North Korea’s Supreme Leader and Chairman of the State Affairs Commission Kim Jong Un paid a visit to Russia for the first time since assuming office in 2011 and had talks with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin on April 25 on Russky Island in Vladivostok. The summit was in fact long overdue, as previous visits by Kim Jong Un’s father, Kim Jong Il, took place in 2001, 2002 and 2011.
When Kim arrived at Khasan located at the border with North Korea, in his bullet-proof train, he said that he had long wanted to come to Russia. The summit had a positive atmosphere: Putin mentioned Kim Jong Il’s contribution in signing a friendship treaty back in 2001, which serves as a basis for contemporary relations, his visit to Vladivostok in 2002, and a record of cooperation between the countries of more than 70 years. For his part, Kim referred to Russia and North Korea as friendly neighbors linked by friendship between the peoples based on shared history, interests, and goals. Both leaders described their talks as positive, made a toast for friendship, and gave each other symbolic presents. At the press conference following the talks Putin called Kim quite an open and interesting person and characterized the discussion as lively.
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The Putin-Kim summit may well prove to be an important milestone not only for bilateral relations but also for the Korean Peninsula and denuclearization agenda. The preparations for the summit commenced in late 2018 following the visit to North Korea by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in May 2018. Although there were no specific agreements or joint declarations issued, the importance of the high-level meeting, with a two-hours tete-a-tete, should not be underestimated, especially for North Korea, with its concentration of power in the hands of one leader. This introductory summit was instrumental in establishing personal contact between the leaders and confirming where both governments stand now. The agenda covered the situation on the Korean Peninsula, including the issue of denuclearization and U.S.-North Korea talks, UN Security Council sanctions, and economic cooperation.
For Russia the summit was important to reclaim its position as one of the key regional stakeholders in the negotiations aimed to reduce tensions and further the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Notwithstanding the fact that in practice current regional dynamics complies with the Russian-Chinese roadmap for the resolution of the Korean issue — with a dual freeze (freezing of North Korea’s nuclear and missile launches in parallel with the downgrade of U.S.-South Korea military exercises) and negotiations underway — Russia’s role has been rather passive compared to South Korea and China. Stability on the Korean Peninsula has always been high on Moscow’s diplomatic agenda as any conflict would endanger the Far East, which shares a border with North Korea. Thus Putin emphasized that the Korean issue should be settled only by peaceful and diplomatic means.
Surely, Russian leadership understands that it’s the United States and North Korea that should strike a deal, as North Korea’s concern about ensuring deterrence to the U.S. threat was the key reason for Pyongyang developing its nuclear arsenal in the first place. However, Russia would like to have a stake in the peace process on the peninsula in order to ensure that the situation does not deteriorate to the level of military escalation and that its interests are taken into consideration. Even the current phase of talks, with little concrete result, from the Russian perspective is preferable to military conflict.
After the summit with Kim, Putin highlighted that North Korea should be provided security guarantees if there is to be progress in denuclearization. His understanding was that guarantees from the United States and South Korea alone would be crucial but likely not enough. In this case, the Six-Party Talks format could be a good option to formulate multilateral security guarantees.
For North Korea the talks with Putin provide an opportunity to confirm Russia’s support for the dialogue and negotiations between South and North as well as Pyongyang and Washington. In his speech in April in the aftermath of the Hanoi summit, which produced no visible results and highlighted stalled progress in negotiations with the United States, Kim urged his counterparts to propose a phased approach to denuclearization on an action-for-action basis. North Korea’s dismantlement of nuclear weapon and rocket engine test sites, in its view, should be matched correspondingly by the United States in order to have further progress.
It’s no surprise that here Kim found unequivocal support from Putin, as Russia has been emphasizing the need for a gradual and reciprocal approach for years. Of importance to Pyongyang is that Moscow is also supportive of partly alleviating UNSC sanctions, as North Korea has halted its nuclear and missile tests and made a number of concrete steps aimed at reduction of tensions with the United States.
With U.S.-North Korea negotiations at an impasse, it’s quite logical for Pyongyang to strive for dialogue with other key regional players including Russia. Kim has now demonstrated his willingness to diversify his foreign policy options in addition to his contacts with Moon Jae-in, Donald Trump, and Xi Jinping.
Russia-North Korea Economic Cooperation Amid Sanctions
At the press conference after the summit, Putin revealed that he spoke about multilateral economic projects with Kim. The Russian leader reiterated Moscow’s long-standing position that such initiatives as the modernization and reconnection of Korean and Russian railways, construction of pipelines to South Korea via North Korea, and supply of Russian electricity to the Korean Peninsula can contribute to a much needed trust-building process in the region. However, as Putin put it, due to South Korea’s “sovereignty deficit” when it comes to making final decisions and alliance relations with the United States, productive discussions on these projects have gotten stuck in the past.
As far as more down-to-earth issues of bilateral economic relations are concerned, one of the most important for Pyongyang is the problem of North Korean workers in Russia. This form of cooperation is mutually beneficial and especially meaningful for the Far Eastern regions of Russia. However, due to UNSC sanctions, the number of North Korean labor migrants in Russia has dropped from about 30,000 to less than 10,000 over the past two years. Moreover, according to UNSC resolution 2397, all North Korean workers in foreign countries should be repatriated by December 22, 2019. To address these concerns, Putin said that “there are different options here,” which might mean that the two leaders tried to work out a mutually acceptable formula for continuing this cooperation without Russia breaching the UNSC sanctions.
Russia is considered to be the second most important economic partner for North Korea. Although it accounts for only about 1 percent of North Korea’s foreign trade, according to the official data of the 1718 Sanctions Committee, the Russian Federation is the biggest supplier of much needed refined petroleum products to North Korea. These supplies are likely to continue within the limits set by the UNSC resolutions.
Another functioning direction of cooperation between the two states is the Khasan-Rajin logistics project. Despite the exemption from the UNSC ban on joint ventures with North Korea, the project’s operation faces severe difficulties at the current stage due to the reluctance of private companies to deal with North Korea and lack of freight to be transported through Rajin port. Thus current prospects for this joint venture look gloomy. To revitalize it, the issue of easing sanctions may well be raised at the international level in future.
Overall, the Putin-Kim summit highlighted that Russia could play a stabilizing role and help promote détente on the Korean peninsula. Russia, like the United States, emphasizes the non-proliferation agenda and is interested in the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, which is manifested by remaining Russia-U.S. working level contacts on this issue. Russia, with its expertise as an official nuclear power with advanced technologies, could contribute to formulating a realistic phased approach more akin to arms reduction and verifying its implementation. However, the prospects of such a plan depend on both Russia’s diplomatic efforts — or lack of thereof — and the desire of other powers to bring Russia in.
Anna Kireeva, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor at the Department of Asian and African Studies and Research Fellow at Center for Comprehensive Chinese Studies and Regional Projects in Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO University).
Liudmila Zakharova, Ph.D., is a Senior Researcher at the Center for Korean Studies, Institute of Far Eastern Studies Russian Academy of Sciences and an Associate Professor at the Department of World Economy in Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO University).