Since the collapse of the second U.S.-North Korea summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, at the end of February, Pyongyang has mostly kept to itself. Unlike after the Singapore summit, Kim has yet to make a trip to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping. His lack of consultation with Xi after the collapse in Hanoi is particularly telling given the March 2018 emphasis on “high-level exchanges” continuing between the two countries.
Instead, however, what we have seen is a fair bit of activity between Russia and North Korea. Moscow and Pyongyang maintain cordial diplomatic ties and, last November, Russia signed onto a trilateral statement with China and North Korea favoring limited sanctions relief for Pyongyang. That placed Russia and China squarely in North Korea’s camp and apart from the United States, France, and the United Kingdom—the other three members of the United Nations Security Council who all continue to see insufficient grounds for any significant adjustment of the international sanctions regime.
We should bear in mind too that in his New Year’s Day address this year, Kim Jong Un warned that he would be forced to pursue a “new way” should the United States fail to come around on “corresponding measures” — read: sanctions relief — for actions Pyongyang took last year, including the dismantlement of its nuclear test site and the announcement of a unilateral moratorium on nuclear and intercontinental-range ballistic missile testing.
Last week, Kim suggested that time was not yet over for the United States. He has set in place a timeline until the end of this year for Washington to come around and make a “bold decision” on its approach. Should that happen, Kim said, he’d be willing to meet Trump for a third summit. (Kim underscored that personal ties between him and Trump remain good.)
Is Russia the potential “new way” for North Korea? Of course, the Soviet Union was a major benefactor for Kim’s grandfather. After its collapse, North Korea found itself untethered to any major great power benefactor. China was still a rising country and, in recent years, relations between North Korea and China have undergone a period of relative cooling and recalibration. Pyongyang remains skeptical of China’s intentions, despite the high-level summitry between Kim and Xi.
Meanwhile, Russia, since 2014, has found itself alienated from the west. Economic integration between the Russian Far East and North Korea promises to pay dividends too, should the sanctions regime relax. And so, in this context, the post-Hanoi surge in Russia-North Korea activity stands out.
By the third week of March, North Korean state media had reported on a meeting between parliamentary friendship groups from both countries, a reception hosted by the Russian ambassador in Pyongyang, and the arrival of a Russian Federal Assembly delegation in the country. “Russia is a neighboring country of the DPRK and the DPRK-Russia ties are the friendly relations with a long history,” an article in the country’s Korean Central News Agency emphasized days later. “The two countries have a shared aim of opposing foreign interference and pressure and defending their sovereignties.”
Unsurprisingly, we now have reports that Kim is likely to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin next—before his post-Hanoi check-in with Xi in all likelihood. Kim has yet to meet the Russian leader and, while he did meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, a Russia-North Korea summit would provide an opportunity for Kim to signal that he has other potential partners if the United States is unwilling to follow through with what North Korea sees as its obligations under the June 12 Singapore declaration, signed by Kim and U.S. President Donald J. Trump.
If Russia is indeed part of Kim Jong Un’s “new way” without the United States, we may find out for certain at a Kim-Putin summit.