Kim and Putin Meet Amid Scenes Reminiscent of 1949

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and Russian President Vladimir Putin have met in an eagerly awaited summit near the city of Vladivostok. It is the first meeting between the two and follows the recent breakdown in talks between Kim and US President Donald Trump at their summit in Hanoi.

The early indications are that the meeting proceeded positively, with lots of friendly gesturing and declarations of mutual trust and support. Putin rather amusingly stated that “We need to restore the power of international law, to return to a state where international law, not the law of the strongest, determines the situation in the world”. Hypocritical yes…but pointedly aimed at Mr Trump nonetheless.

That the exchange was “very meaningful” – to use Kim’s phrase – is hardly surprising given how much is riding on the outcome.

North Korea needs economic relief, hampered as it is by international sanctions relating to its nuclear weapons programme.  For the Russians, it is another opportunity to undermine American prestige and take the lead in de-nuclearisation talks, something of significance to Moscow given the country’s shared border with North Korea.

North Korea and Russia share a short but significant border

Kim and his government have returned to a more bellicose stance in the wake of Hanoi, blaming the Americans (and particularly Secretary of State Mike Pompeo) for derailing talks, even though they offered little in the way of concessions themselves.  There is a degree of desperation – or at least hopefulness – in Kim’s visit to see Putin, with the stakes seemingly higher for him than his Russian counterpart.

To an extent, it is reminiscent of the meeting between Kim’s grandfather – North Korean founder Kim Il-sung – and Joseph Stalin in 1949 when the nascent communist state was feeling increasingly imperilled by the US-backed democratic government in South Korea.

Kim went to Stalin cap-in-hand and asked for assistance.  In a transcript of the official Soviet notes from the meeting, Stalin is apparently disinterested.  His responses are short, sometimes receptive other times dismissive.  He doesn’t seem to profess a great interest in supporting North Korea yet knows that as the leader of a new communist world he is somewhat duty bound.

Typical exchanges from the meeting are as follows:

Comrade Stalin says fine and asks in what amount they need credit.

Kim from 40 to 50 million American dollars.

Comrade Stalin – fine, what else?

Later we get:

Comrade Stalin asks in what currency they wish to receive credit.

Kim answers in American dollars.

Comrade Stalin answers that we do not now calculate in dollars but we calculate in rubles.

It’s clear who is in charge.

Putin is likely to be similarly lukewarm to the North Korean advances.  Russia has enough issues – both domestic and foreign – to consider without having to worry about North Korea.  Yet as the de facto lead (along with China) of the anti-America cabal in international politics, Moscow necessarily listens.

Of course, the true nature of Kim’s trip to Moscow in 1949 is obscured by the officially sanctioned notes. Stalin’s military and economic support ultimately gave Kim the confidence to invade his southern neighbours and push democracy on the Korean Peninsula to the brink of annihilation. Only a full-scale American invasion prevented the Seoul regime from collapsing.

Kim Il-sung with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai in 1958 – the North Koreans attempted to straddle the Sino-Soviet split when it came

Putin’s support – along with that of Chinese President Xi Jinping – may embolden Kim Jong-un to stay his own course, albeit within the constraints of sanctions.  Neither Putin nor Xi want a nuclearised Korean Peninsula but it is highly likely that they see such a scenario as preferable to a unified Korea under democratic leadership, backed by American military power on Asian soil.

Unlike Stalin, whose gambit in 1949 was free from nuclear implications and the ire of the UN Security Council, Putin must exercise caution.  It is therefore likely that the proclamations of the Vladivostok summit will be just that…kind words.

What material difference it will make to Kim Jong-un and North Korea is debatable and it leaves the young leader with a conundrum.  Does he back down to American demands in the hope of retaining a limited civilian nuclear capacity and sanctions relief?  Does he throw his lot in with China and Russia knowing that their end goal is not too dissimilar to that of the US?  Or does he chuck his cap at the lot of them and plough on with nuclear and missile development, hoping that the terrifying thought of nuclear Armageddon will weaken the resolve of the world powers?

Kim’s pursuit of a nuclear arsenal has won him an oversized seat at the negotiating table

With an impoverished populace that is gradually being exposed to the outside world through covert channels, and a vast military hierarchy that needs continually appeasing, Kim Jong-un’s next move is not as straightforward as that of his grandfather.

Breaching the 38th parallel in the future will have far more severe repercussions for both the North Korean regime and the world at large.

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North Korea at the Table: Trump follows Nixon’s lead with foray into the unknown

In February 1972 Richard Nixon visited the People’s Republic of China (PRC), meeting Chairman Mao Zedong in addition to a slew of other political figures within the notoriously secretive communist regime.

Nixon meets Mao

Nixon called it the ‘week that changed the world’ and whilst one might attribute some hubris to this statement it is probably an accurate portrayal of a monumental turning point in history.

Ravaged by a fervent personality cult surrounding Chairman Mao – which blinded followers to his destructive policies such as the ‘Great Leap Forward’ and the ‘Cultural Revolution’ – China found itself in isolation. Nixon’s visit opened up the possibility of a rapprochement with the Western world and the economic benefits this would ultimately bring to a country with a massive population and a burgeoning industrial base.

Brainwashed students attacked ‘capitalist roaders’ and the ‘bourgeoisie’ during Mao’s Cultural Revolution

Since the Communists had won the Chinese Civil War in 1949 and forced Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang to flee the mainland for Taiwan, the USA and its allies had refused to recognise the PRC. Instead, it was the Republic of China (ROC) that was acknowledged by Washington as the rightful ruler over the mainland, a stance formalised by President Dwight Eisenhower’s visit to Taipei in 1960.

Eisenhower and Chiang Kai-shek in 1960

The shock prompted by Nixon’s visit a dozen years later – announced live on television the previous year – was therefore understandable. However, the machinations of Henry Kissinger and the PRC’s Premier Zhou Enlai had laid the foundations for the trip, which would serve to drive a further wedge between the PRC and its disappointed former patron, the Soviet Union.

How much of an impact the meeting had on the West’s ultimate victory in the Cold War is debatable but no doubt Nixon’s ‘opening up’ of China – in a diplomatic sense – reduced tensions with a potential enemy. By subsequently officially recognising the PRC as the legitimate and sole rulers of China, the USA sowed the seeds for Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms in the years after Mao’s death.

The impact of Deng’s policies are less debatable, for they enabled China to become the world’s second largest economy, strengthened the mandate of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) – now under the firm control of Xi Jinping – and made the PRC a major geopolitical player across the globe. A world without a US-Chinese bilateral relationship is now unthinkable, not to mention undesirable.

Donald Trump and Xi Jinping

Don’t expect President Donald Trump’s slated meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un to have such a positive impact. Indeed, will it have any major impact? Though the announcement of the summit was equally, if not more surprising, than the revelation of Nixon’s China jaunt, neither Trump nor Kim act with a level of subtlety or concession that allow for meaningful engagement.

Perhaps the level of bellicosity and brutal honesty at which these two ‘madmen’ operate is the only reason the meeting is happening in the first place. One would hope that senior diplomats and military figures within each administration will be present to temper their leaders’ excessive tendencies, for the opportunities abounding are unprecedented.

Alas, Trump listens and answers to nobody but himself, whilst the Kim dynasty has fostered a personality cult comparable to the darkest days of Mao. To challenge Kim’s instincts goes against a human’s natural tendency for self-preservation.

Realistically, the harsher sanctions being imposed on North Korea are taking hold. Yet as long as the upper echelons of the regime remain ensconced in luxury, and the military that girdles it stays onside, significant change is unlikely. The Kims have shown their willingness to allow their people to starve, confident that any popular uprising would either be suppressed by the military or, if necessary, by China, which has no desire to see chaos on its borderlands.

China fears that the collapse of the Kim regime will lead to a flood of civilians crossing its border from North Korea

A nuclear arsenal remains the only effective means to ensure the security and longevity of the Kim dynasty. Nothing President Trump says or does – and we wait with bated breath to see what on earth he will decide to do at the summit – is likely to change matters for the better. North Korea does not have the same potential to break out of its shell as the PRC had at the time of Nixon’s visit, nor does it have the inclination.

Sadly, the chance to destroy the nascent nuclear regime of North Korea has been missed by previous administrations. Trump can’t be blamed for that. Conned by the machinations of Kim Jong-Il in the 1990s, undermined by Chinese companies and banks that continue to siphon resources to the hermit state, and unable to break the failsafe that Beijing offers the North Korean regime, nuclear tensions in Northeast Asia are here to stay.