Since beginning his regional diplomatic charm offensive, Kim Jong Un has met several heads of state. He’s met his South Korean counterpart, Moon Jae-in, U.S. President Donald J. Trump, and Chinese President Xi Jinping—the latter thrice. Kim has yet to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin, but that may soon change.
On Wednesday, Russian ambassador to North Korea, Alexander Matsegora, told Russia’s RIA news agency that a summit between the two leaders was “on the agenda.” Kim did meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at the end of May 31. A summit between Kim and Putin is to be expected, but a date remains unclear.
During his meeting with Kim, Lavrov implied eventual Russian support for some form of sanctions relief for North Korea. “As we start discussions on how to resolve the nuclear problem on the Korean Peninsula, it is understood that the solution cannot be comprehensive without the lifting of sanctions,” he’d said at the time.
Matsegora, on Wednesday, made no such remark, but suggested that Moscow would continue to perform its obligations under UN Security Council sanctions resolutions passed last year. For instance, Matsegora told RIA that Russia would repatriate all North Korean laborers in its territory in accordance with the requirements of Resolution 2356, passed last June.
Relations between Russia and North Korea have remained close in recent years, building off a long legacy of close political and diplomatic cooperation. Though North Korea’s economic relationship with Moscow is nowhere near as significant as its relationship with China, Moscow is seeking to make moves.
Should the current bout inter-Korean diplomacy and U.S.-North Korea diplomacy lead to productive outcomes, for instance, Russia may find itself benefiting from a possible period of economic opening up in North Korea. In April, Kim Jong Un announced a “new strategic line” for the country that would focus on economic development.
At a higher level, Russia will be determined to demonstrate that it can play an important role in facilitating diplomacy in Northeast Asia over North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction. Last year, Putin joined Xi in voicing support for a so-called freeze-for-freeze proposal, whereby North Korea would freeze its nuclear and missile testing for the United States and South Korea freezing major military exercises.
Russia has long been involved in regional multilateral attempts to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. It was one of the six countries involved in the now-defunct Six-Party Talks process.
Given the apparent personal synergies between Putin and U.S. President Donald J. Trump, Kim might find it useful to interact with Putin, seeing him as a potentially useful intermediary between Pyongyang and Washington. Trump and Putin reportedly discussed North Korea during their recent summit meeting in Helsinki.
Following that meeting, Trump said he expected results. “Russia has agreed to help with North Korea, where relationships with us are very good and the process is moving along,” he said in a tweet following the summit. “There is no rush, the sanctions remain! Big benefits and exciting future for North Korea at end of process!”