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.
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.
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?
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.