Post-Hanoi, when the diplomatic process with Washington – and Seoul – has stalled, Kim’s calculation has changed.

In fact, there are few foreign leaders with whom he could have meaningful meetings right now. Washington, Seoul and Tokyo are out of the question, for now. He has already been to China four times and another visit there would underscore Pyongyang’s excessive reliance on Beijing. So Russia looks like an evident choice. He can expect a friendly reception here and probably some chance of getting political and economic support from Putin.    


Fyodor Tertitskiy: Giving the amount of pestering of Kim Jong Un by the Kremlin, it was bound to happen sooner or later. After all, Moscow sent their foreign minister, speaker of the upper house, and chief of police to persuade Kim Jong Un to come, and the no-deal result of the Hanoi summit seemed likely to push Kim to finally accept the Kremlin’s invitation.

Nevertheless, I was sort of expecting Russia to be the first to announce it and was surprised when South Korean press reported on it first. Apparently, our world is more transparent than I thought.


Hoo Chiew Ping: The Putin-Kim Summit had been anticipated since last year and now it is finally materialized after the fallout from the Hanoi Summit.

The timing is interesting because it only came about after the stalemate of negotiations between U.S.-DPRK, not riding with the high tides of summit diplomacy last year.

 


Liudmila Zakharova: First thing to say is that we still do not know if the summit takes place next week, as North Korea has a record of changing its leader’s plans, especially after they become open to the public.

However, the summit has been planned since last year and the timing seems to be a compromise between the Russian President’s busy schedule and North Korea’s desire to form a coalition of states supporting Pyongyang’s denuclearization approach after the Hanoi summit, as well as both sides’ efforts to work out a mutually acceptable summit agenda.

Moreover, after the failure to get sanctions relief from the U.S., having urgent domestic economic goals and not wanting to depend solely on China, North Korea might be expecting some economic gains from Russia as a result of the upcoming summit.


Mintaro Oba: I’m not surprised. While high-level engagement between Russia and North Korea has been discussed and expected for some time, North Korea largely seemed to prioritize the United States, China, and South Korea before Hanoi.

Now that North Korea needs to show it has other options and maintain a strong position as tensions rise with the United States, Russia is a natural partner to cultivate. As North Korea appears to raise tensions in a very calculated way — including through the recent test and its criticism of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — being able to show unity with Russia shortly after those moves is a smart maneuver.


Naoko Aoki: I do not find the timing a surprise.

Russia extended an invitation to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un close to a year ago, so it was a matter of when North Korea would say yes. For Kim Jong Un, it makes sense to do this now as his diplomacy with the United States is stuck.

 


Tereza Novotná: I am not too surprised about the summit taking place.

In fact, I am more surprised that it took so long for Kim to actually agree to meet with Putin who invited him in May last year.   

 

 


North Korea may be turning to Russia as tensions with the U.S. resurface| Photo: KCNA


What message might Kim Jong Un be hoping to send with this meeting?


Andray Abrahamian: The North Koreans want sanctions relief. It is likely that they want to strategize with Moscow about types of relief they could expect before UN sanctions are lifted.

Most UN measures include language that reads “measures imposed by this resolution are not intended to have adverse humanitarian consequences for the civilian population of the DPRK.”

The North Koreans will be saying, “look, this is happening now, as a P5 member, can you help?”


Anthony V. Rinna: From a sub-regional perspective, he is likely looking to send a message that he is not dependent on China. From a wider global vantage point, he will likely seek to communicate that attempts to isolate the DPRK have not been as successful as the West had hoped.

What is interesting is his decision to conduct a missile test just before his meeting with Putin.

In doing so, he is potentially sending the message that he can engage in security provocations yet hold normal relations with a recognized great power.


Artyom Lukin: Kim definitely wants this meeting with Putin to show that North Korea has options when it comes to relations with major powers. Kim does not want to look too dependent on Washington, Beijing, and Seoul. A summit with Putin would further solidify his prestige on the international stage while once more demonstrating to North Korea’s elite and ordinary people that their Supreme Leader is sought after and courted by the world leaders.

The value of the summit is somewhat diminished by the fact that it is likely to take place in Vladivostok rather than in the Russian capital Moscow. Thus it falls short of a full state visit. It is not clear which side insisted on the summit taking place not in Moscow.

At any rate, this is a sign that the Russia-DPRK relationship cannot be compared to the China-DPRK bond complete with a formal alliance. The Moscow -Pyongyang axis is a generally friendly, but much thinner relationship relative to Pyongyang – Beijing.


Fyodor Tertitskiy: I doubt Kim Jong Un expects much from this meeting – if he really needed Russia, he would have gone there in 2018 – but his situation is not good and beggars can’t be choosers.

Even if there is a slim chance that Moscow would persuade Washington to be more flexible or Beijing to unofficially relax some sanctions Kim would want to take it. And of course, it reminds the world that Hanoi or no Hanoi, the DPRK is not facing political isolation.


Hoo Chiew Ping: Kim Jong Un will seek to leverage on Russia’s ongoing support for North Korea especially in times when China’s sanctions implementation did yield some impact, while Russia’s assistance has definitely increased North Korean economy resilience.

Kim may aim to send a strong message to the White House to return to the pre-Hanoi summit consensus to implement reciprocal steps. The U.S. is still the main target of Kim Jong Un’s strategy to change the status quo by acknowledging DPRK as an equal partner and in shifting the military balance on the Korean peninsula.


Liudmila Zakharova: From the North Korean perspective, after the Hanoi summit Pyongyang wants to show Washington that it has other alternatives for supporting its denuclearization plan (step-by-step approach, sanctions relief etc) and try to use Russian support as leverage in negotiations with the U.S.

 


Mintaro Oba: Externally, this meeting signals North Korea has a range of diplomatic options and that a major regional player supports North Korea’s stance on sanctions relief and diplomacy with the United States.

Internally, it helps maintain his credibility as a statesman — which may have been damaged by what happened in Hanoi — and signals strength.

 

 


Naoko Aoki: This underscores that North Korea is still on a diplomatic track. But Kim Jong Un has given President Trump a warning that things may change if the United States does not shift its stance by the end of the year, so I think this is meant to put pressure on the United States.

But I also think that North Korea is very much interested in the economic benefits that may result from its diplomacy with Russia. As Kim Jong Un emphasized in his speech again earlier this month, he wants to develop the country’s economy.


Tereza Novotná: Given the stalled talks with the U.S.(and with the ROK), Kim Jong Un is firstly hedging his bets and is trying to show that he has other options, and other – old – friends in Kremlin rather than just his “newly found friend” in the White House.

Secondly, the North Korean leader is always happy to demonstrate to the world that he’s a “normal” leader who is accepted by other heads of state across the globe. Thirdly, if Russia agrees to issues such as sanctions relief, albeit not that likely, it can obviously come very handy.


Russia first extended the invitation back in May last year | Photo: Russian MFA


What does Russia stand to gain from a summit with North Korea at this time?


Andray Abrahamian: If they claim an exemption under this clause and allow, say, workers to remain in Russia (they are supposed to leave by the end of this year) or send food aid, this will relieve pressure on the Koreans and put some on Washington, which has to be concerned that they cannot hold this robust sanctions coalition together forever.

 


Anthony V. Rinna: Sub-regionally speaking, Russia is able to at least subtly remind other countries of its role in the Korean security crisis. Everyone knows that Russia is a player and an important one at that, so meeting with Kim will not have some jarring effect on the way other countries perceive Moscow’s role.

Yet the Kremlin has an opportunity to demonstrate to advance its interests on the Korean Peninsula in a sense that it can show China that Beijing is not the only major influencer in the DPRK, as well as demonstrate to South Korea — with which Russia seeks increased economic cooperation — that there are benefits in cooperating with Russia over DPRK-related issues, including diplomacy and economics.


Artyom Lukin: First and foremost, the Putin-Kim summit will reaffirm Russia’s place as a major player on the Korean Peninsula.

This is why the summit is important for Russian international prestige. The summit will hardly give Putin any leverage over Kim.

However, Putin will benefit by gaining firsthand knowledge of Kim and his motives.


Fyodor Tertitskiy: Mostly, the fact that the summit itself is being held would be a relief for Putin. For more than a year Russia has been left out of the loop, as Kim Jong Un ignored Putin in favor of Xi, Moon and Trump and even the Cuban President. Being treated as a nation less important than Cuba did not look good for Moscow. Now the Kremlin is making a comeback.

Russia’s biggest diplomatic advantage is that while the country is playing nearly the same role in the UNSC as Britain and France – that of a permanent member endorsing the position of another great power, but unlike London or Paris, Moscow is largely perceived as an independent player, whose position just happens to be identical to that of China nearly all the time. This gives Russia some diplomatic credit it can spend in negotiations with the United States.

The idea of Russia having an influence on North Korea was tarnished by the fact Kim Jong Un never met Putin, and the fact that it is finally happening will be a pleasant development for the Kremlin.


Hoo Chiew Ping: Russia will aim to gauge the objectives of the “new” Kim Jong Un regime with fresh line up of elites. Russia has since 2000 always been cautious about rushing into the euphoria of diplomacy and engagement with North Korea.

Kim Jong Un, perhaps, has some specific proposals for Russia in mind that would benefit his economic development plans; while Vladimir Putin would assess North Korean regime’s sincerity and trust in Russia as an alternative strategic partner (to China) after the fallout at the end of Cold War era. Such an expectation is the result of Russia consistent actions for the past decades by writing off most of North Korea’s debt, which may set the condition to restart their bilateral relations with a new ground of cooperation.


Liudmila Zakharova: I would emphasize regional and global aspects. After last year’s Sino-NK, South-North and U.S.-NK summits, many experts claimed that Russia was being sidelined from the Korean peace process. However, some Russian specialists on North Korea predicted that the U.S.-NK dialog would stall in the near future due to the different understanding of denuclearization and the road to it by the U.S. and the DPRK.

So, Russia was not in a hurry to seek a summit and could wait until North Korea would become more interested in it. Now the situation has changed and amid stalled U.S.-NK negotiations Moscow might regain its role in the Korean settlement and offer its mediator services and invaluable experience of dealing with North Korea (for maybe setting up a multilateral structure of proving security guarantees to NK). After all, Russia shares a border with the DPRK and tries to develop the Far Eastern region, which means that Moscow is not interested at all in a new military escalation on the Korean peninsula, should the current peace process fail.

Biegun has been in Moscow this week which illustrates that the U.S. values Russia’s support in resolving the nuclear crisis. Cooperation in this area might become a rare sphere where Moscow and Washington can work together for a common goal of keeping peace and global non-proliferation regime.


Mintaro Oba: Russia is a big power, and it is always playing a larger game. North Korea has often been relatively marginal in that game, as Russia’s influence has declined after the end of the Cold War.

But with North Korea looking to expand its diplomatic options, Russia stands to become a much more active participant in Korean peninsula matters — and thereby gain more leverage over both North Korea and the United States.


Naoko Aoki: Russia’s past behavior has shown that it does not want to be excluded from a peace process on the Korean Peninsula. Russia wants peace on the Korean Peninsula as instability would impact the country negatively, and wants to make sure its interests are safeguarded in any peace process. It was President Putin who raised Russia’s profile on the Korean Peninsula with his trip to Pyongyang in 2000, becoming the first Russian leader to visit North Korea.

There are economic reasons for this too, as a positive outcome would be good for the development of the Russian Far East.

 


Tereza Novotná: To some extent similarly to Kim Jong Un, Putin wants to show to the world that he’s a respected world leader and on par with the U.S. and Chinese Presidents. That’s the main reason why he wanted the summit for a while. Russia also wants to make sure that it is not left out if there is any final settlement between the U.S. and NK – and if there is any multilateral format at the end of the game.

Even if the revival of the 6 Party Talks is at the moment unlikely, Russia would not want to be out should such a (or similar) format be re-established. And Putin has been enjoying his position of a distractor-in-chief – whatever helps upsets “the West”, he’s keen on doing. It will be interesting to see the reaction, official and unofficial, of the U.S.


Likely high on the agenda will be the state of North Korean workers in Russia | Photo: Eric Lafforgue


What kind of agreements, official and unofficial, can we expect to emerge from the summit?


Andray Abrahamian: Russia’s economic interests in the DPRK are low and sanctions remain strong, so we can’t expect much on that front. We might see something in terms of minor sanctions relief or food aid.

Perhaps the Russians will agree to push for waivers from UN sanctions or just unilaterally decide not to enforce some of the measures. Or maybe no agreements.

Who knows what is supposed to come out of a summit these days?


Anthony V. Rinna: The Kremlin prides itself on what it claims is its full compliance with UN sanctions against the DPRK (although other countries would dispute that).

In fact, Moscow repeatedly cites its ostensible adherence to international law regarding the DPRK as a reason for loosening sanctions. Even as North Korea has asked Russia for an exception over the expulsion of North Korean guest workers from Russia, Moscow is unlikely to rock the boat in such a way. Official agreements, however, are possible in trade-related areas insofar as they allow the use of the port of Rason-Khasan.

It is also possible that the two sides may ink agreements in cultural, educational, and scientific fields. Unofficially, Moscow will likely grant assurances to Pyongyang to continue pushing for sanctions relief.


Artyom Lukin: It is not certain whether any official declarations or agreements will come out of the summit. If there are any official agreements or statements, they will likely be of a very general nature, reaffirming the Russia-DPRK good-neighborliness and friendship.

When Kim meets Putin, he is going to ask for economic assistance and unilateral sanctions relaxation. Moscow is unlikely to grant his wishes. Russian subsidies to NK ended once and for all in 1991. If the Kremlin has any spare money, it is not for Kim. Even if Moscow agrees to provide some economic help to the North, it will be quite limited. For example, Russia could agree to fund the construction of a vehicle bridge connecting Russia and North Korea across the Tumangan River.  

When it comes to the North Korea sanctions, there is relatively little wiggle room for Russia to relax their enforcement without being in overt breach of the UNSC resolutions for which it itself voted in 2017. Being a veto-holding UNSC member, Moscow can hardly afford to undermine its authority even for the sake of friendship with Kim.


Fyodor Tertitskiy: Nothing much. Moscow will liklely endorse Pyongyang’s freeze on tests and call for diplomatic solutions and endorse the idea of a trilateral Moscow-Seoul-Pyongyang cooperation, as it always had.

Kim Jong Un is likely to lobby Putin to allow North Korean workers to stay in the Far East despite the fact that by December 22, 2019, they are to be sent home. He has the support of local officials who value North Koreans as highly skilled and cheap workforce and public opinion, as most Russians would agree that North Koreans should not suffer for the fact that their unelected head of state’s weapons may pose a threat to the United States.

However, I doubt that Putin will yield. The idea that the UN Security Council should be the top decision-making institution in the world is one of the cornerstones of the Russian leadership’s view of the international politics and the fate of these workers is too small factor to consider when compared to this.


Hoo Chiew Ping: It’s highly likely we’ll see a joint statement between the leaders pledging to peace and stability of the region. We shall see if the agreement or official reports from both sides echo those between China-DPRK.

Russia-China alignment on North Korea has always been officially in conforming with each other. Thus, it would be interesting to note the differences and/or highlights, if any.


Liudmila Zakharova: I would expect some political declarations on supporting peace process on the Korean peninsula, appreciating the steps that North Korea has already made, the necessity for partial sanctions relief, etc. Economic issues are important for North Korea, especially keeping its guest workers in Russia for as long as possible, building an automobile bridge between the two countries, revitalization of trade relations and more humanitarian assistance.

However, Russia is a responsible permanent member of the UNSC and not a charity, so any projects should have economic rationale and be in compliance with the existing international sanctions regime.

Therefore, any economic agreements would be made within the UNSC sanctions framework. As a goodwill gesture, Russia might provide North Korea with some additional humanitarian assistance on a bilateral basis (such as some food or medicine) and promise to keep advocating sanctions relief in the UNSC. The summit may also speed up the process of exploring opportunities to build an automobile bridge between Russia and North Korea.


Mintaro Oba: I don’t know that we can expect too many concrete deliverables to come out of this summit.

But I would expect some warm imagery and an effort on both sides to demonstrate unity and good personal ties.

 


Naoko Aoki: As North Korea and Russia have held a series of talks recently on economic cooperation, we may see some kind of agreement on that, but there is a limit to what the countries can do due to the U.N. and U.S. sanctions in place. I expect there to be talks about economic cooperation between the two countries as well as trilateral projects involving South Korea.

 

 


Tereza Novotná: As with the U.S.-NK summits so far, it will be largely a photo op summit, and I do not expect any major deal emerging from the meeting. It’s not very likely that Putin will become a “mediator” between the U.S. and North Korea, or that he would promise any major changes, such as the lifting of sanctions. There will probably be a broad statement supporting the continuation of denuclearization talks and urging everyone to ease sanctions on the DPRK. However, I do not expect any public promises in that regard, such as keeping the North Korean workers after the UN deadline.

There might be some informal agreements in this direction even if I doubt that Russia would dare to become the main sanctions violator at this stage. Moreover, there is an unwritten agreement between Xi and Putin that North Korea is in the Chinese orbit and sphere of influence and hence Putin wouldn’t do anything which would upset China or would not pre-agreed with China.


U.S.-DPRK diplomacy has stalled in the weeks following the no-deal summit in Hanoi | Photo: Rodong Sinmun


How might this summit affect this ongoing stalemate between the U.S. and North Korea?


Andray Abrahamian: As noted, it might slightly relieve pressure on the Koreans while putting some on the Americans, but whatever emerges does not come close to the heart of the current issues between Washington and Pyongyang: in the short term, what is the price of Yongbyon; in the long term, what does denuclearization mean and what will the future bilateral relationship look like?

 


Anthony V. Rinna: Given the strong Russophobia in Washington, the summit has the potential to disrupt U.S. interests vis-à-vis the DPRK. Moscow and Washington are not in overt geopolitical contention over North Korea as they are in places like Ukraine and Syria.

Furthermore, the broad view among Russia experts who have considered the interplay between the DPRK, the Russian Federation and the U.S. is that Moscow is in no mood to let issues related to North Korea sour the already strained Moscow-Washington relationship.

Nevertheless, Russia and the U.S. are in stark disagreement over sanctions, and meeting Putin could prove to be a setback for American attempts at isolating Pyongyang.


Artyom Lukin: Putin might be tempted to play mediator between Kim and Trump, but I don’t think this is very likely.

First, Putin is too busy with the Middle East where he has established himself as a kingpin figure and, second, Moscow has tacitly recognized the Korean peninsula as China’s area of responsibility. That said, Putin might give Kim some advice on how to deal with the Americans.

What kind of advice it will be is anyone’s guess.


Fyodor Tertitskiy: Russia has no real leverage to affect decision making in neither Pyongyang nor Washington. In the case of the North, the trade between the two nations is minuscule and the DPRK understands that Russia is unwilling to do anything on this front which could possibly cast a shadow to their close relations with Beijing.

As for Washington, while under different circumstances Moscow could have hoped to play a mediator role, public perception of Russia’s meddling in the latest presidential elections makes it nearly impossible – any collaboration with Russia would be met with fury by the opposition to Trump. I think that it would require for both Trump and Putin to go before Russia could be trusted enough to play the role of a mediator.


Hoo Chiew Ping: The Trump White House at the moment has shown no sign of interest in serious multilateral denuclearization negotiation with John Bolton’s ever-increasing presence over the North Korean issue.

Thus, if there is a lot of positive traction following Putin-Kim summit, Trump administration will lose more grounds in negotiating with North Korea as the regime will have China and Russia as its fallback options to continue its status as a status quo nuclear-armed state.

The United States and South Korea will stand as the biggest losers in this situation if the White House is reluctant to review their negotiation tactics.


Liudmila Zakharova: In my opinion, the North Korean leader thinks that his meeting with Vladimir Putin might have an impact on the U.S. position and help to make Trump accept a phased approach to denuclearization (as it was fixed in six-party talks statements which Russia sees as a nuclear settlement basis) rather than insisting on a big deal.

The main goal for North Korea now is to get sanctions relief, so it needs to get as much support for this aim as possible. The question is whether the U.S. is ready to respond positively to these efforts.


Mintaro Oba: I think it will probably give North Korea greater confidence in its diplomatic position, making it feel more assured in challenging the United States and rebuffing Chinese attempts to influence its diplomacy.

 

 


Naoko Aoki: The diplomacy between the United States and North Korea has been a leadership-driven process, and so what President Trump thinks about this is going to matter.

That is difficult to predict, but it is unlikely that the summit meeting between Russia and North Korea will have an immediate and decisive impact on the stalemate in diplomacy between the United States and North Korea.


Tereza Novotná: I do not think that the summit will have any major practical consequences for the U.S.-NK talks. In fact, I would rather think that it may annoy the U.S. administration (which is probably the reason why Kim Jong Un has been waiting for nearly a year to make this summit happen), but given a rather unusual “friendship” between Putin and Trump, it might be Trump’s underlings who may not appreciate the summit rather than the boss himself.

I don’t think that Putin can serve as a bridge between the two sides, however.


Featured image: KCNA/Kremlin, edited by NK News

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