TOKYO — Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un may finally be ready to meet for the first time, as Russia seeks to extend its influence and North Korea tries to hedge its bets after the failed summit with President Trump.
The potential of closer ties between Putin and Kim carries historical resonance dating back to the countries’ Cold War bonds. But Moscow has bigger diplomatic priorities around the world, experts say, and is unlikely to disrupt U.S.-led efforts to pressure North North to unwind its nuclear program.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said this week that preparations were underway for a meeting, while Russian and South Korean newspapers said the pair may meet next week in Vladivostok, Russia’s Far East, as Putin makes his way to a summit on China’s Belt and Road initiative in Beijing.
In a sign of Moscow’s growing relevance, U.S. envoy Stephen Biegun is holding talks with Russian officials in Moscow on Wednesday and Thursday “to discuss efforts to advance the final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea,” according to the State Department.
For Kim, a summit with Putin would be another step in the international rehabilitation of the once-ostracized leader. It would also be Kim’s chance to send a signal to both Washington and Beijing that he has other options.
For Putin, a summit would mark another milestone in his effort to show Russians — and the world — that he has brought his country back as a global diplomatic power.
“Russia wants to be the groom at every wedding and the dead man at every funeral,” said Georgy Kunadze, a retired Russian diplomat in East Asia.
But it wasn’t clear, he said, what Russia could deliver since it “will never vote on North Korea at the U.N. Security Council differently from the way China votes.”
There has been a flurry of diplomatic exchanges between the two countries of late. North Korea’s Vice Foreign Minister Im Chon Il visited Moscow last month, and Russian Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev was in Pyongyang in April.
Two Russian parliamentary delegations visited Pyongyang last month and this week, while there have been daily contacts between officials from the two sides in recent weeks, one diplomat said.
Andrei Lankov, a Russian North Korea expert at Seoul’s Kookmin University, said Russia wanted to become an important regional player but lacked the influence in either Washington or Pyongyang to really insert itself into the Korean diplomatic process.
“Russia can have some say in Pyongyang but only if it is going to pay,” he said. “Your willingness to pay does not guarantee you will be taken seriously in Pyongyang, but if you don’t pay you are never taken seriously.”
Lankov said Putin was unlikely to offer Kim a major aid package, simply because Russia has more pressing priorities in Central Asia and Eastern Europe. Indeed, that’s probably why such a summit, often rumored, has not yet happened. As Lankov put it: Kim knew it wasn’t worth his time and effort until now.
But the calculation in Pyongyang may have changed after the breakdown of February’s summit with Trump in Hanoi. Last week, Kim gave the United States until the end of the year to fundamentally change its stance. In the meantime, Kim is likely to be looking to China and Russia for diplomatic support and covert sanctions relief.
He may also have been disappointed that South Korean President Moon Jae-in failed to secure any sanctions relief for North Korea when he visited Trump last week in Washington, experts said.
“Newly strengthened ties with Russia could be something Kim seeks to display for Moon and Trump to see,” said Lee Jai-chun, a former South Korean ambassador to Russia who now heads the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights. “But it’s unlikely that Washington would feel any pressure or threat from such a move.”
But if Kim is trying to tell Trump he has other friends, he may also be sending the same signal to Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
Relations with China have improved dramatically in the past year, but there is still plenty of deep-rooted distrust between Pyongyang and Beijing.
“Kim doesn’t want to put all his eggs in China’s basket since there is heavy reliance on the country for North Korea’s economic livelihood,” said David Kim, a research analyst at the Stimson Center in Washington. “Being under the shadow of China gives all the more reason to hedge against it.”
North Korea’s ties with Russia date back to its foundation as a member of the Soviet-led Communist bloc. Like Beijing, Moscow doesn’t want regime change in Pyongyang, which could destabilize the region and potentially bring a U.S.-friendly unified Korea up to its border. But it doesn’t want Pyongyang to become a nuclear-weapons state either.
That’s why Moscow voted alongside Beijing for relatively tight sanctions at the United Nations Security Council at the height of tensions in 2017.
Since then, though, some Russian companies have covertly skirted the sanctions, principally through ship-to-ship oil transfers, experts say, and Moscow been pushing for sanctions to be eased.
Last year, Russia attempted to insert itself into nuclear negotiations by making a secret offer to North Korea to build a nuclear power plant if it dismantled its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, U.S. officials said. Last month, Russian Far East development minister Alexander Kozlov was quoted as saying Russia was seeking new ways to boost trade with North Korea without violating sanctions.
But experts said trade has limited potential to expand, with Russia not interested in North Korea’s mineral resources or seafood. Tens of thousands of North Korean workers are employed in Russia, providing an important source of foreign exchange for the regime, but under U.N. sanctions they are supposed to be sent home by the end of the year.
There has been talk of Russian investment in ambitious railway and gas pipeline projects linking both Koreas with Russia, but even if sanctions are lifted Russian companies are unlikely to want to sink billions of dollars into projects that could easily fall prey to geopolitics, experts said.
“It’s a useful and interesting sideshow, but it’s not where the major policy is made,” said Lankov, who is also a director at NK News, which closely follows North Korean affairs. “The major policy is now made only in Pyongyang and Washington. Even Beijing has been basically pushed aside.”
Troianovski reported from Kiev, Ukraine. Min Joo Kim in Seoul and Anna Fifield in Beijing contributed to this report.