From April 24-26, Kim Jong Un made his first official trip to Russia and held a meeting with Vladimir Putin on Russky Island in Vladivostok. Stanford University’s Daniel Sneider aptly called the affair a drive-by summit: Putin arrived in Vladivostok to spend a few hours with Kim and then departed for Beijing, leaving his North Korean guest to enjoy the scenic capital of the Russian Far East. The summit was friendly but seems to have produced little substance. Putin signaled that he is a player in the North Korea game, but his stakes in the game are probably not as high as those of other players.
Kim’s first visit to Russia was supposed to take place much earlier: in May 2015 the Kremlin expected him for the celebrations marking the 70th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany, but in the end, Kim chose to stay home. Had Kim come to Moscow, it would have become his first foreign visit as North Korea’s supreme leader. In hindsight, Kim’s failure to make an appearance at Moscow’s Victory Day parade in 2015 looks like a prescient move to save his first foreign trip for China, even though Pyongyang’s political relations with Beijing were at their nadir back then. But sooner or later Kim’s trip to Russia was inevitable. Russia is an important and generally friendly neighbor as well as a great power with a veto at the UN Security Council (UNSC). Kim has had a standing invitation to visit Russia since May 2018. However, throughout last year and up to the February Trump-Kim talks in Hanoi, Kim was too busy pursuing summit diplomacy with the United States, South Korea and China, relegating relations with Moscow to his lieutenants and diplomats. But Kim’s calculations and schedule have changed post-Hanoi, when the diplomatic process with Washington and Seoul stalled.
There are currently few major world leaders with whom Kim could have meaningful meetings. For now, the United States, South Korea and Japan are out of the question. He has already been to China four times and another visit there would underscore Pyongyang’s excessive reliance on Beijing. So Russia looked like the most logical choice for Kim. He could expect a warm reception in Russia that would boost his international and domestic prestige and demonstrate that North Korea has close friends beyond China and Cuba. Also, Kim most likely hoped to get political and economic support from Putin.
Putin also desired this summit but needed it less than Kim. For Moscow, meeting with the North Korean leader was important mostly for international prestige. It was meant to symbolically reaffirm Russia’s traditional role as a major player on the Korean Peninsula, whose influence on Korean affairs may currently be smaller than that of the United States and China but bigger than that of Japan. That said, Putin didn’t have any vital stakes in this meeting and could have just as well done without it. Kim’s stakes were higher, given that the prospects for ending the US-led economic isolation of North Korea significantly dimmed after Hanoi. Due to sanctions, North Korea is under a virtual economic blockade. Kim needs to find friends and allies who would be willing to help him out. For Kim, Russia is one of the very few remaining options to get some relief and survive a difficult period.
Little Generosity from Russia
We don’t know precisely what the Russian and North Korean leaders discussed during their three-hour talks, but it seems few, if any, concrete agreements or decisions were made. In his public statements after the summit, Putin sounded non-committal regarding new political, diplomatic and economic support for North Korea. Kim apparently failed to get Putin to commit to any substantial aid. Moscow is unlikely to unilaterally relax sanctions, such as allowing North Korean guest workers to stay in Russia in defiance of the UN Security Council resolutions. Russia is loath to undercut the authority of the UNSC, the most important global governance institution, in which Moscow is hugely invested as a founding and veto-holding member.
Unlike China, which is sustaining the North’s economy through oil supplies and possibly through direct cash transfers (which may be the reason the North Korean won and the prices of essential goods remain surprisingly stable despite the crippling sanctions), Russia is not ready to subsidize North Korea. It is hard to think of any scenario in which Russia would become a major donor for the DPRK. Moscow only provides direct and indirect subsidies to those states which it sees as belonging to the Russian sphere of influence in its immediate neighborhood and who are expected to toe the Kremlin’s political line. In contrast, North Korea is not seen as part of this area and it will not take political directions from Moscow in any case. Even China, the North’s largest benefactor by far, has limited leverage over the North. Putin may have made it clear to Kim that he should not expect too much generosity from Russia. One indirect indication that Kim was not entirely happy with the summit’s outcome was his decision to depart Vladivostok earlier than originally planned.
The Denuclearization Agenda
Apart from matters of bilateral economic cooperation, denuclearization was the other key topic on the agenda. Here, too, the summit appears to have produced little. Kim did not table any new proposals. After the talks, Putin hinted at Kim’s doggedness: “he (Kim) is determined to defend his country’s national interests and to maintain its security.” Nor was Putin enthusiastic about playing a mediation role between Pyongyang and Washington, promising only to convey North Korea’s position to the US leadership. Even if Kim wanted Moscow’s mediation—a questionable proposition given Pyongyang’s eagerness for direct talks with Washington—it is highly unlikely Putin would personally commit to such a role. The Russian leader is perfectly aware of the intractable nature of the North Korean conundrum. He also knows that mediation between North Korea and the United States is a thankless task with low chances of success. Moreover, Putin does not want to get stuck with the North Korean tar baby; his main geopolitical priority is the Middle East—where the Kremlin has established itself as a kingmaker and has real leverage—and not the Korean Peninsula.
Many in Washington expressed concerns that Putin might try to use the summit to throw a wrench into the American efforts to get North Korea to denuclearize. However, there are no signs that the Kremlin seeks to be a spoiler on North Korea. Putin is hardly interested in antagonizing Donald Trump over his personal foreign policy priority. Moreover, Russia seeks to resolve the Korean Peninsula nuclear problem rather than exacerbate it. Moscow is concerned about a possible armed conflagration on its borders that could result from a collapse of denuclearization diplomacy. More importantly, Russia is just as invested as the US in preserving the global nonproliferation regime. Even though North Korea’s nukes do not directly threaten Russia, Moscow is loath to see more nuclear powers in the international system, if only because it devalues Russia’s own nuclear-weapon status which, to a large degree, is the basis for Russia’s claim to the great-power rank. Indeed, Putin emphasized during his post-summit news conference that guarding the nonproliferation regime is one shared interest between Moscow and Washington.
That said, Russia is quite realistic that North Korea’s full and immediate denuclearization, as demanded by the United States, is nearly impossible in the foreseeable future. In fact, Putin stressed this point in Vladivostok, stating, albeit somewhat cryptically, that if North Korea is to denuclearize, it will need credible “international security guarantees.” It is likely that he had in mind something more substantial than legal assurances of North Korea’s security provided “on paper” by the United States and other powers. He may also have been implying that the United States should remove or reduce its military assets in Northeast Asia that North Korea perceives as threatening. This interpretation is consistent with a joint statement the Russian and Chinese foreign ministers issued during the Putin-Xi summit in Moscow on July 4, 2017, which stated opposition to “any military presence of extra-regional forces in Northeast Asia and its build-up under the pretext of counteracting the DPRK’s missile and nuclear programmes.” Of course, such a drawdown of the US forces in the region would benefit not only North Korea but also China and Russia.
Russia: A Supporting Actor on the Peninsula
The Vladivostok Summit has underscored how the primary geometry of the Korean nuclear problem has evolved toward a multi-polar structure, with North Korea, the United States, South Korea, and China as the principal actors, even though Seoul is forced to subordinate its North Korea policies to decisions made in Washington. Russia, and even more so Japan, are currently supporting actors on this stage. In Vladivostok, Putin somewhat undiplomatically took a jab at South Korea’s “shortage of sovereignty.” Ironically, Russia itself tends to follow China’s lead on Korean affairs, albeit not for a lack of geopolitical sovereignty, but rather in exchange for Beijing’s acknowledgment of the Middle East and some other areas as Russia’s playground.
Spending just a few hours in Vladivostok conversing and dining with Kim, Putin departed for Beijing where he would spend three days attending Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Forum. Moscow seems to have tacitly recognized that most of East Asia, including the peninsula, is within China’s sphere of influence. In recent years, Russia’s policies with respect to the North have been closely coordinated and aligned with China’s, and Moscow has generally been playing second fiddle to Beijing. This is unlikely to change as long as Russia and China continue to sustain and strengthen their “strategic partnership.”