North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Russian President Vladimir Putin met for the first time last week in Vladivostok, in Russia’s Far East. The summit, long on symbolism and short on substance (actual face-to-face time was just two hours), evidenced both men’s ambitions and egos: Putin aims to be a force in Northeast Asian diplomacy, while Kim is eager to regain momentum and the initiative after his second meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump in February ended in failure. Little came of the meeting other than a reminder of the complexity of Northeast Asian diplomacy and the constants despite all the novelty in regional relations.
A meeting between Kim and Putin was always a matter of time. Rumors of a summit surfaced regularly over the last two years, and Kim’s need for leverage, combined with Putin’s itch to be involved in all diplomatic initiatives worthy of the name, as well as Russia’s compelling interest in events on its border, made a sit-down inevitable. The opportunity presented itself as Putin made his way to Beijing for a forum on the “Belt and Road” initiative; a quick stop in Vladivostok, a mere 700 km from Pyongyang, provided Kim a chance to make his first visit to Russia.
Once the two men sat down, their meeting went more than twice as long as scheduled. That was not enough time to produce a joint statement or a formal declaration. Instead, Putin emerged to confirm that Russia still seeks North Korea’s complete denuclearization, adding that Pyongyang needs international security guarantees if it is going to give up its nuclear arsenal. In a poke at Trump he explained that “it’s unlikely that any agreements between two countries will be enough.”
Kim applauded a “frank and substantive exchange of opinions” about their bilateral relationship and about the Korean Peninsula. North Korean media added that Kim blamed the United States for the loss of momentum in their talks and that the U.S. attitude would determine the peace and security of the peninsula.
Russia has good reasons to seek denuclearization. A crisis or accident would have profound consequences, as more than 1 million Russian citizens live within 200 km of the North Korean border, and Russia fears that Pyongyang would be tempted to sell nuclear technology, components or know-how if its financial strains became acute. Russia also knows that a North Korean threat consolidates the U.S. presence in Northeast Asia, which Moscow would like to see reduced or eliminated. But Russian experts consider Kim a realist who knows that his nuclear arsenal is his guarantee of survival. Official rhetoric notwithstanding, they believe that if denuclearization ever occurs, it will be long in the future.
Apart from support on security guarantees, Kim also likely pressed Putin for relief on economic sanctions. The North Korea-Russia economic relationship is marginal. In 2018, bilateral trade was just $34 million, a mere 1.2 percent of Pyongyang’s trade. Yet even that paltry sum is a notable drop from the previous year. Russia has also decreased from more than 40,000 to 10,000 the number of North Koreans working in the country. By all accounts, and despite high-profile violations, Moscow is honoring international sanctions against North Korea.
The problem for both leaders is that they have limited ability to help the other. Russia has a veto in the United Nations Security Council, but Putin’s economic leverage is limited and he cannot provide Kim the security guarantees the North Korean leader wants. Indeed, it is unlikely that anyone can since Kim seeks protection not only against foreign threats but internal ones as well.
The summit left Japan as the only regional power outside Pyongyang’s diplomatic orbit. There could be an opening for Tokyo given the stalled diplomacy with the U.S. and the economic relationship that could one day emerge between Japan and North Korea. Japan could back Putin’s claim that only a multilateral security arrangement will suffice to deal with North Korea, which might curry favor in Moscow — and has the additional benefit of being correct. No single state can offer meaningful security guarantees to North Korea. Addressing Pyongyang’s concerns demands a regional security architecture, one in which Japan participates and must therefore also address Japanese concerns. Japan has already made a gesture by softening language toward North Korea in this year’s Diplomatic Blue Book. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe should be prepared to make this case to Kim Jong Un in person. Pyongyang will only respond to engagement at the highest levels of government.
A cool, hard-eyed pragmatism must guide Japan. Japanese negotiators must insist on a fixed bottom line: There can be no easing of sanctions without commitment to and progress in denuclearization. That is another feature of Northeast Asia diplomacy that must remain unchanged.