Kim Jong-un arrives in Russia for summit with Vladimir Putin
Meeting comes two months afer North Korean leader’s failed summit with Donald Trump
Mr Putin will meet Mr Kim on Thursday in the Russian Pacific port of Vladivostok for discussions focused on the international deadlock over North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme following the breakdown of US-led disarmament talks earlier this year.
“The nuclear problem on the Korean Peninsula will be the main item on the agenda,” Yuri Ushakov, Mr Putin’s foreign policy adviser, told reporters in Moscow this week. “Russia intends to help in any way possible.”
Moscow’s cordial relations with North Korea date back to the country’s foundation in 1948 when the Soviet Union began restoring infrastructure shattered in the Korean War that divided the peninsula. Underscoring historic ties, Mr Kim made the 682km journey from Pyongyang to Vladivostok on Wednesday in the legendary armoured train that once bore his predecessors – his grandfather Kim Il Sung and his father Kim Jong Il – to Russia on official visits.
Alighting at the border town of Khasan early on Wednesday, he was met by Russian women in folk dress who welcomed him with the traditional bread and salt ceremony reserved for the most honoured guests. “I have heard a lot about your country and for a long time dreamt of visiting,” Mr Kim said. “I hope in the future I will be able to visit again based on friendly relations with your president.”
There was more ceremony when Mr Kim’s train pulled in to Vladivostok station where he was greeted by a Russian military band before being whisked away in his own armoured limousine.
Mr Kim arrives in Russia just two months after a failed summit with US president Donald Trump in Hanoi where he had appealed for the lifting of sanctions on North Korea’s civilian economy in return for concessions on denuclearisation.
Mr Trump refused, but has since indicated that he’s willing to reopen the talks. Meanwhile, North Korea, insulted by remarks by US secretary of state Mike Pompeo describing Mr Kim as a “tyrant”, has refused to return to the table until Washington changes its negotiating team.
Tightening UN sanctions were a plot designed to force North Korea to disarm and then try to overthrow the government, Mr Kim told his parliament earlier this month.
Russia has participated for years in international efforts to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear and ballistic weapons testing programmes. But while setting full denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula as a policy goal, Moscow is keenly aware that Mr Kim is unlikely to give up the weapons that guarantee the survival of his regime.
Kremlin officials have warned that Mr Putin’s talks with Mr Kim are unlikely to yield any major breakthrough. No declarations or agreements are expected to be signed. But the meeting in Vladivostok coming on the heels of Mr Trump’s failed Hanoi summit provides an opportunity for Russia to flag its influence in the far east and breathe fresh momentum into the disarmament talks.
Mr Ushakov played down the US-North Korean deadlock, saying the situation on the Korean Peninsula had stabilised somewhat in the last few months. A North Korean initiative to close its nuclear test site indicated a “positive trend”, he said.
Dmitri Trenin, director of the Moscow Carnegie Centre, said Mr Putin would “seek to convince Kim to continue dialogue with the US and desist from provocations”.
However, Mr Kim’s main interest in visiting Russia is to persuade Mr Putin to press for the lifting of UN sanctions and to request humanitarian aid.
Mr Putin is opposed to sanctions, but with trade turnover between Russia and North Korea worth less than $40 million (€36 billion) a year, he is unlikely to risk penalties by breaching the UN restrictions. And with Russia itself burdened by western sanctions, the Kremlin has limited funds available to bail out its North Korean ally.
After meeting Mr Kim in Vladivostok, Mr Putin will travel to Beijing to attend an international meeting on China’s Belt and Road economic initiative. The North Korean leader is expected to visit local tourist attractions before boarding his train to return to Pyongyang.