SEOUL — North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has arrived in the far eastern region of Russia for his first ever meeting with Vladimir Putin, which Kim says is the initial step toward closer ties with Moscow.
Wearing a black fedora hat and matching dark overcoat, the smiling Kim was greeted by Russian officials and a military band Wednesday in the port city of Vladivostok.
The North Korean leader made the short trip to Vladivostok via his signature armored green and yellow train.
During an earlier stop in the border city of Khasan, Kim said this “will not be the last” trip to Russia, adding it is the first step toward improved Russia-North Korea relations, according to a readout issued by local Russian authorities.
At the Thursday summit, Kim is expected to push Putin for economic aid — specifically relief from international sanctions that remain in place after nuclear talks with the United States broke down.
Kim no longer a pariah?
It is the latest high-profile summit for Kim, who until last year hadn’t left North Korea since taking power in 2011.
Over the past year Kim has met twice with U.S. President Donald Trump, three times with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, four times with Chinese President Xi Jinping, and once with Vietnamese President Nguyen Phu Trong.
“What this has mainly done is give Kim some international credibility. I mean, he was a pariah a year ago. And now he’s everybody’s prom date, everyone wants to be seen with him on their arm,” said Ralph Cossa of the Pacific Forum, a non-profit foreign policy research institute based in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Although the meetings have raised Kim’s global stature, they have failed to reduce the sanctions pressure hurting his economy.
After a February Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi ended in no deal, the United States has insisted it will not relax sanctions until North Korea commits to abolishing its nuclear weapons program.
Putin: not much of a help?
With Putin’s own economy hurting, it isn’t clear that North Korea is a priority. And without buy-in from the United States, it is not clear how much he could do anyway.
Russia-North Korea trade fell dramatically last year, by more than 56 percent to $34 million, according to Kremlin aide Yury Ushakov, who was quoted in Russian state media.
“This is primarily due to the fact that Russia is forced to follow international sanctions that were imposed on the DPRK,” said Ushakov, using the acronym for North Korea’s official name.
By contrast, North Korea was earning about $100 million a year in hard currency from the Kaesong Industrial complex before it closed, points out Troy Stangarone of the Washington DC-based Korea Economic Institute.
Kaesong, located just north of the inter-Korean border, used South Korean capital and North Korean labor to produce goods, before being closed after a North Korean nuclear test in 2016.
South Korea has expressed an interest in reopening the complex, but appears unable to do so unless the United States relaxes sanctions.
Russia, a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, signed onto tougher sanctions amid North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests in 2016 and 2017. However, Moscow later called for sanctions against Pyongyang to be eased.
Putin as spoiler?
Under Putin, Russia has attempted to disrupt U.S. interests around the world, in countries including Syria, Ukraine, and Venezuela.
During a visit to Seoul Wednesday, U.S. Senator Chris Coons said it would be a “great disappointment for Mr. Putin to again insert himself in a way that’s unhelpful.”
“But it wouldn’t be the first time,” added Coons, who along with Senator Maggie Hassan met South Korea’s defense and foreign ministers.
But Putin is not likely to play the role of spoiler in the North Korea-U.S. talks, in part because he doesn’t have much leverage over Pyongyang, said Andrei Lankov, a professor at Seoul’s Kookmin University.
“And in this case, Russia’s interests are not that different from that of the United States. Both sides want to preserve the status quo and want denuclearization,” Lankov said.
The Soviet Union was once one of North Korea’s main financial backers. But after the Soviet Union broke up, Moscow prioritized relations with the South, before later adopting a policy of “equidistance” between the two Koreas.