What could be expected from a first foreign voyage of Kim Jong Un, who during his likely maiden visit to Russia this coming May will meet a host of foreign leaders—some of them eager to “look him in his eyes,” some reluctant to even come near him? What hopes might Kim have for this “coming of age” ball as well as from negotiations with his host, President Vladimir Putin, whose unpopularity in the West is not so different than his own?
Opinions in Russia on Kim’s potential visit are sharply divided. Communists and national patriots, traditionally friendly to North Korea, support attention to North Korea. “Patriotic” center experts are a bit shy to applaud this occasion since North Korea has become a household “horror story” for progressives, who accuse Putin’s government of “moving in the direction of North Korea” by promoting information closeness, self-imposed isolation, import substitution, intolerance to opposition and political and media control; the anti-Putin liberal camp mocks Kim’s visit and sees him in the context of the “The Interview” rather than based on fact or reality. North Koreans, I suspect, may consider this visit as official proof that Moscow is becoming a “natural ally” of their regime.
I would dare express my opinion that for Russia, given the current stand-off with the West, bringing a foreign leader with, to put it mildly, a dubious reputation is a courageous but not an advantageous public relations move. Even if the geopolitical consequences of this bold initiative are significant and bring Russia to the forefront of Korean affairs, Kim’s exchanging handshakes with Putin would surely give Putin’s critics a pretext for some unpleasant comparisons. Even if seen by some in the Russian establishment as one more challenge to the West, others can say that the West’s opinion of Putin is so bad right now that he has nothing to lose by getting closer with Kim. However, there is a price to pay internally and externally for endorsing Kim Jong Un. His presence might be another reason for some foreign leaders to limit their participation in an important event for Russia—celebrating its role in defeating Nazism and defending the international system created as a result of World War II.
Personally, I would prefer preparing a secret bilateral meeting for the North Korean leader just before the main events and inviting him to some of them as an extra treat. (After all, neither North Korea nor its precursor was part of the anti-Nazi coalition.) That would have been more efficient and allowed for deeper bilateral discussions. Diplomats understand that a sideline meeting for an international event is a poor place for meaningful dialogue—a full agenda cannot be discussed and a formal document is hard to issue.
However, given this format, there is still potentially value in a visit by Kim Jong Un to Moscow. In 2014, Russia-North Korea relations improved considerably, mostly at Pyongyang’s initiative. The confrontation with the West suddenly brought the two countries closer together. North Korea has stressed, especially in contacts by the military, a “common threat.” Moreover, Pyongyang deserves Moscow’s attention as it has regrettably become one of the few public supporters of Russian policy in Ukraine. At the same time, the “North Korean issue” remains one of the few areas of continuing US-Russian cooperation. Putin specifically mentioned in his “anti-US” speech in Sochi in October 2014 that “our [US and Russia’s] work on North Korean issues, which also has some positive results.”
The most obvious reason for North Korea to reach out to Russia is to move away from overdependence on China. Chinese President Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un do not seem to be particularly fond of each other. It will be interesting to see, if Kim Jong Un does go to Moscow, whether the two will meet there. While the danger of “losing face” for both is very big, their failure to meet would represent an even greater loss of face for Russia, both from the point of view of its strategic partnership with China and in establishing closer ties with Kim. In that context, Moscow and Beijing should work together to discourage a possible North Korean ploy to profit from playing its two most friendly partners against each other (a lesson learned from Kim Il Sung’s “balancing” practice). Russia and China agree that they should tackle the Korean problem in harmony; arranging Kim’s visit to Moscow could be an opportunity for this type of bilateral cooperation.
What issues could be put on the agenda? Kim Jong Un might solicit support from both Russia and maybe other countries represented in Moscow in his stand-off with the United States and South Korea.
- On the issue of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, there will not be much commonality of views between Russia and the DPRK, although Russia is likely to be more open to Pyongyang’s “self defense” requirement than before. The usual stress to solve all problems using only political and diplomatic tools and a renewed urge to restart the Six Party Talks can be expected. The DPRK must refrain, of course, from any nuclear tests or missile launches before the visit, or it would become unwelcome.
- Should a DPRK-China or even a trilateral Russia-PRC-DPRK meeting take place in Moscow, it could send a strong message to the United States and its allies that abstaining from dialogue under the policy of “strategic patience” is a mistake. All view this patience as waiting for the expected fall of Kim’s regime. Is this recipe also part of the West’s policy towards Putin? Russian leaders should think twice before publicly accusing “North Korean behavior” as the cause for problems on the peninsula. Russia will probably support Pyongyang’s readiness to abstain from nuclear tests and its desire to have bilateral talks with the United States without preconditions, although Moscow’s voice will hardly be taken into much account in Washington.
- One issue that could be brought up by North Korea is soliciting Russia’s assistance in construction of nuclear power plants since the relevant agreement, signed in Soviet times, is still in force. Despite economic difficulties and UN sanctions this idea might be given thorough consideration as Russia is concerned with nuclear safety of North Korean nuclear facilities.
- Both countries could join hands in denouncing the US sanctions policy. I expect both to criticize the US for resorting to pressure tactics. They may even stress the central role of the United Nations and other institutions in taking decisions on such international issues, although the DPRK might be reluctant to do so given UN sanctions against the North. Russia could even reconsider some of the sanctions used against North Korea bilaterally—especially when it concerns “luxury items” (for which the definition used is unnecessarily broad) as well as humanitarian projects and financial transactions not related to the military sector. For the easing of sanctions and getting North Korea out of the “financial booze,” the system of settling trade deals in Russian roubles, started last year, could present an opportunity as an alternative to dollar settings.
- Another issue is political pressure based on human rights violations. Although Russia can hardly acknowledge that the situation of human rights in North Korea is normal, it can denounce “double standards” and using humanitarian issues for political purposes.
- Adherence to international law and the central role of the United Nations in international relations is something Russia would expect to get words of approval from North Koreans. At the same time the idea of network diplomacy and participation in multilateral processes could be the ideas Russia would like to present for consideration by the DPRK, a country notoriously devoid of allies. Also an initiative of jointly addressing new challenges, such as cyber warfare, non-militarization of outer space, use of new kinds of weapons (UAV, “prompt global strike”) could also be discussed.
- Obviously North Korea is interested in soliciting Russia’s support for its position on inter-Korean relations and initiatives for a dialogue without prior conditions. There are unconfirmed reports that Kim Jong Un’s envoy even asked Putin to assist with an inter-Korean summit when meeting him last November. The North will obviously get Russian approval and support since Moscow has always supported dialogue and cooperation between Seoul and Pyongyang. It has already noted Kim’s statements in his New Year’s speech of the “two systems” concept. (Kim stated, “Though the people-centered socialist system of our own style is the most advantageous, we do not force it on south Korea and have never done so.”) This corresponds well to the Russian general line on national reconciliation between the two Koreas and their peaceful cooperation on a long road to voluntary national reunification.
- At this moment I would abstain from dreaming about a North-South summit meeting in Moscow (I still doubt the South and especially the United States would be ready to go that far, even though it looks like President Park is set to go to Moscow). Of course, this would be a real breakthrough not only in Korean, but global politics. And if I would dare to share my own fantasies about a DPRK-ROK-Russia-China summit in Moscow, jointly offering an olive branch to the United States and Japan by proposing a meaningful new round of diplomatic talks on a Korean settlement, I would be surely considered delusional. However, it is true that the presence of Kim at the same venue with other world leaders does present an unparalleled chance for a turn to the better in Korean affairs. Even a meeting with the Japanese leader should not be excluded. However, will the concerned parties be interested and do their homework in time to use this opportunity? Leaving aside my fantasies, the state of Russia-North Korean relations is now approaching the possibility of discussing many projects, especially economic projects. Of course, the North Koreans may try to use the chance to solicit the delivery of weapons by Russia or other forms of military-technical cooperation, but this is prohibited by international sanctions. Nevertheless military-to-military contacts might be useful for promoting understanding of North Korea’s security strategy and might be encouraged.
- The trilateral economic projects, such as Trans-Korean railroad and its linking with the Trans-Siberian Railroad, and the gas pipeline and power grid uniting Russia and both Koreas will probably be high on the agenda. The pilot railroad project is quite successful—the transport of coal by the Khasan-Rajin link started last July and the first batch of coal to South Korea (Pohang) was transported from Russia via the Rajin port in November.
- The so-called “Victory” project, aimed at acquiring North Korean minerals, including coal and ores, selling them in international markets and using the funds to guarantee investment in mineral extraction and transportation is also a topic for a discussion that surely needs government support. The plan to modernize North Korean railroads—3500 km or half of the railroad grid—and also to build new roads around Pyongyang from North and South could be discussed. A joint North Korea-Russian project to upgrade the DPRK’s railways could become a model for future bilateral economic joint projects.
The list of possibilities is long, but it is too early to say whether Kim Jong Un is well prepared for his international debut and whether his foreign policy team will be wise enough to avoid unrealistic suggestions or policy guidelines. However the potential for the turn to the better in the Korean situation does exist. I hope the chance will not be lost or the opportunity spoiled.