Written by Andrew E Kramer and Choe Sang-Hun
Two months after a failed summit meeting with President Donald Trump, North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, was set to meet Thursday with President Vladimir Putin of Russia, as Kim tries to rally international support for an approach to sanctions relief and gradual nuclear disarmament that the Trump administration opposes.
Kim’s visit to the Pacific port city of Vladivostok, Russia, is his first trip abroad since February, when he and Trump met with much fanfare in Vietnam, only to see negotiations end abruptly, amid mutual recriminations, without any progress toward an agreement.
At the talks in Hanoi, the Vietnamese capital, Trump proposed a “big deal” to lift punishing economic sanctions in return for a quick and complete elimination of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Kim offered, instead, only a partial dismantling of nuclear facilities — while keeping his arsenal of nuclear warheads and missiles — in exchange for relief from the most harmful sanctions.
Each side called the other’s plan unacceptable and the talks collapsed — a sharp contrast to the rosy picture both leaders painted of their first meeting, last June, in Singapore.
North Korea has since vented its frustration with Washington, conducting a weapons test and accusing Trump’s national security adviser, John R. Bolton, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo of sabotaging the nuclear negotiations. Kim said he was willing to meet Trump again, but only if the president made a new proposal the North could accept by the end of the year.
Looking for friendlier counterweights to the United States, Kim is making his first trip to Russia since taking the helm of his country and seeking to cultivate ties that date to the Soviet era. China and Russia have already voiced support for Kim’s gradual approach to disarmament and sanctions relief, something the summit meeting in Vladivostok seemed intended to highlight.
Russian officials took pains to emphasize they are not trying to undercut Trump, though Putin and his government often seem to relish opportunities to thwart the international aims of the United States and its allies. A Kremlin adviser, Yuri Ushakov, told Russian news media on Wednesday that the meeting intended to “consolidate the positive trends” of Trump’s talks.
Vedomosti, a Russian business newspaper, noted that China has been muted in its backing of Kim, for fear of upsetting trade talks with the United States.
Russia’s formal trade with North Korea is minuscule, but it is seeking mining concessions and a long-desired trans-Korean natural gas pipeline if international sanctions are lifted, said Vasily Kashin, an East Asia expert at the Russian Academy of Sciences. Washington and Moscow share an interest in avoiding a disastrous war on the Korean Peninsula, he said, although the United States has expressed far more alarm over the years about North Korea’s many threats to attack its neighbors.
“North Korea is immeasurably more important for China than for Russia,” Kashin said.
Last year, the Trump administration publicly accused Russia of helping North Korea circumvent United Nations sanctions — which Russia voted for — through illegal ship-to-ship transfers of oil and coal. The North does not want such illicit dealings to stop, but Russia’s ability to ease the pain of sanctions is limited.
North Korea and Russia share only a very short border, in Russia’s sparsely populated far east, precluding the kind of widespread smuggling said to be taking place on the border between the North and China. Kim has met four times with President Xi Jinping of China, seeking help from his country’s biggest trading partner, which accounts for more than 93 percent of the North’s external trade.
But by meeting with Putin, Kim is seeking to reaffirm his new image among his people as a global player, despite what happened in Hanoi. His meeting with Putin also sends a signal to Washington that Kim is expanding his diplomatic chess game after his one-on-one diplomacy with Trump faltered.
“If perception is indeed reality, North Korea has come to be perceived as now a player in Northeast Asia, meaning Kim’s carefully calibrated PR offensive is working — much to Washington’s dismay,” said Harry J. Kazianis, the director of Korean studies at the Washington-based Center for the National Interest. “And in the long run, such a strategy could very well pay off, if Kim is no longer perceived as a threat, leading eventually to a weakened sanctions regime.”
With its talks with Washington stalemated, Kim may try to align his country more closely with Beijing, Moscow or both, as the United States tries to bring South Korea and Japan together to jointly deter China’s ascendancy and a nuclear-armed North Korea.
If Kim concludes that his two-way diplomacy with Trump is going nowhere, he may play on Putin’s desire to increase his influence in the region. The Kremlin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, suggested Wednesday that Russia might welcome a revival of multilateral talks on North Korea, known as the six-party negotiations, that have been dormant for a decade.
“There are no other effective international mechanisms at the moment,” Peskov said. “Therefore, it is not possible to get completely detached from this mechanism. On the other hand, you know that other countries are also applying their efforts to achieve settlement. All efforts that really aim to denuclearize Korea and solve the two Koreas’ problem should be supported.”
Before they collapsed in 2009, the six-party talks had produced agreements to halt North Korea’s nuclear program, but the North later abrogated them. The negotiations included China, Russia, Japan, the United States, and North and South Korea.
Kim headed north into Russia on Wednesday in his armored, green-painted train, which reportedly reaches a top speed of only 37 mph. Wearing a black coat and fedora, Kim stepped off near the border for a traditional Russian greeting with bread and salt.
At the Vladivostok train station, Kim disembarked onto a red carpet and was whisked away in his limousine. The visit was so cloaked in secrecy that it was unclear where he spent the night.
Conspicuously absent from his entourage, as reported on the North’s state media, was Kim Yong Chol, an official who has been the North’s point man tasked with coordinating Kim-Trump diplomacy. Kim Yong Chol’s absence came days after the North’s demand that Washington remove Pompeo, his American counterpart, from the U.S. negotiating team.
Accompanying Kim to Vladivostok were First Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui and other veterans of six-party talks. Putin previously held a summit with Kim’s father and predecessor, Kim Jong Il, in 2002. Kim Jong Il also met in 2011 with Dmitry Medvedev, then the Russian president, in Ulan-Ude, a Siberian city near Mongolia.