Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 20 May 2019

North Korea’s Kim Jong-un arrives in Russia for historic talks with Putin

However, few observers believe the talks will lead to any major breakthroughs

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un gets off his train after arriving in Khasan, Russia for talks with Vladimir Putin on Thursday. Reuters
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un gets off his train after arriving in Khasan, Russia for talks with Vladimir Putin on Thursday. Reuters

The North Korean leader Kim Jong-un arrived in Russia’s Far East on Wednesday morning as part of an official visit that will include his first-ever direct talks with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.

Mr Kim arrived for his three-day visit to the Russian port city of Vladivostok after crossing the border in his armoured train on Wednesday morning. Russian officials with flowers and a traditional offering of bread and salt welcomed him.

"I hope the talks will be successful and useful," Mr Kim told Russian state-run media on his arrival. "I hope that we can discuss concrete questions about peace negotiations on the Korean peninsula, and our bilateral relations."

Russian officials have been wrangling for months to arrange an official meeting between Mr Putin and the North Korean leader. The backdrop to their efforts are the two high profile meetings with United States President Donald Trump as part of negotiations that aim to ease sanctions on Pyongyang in return for movement on denuclearisation.

Kim Jong-un takes part in a welcoming ceremony at the railway station. Reuters
Kim Jong-un takes part in a welcoming ceremony at the railway station. Reuters

An aid to the Kremlin, Mr Ushakov, this week said that denuclearisation would also be top the agenda between during this week’s summit.

Even though the meeting in Vladivostok is being heralded as a crucial moment in diplomatic relations between North Korea and Russia, observers of the Kremlin’s foreign policy have low expectations that it will yield any major results.

“[The] Putin-Kim Jong-un meet in Vladivostok on Thursday will not result in breakthroughs,” said Dmitri Trenin, the Director of the Carnegie Centre think tank based in Moscow.

“This is essentially a side-show in the continuing saga between Pyongyang and Washington,” he said. “Russia will seek to score diplomatic points by demonstrating its relevance; North Korea, by showing it has options.”

By most accounts, Mr Kim’s last meeting with Mr Trump in February did not go as well as his first eight months earlier. Instead of the public hand-shaking and gushing asides, Mr Trump left early with no press conference to fly back to Washington.

Even as the international community imposes crippling economic sanctions on North Korea for its nuclear program, Russia is a tacit ally of Pyongyang. In December 2017, Moscow was accused of breaking UN sanctions by supplying North Korea with shipments of oil.

Moscow has also flaunted the international penalties by hiring North Korean workers to complete major infrastructure projects ahead of the World Cup last summer, hosted by Russia across eleven cities.

However, recent reports suggest that Russia is now expelling the labourers to comply with sanctions. Hundreds of thousands of workers from the People’s Republic are employed overseas and the remittances supply the Kim regime with an estimated $500 million a year, the UN says.

The meeting in Vladivostok comes two months after Mr Kim and Mr Trump last met in Vietnam but failed to reach any agreements on sanctions relief and denuclearisation. Analysts in Moscow say the collapse in dialogue paved the way for Russia to step up its efforts to insert itself as a broker.

Whether or not it can use its role as a broker remains to be seen. Ahead of Thursday’s summit, Alexander Gabuev, a Russia-Asia expert based in Moscow wrote that Russia “tries to be an honest mediator and bring the parties to the table, but can’t be efficient because it doesn’t have leverage over North Korea.”

However, he added, “Despite Russia’s limited toolkit … Moscow will not be written off by Washington and its allies when it comes to the diplomatic process on North Korea.”

Updated: April 24, 2019 04:14 PM

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