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Colin Zwirko is an NK News correspondent based in Seoul.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Russian President Vladimir Putin met in Vladivostok for the first time on Thursday, at 1405 local time, to kick off their long-awaited summit.
Assembling in front of Building S on the campus of the Far Eastern Federal University (FEFU) on Russky Island, Putin welcomed Kim as he stepped out of his limousine.
The two then exchanged greetings with top officials from both countries including their foreign ministers and vice-foreign ministers before sitting down for brief opening statements to the press.
Putin told Kim he was “confident that your visit to Russia today will also contribute to strengthening relations between our countries and will help us to find a way to resolve the situation on the Korean peninsula,” according to an English translation provided on site.
The Russian president also commended Kim for his efforts to “normalize relations” between the DPRK and the U.S.
Signaling the items to be discussed in their upcoming meeting, Putin said that “as far as our bilateral relations are concerned, we have a lot we can do to improve our trade, (and to) develop humanitarian contacts.”
In response, Kim said “the situation on the Korean peninsula is of great interest to the whole world, so we will review this issue together.”
“I hope that these talks will be an important event. We’ll exchange our opinions on the situation, and today, I hope we will contribute to the whole process together,” Kim added.
Media were then ushered out at 1415, when the two leaders were expected to begin their formal discussions.
Aide to the President Yury Ushakov told reporters the previous day that an initial one-on-one meeting would last about one hour, followed by three more hours of expanded talks.
“Initially, the leaders will meet face-to-face, then [expanded] negotiations,” he said.
However, Ushakov also said that “neither the signing of documents, nor a [joint] statement is planned yet, the joint statement is not yet being worked out,” according to comments carried by Interfax News.
Kim arrived in Vladivostok Wednesday and stayed overnight on campus, while Putin flew into Vladivostok Thursday morning and arrived at the University at 1335.
The North Korean leader moved from his lodgings to the meeting place at 1405.
It is the first DPRK-Russia summit since Kim’s father Kim Jong Il met then-President Dmitri Medvedev in August 2011 – also in Russia’s Far East.
The previous day, presidential spokesperson Dmitry Peskov signaled the summit agenda would include discussions on denuclearization and that Russia may raise the possibility of a return to the six-party talks.
“Indeed, the six-party talks are a format that is designed to help find solutions to solving the problem of the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” Peskov said.
“There are currently no other effective international mechanisms,” he added.
The talks are also expected to address strengthening bilateral ties and economic relations, including over the issue of sanctions relief.
Kim and Putin’s first summit this week follows a flurry of high-level meetings between the two countries in recent months, as well as the repeated mention in bilateral meetings of a number of joint economic projects in the works.
The most often mentioned items on the economic front include a planned road bridge adjacent the rail bridge at Tumangang-Khasan where Kim Jong Un crossed into Russia the previous day, as well as a virtual “trading house” based in Russia, selling North Korean goods.
But with those items being addressed at the working level, it is more likely the two leaders could discuss the issue of North Korean laborers in Russia and the DPRK’s voiced desire for Moscow to help ease sanctions and/or allow the workers to stay despite restrictions.
According to UN Security Council Resolution 2397, all member states must repatriate North Korean workers residing in their territory by December 22 this year.
Before meeting Putin, Kim Jong Un arrived in his armored train at Vladivostok’s main station just after 1800 local time Wednesday, where he was greeted by Russia’s Far East Development Minister Alexander Kozlov.
The two also met for brief talks earlier at Khasan Station, just across the DPRK-Russia border.
North Korean party-run daily Rodong Sinmun covered the meeting at Khasan and Kim’s arrival in Vladivostok on its front page Thursday, but provided no additional details or expectations for the summit with Putin.
The Russian president did not arrive in Vladivostok until Thursday around 1000 local time, having first stopped in the Russian city of Chita earlier in the morning to address wildfires in the region.
Their summit comes almost a year after foreign minister Sergey Lavrov’s meeting with the North Korean leader in Pyongyang last May, where he formally invited Kim Jong Un on behalf of Putin to visit Russia.
It is Kim’s 13th meeting with a world leader since early 2018, before which he had not met another head of state since he assumed leadership in the final days of 2011.
President Putin previously met with Kim Jong Il three times: first in Pyongyang in 2000, in Moscow the following year, and in Vladivostok in 2002.
Featured image: The Kremlin