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.