Media are reporting that a historic first summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will happen as soon as this week. With the Kremlin having confirmed that preparations are underway, a key question is whether Russia can help unlock the stalled nuclear talks between Washington and Pyongyang.
Following the collapse of the summit between United States President Donald Trump and Kim in Vietnam this February, this looks a big ask. In Hanoi, there were clear and significant differences between the two sides over the scope and pace of denuclearisation and sanctions rollback, with growing uncertainty now whether the talks process will collapse or continue.
And it is into this potential negotiating ‘black hole’ that Putin is now treading, in a context in which Pyongyang last Thursday test-fired a new “tactical guided weapon” with a “powerful warhead”. This is the first such test since the Trump-Kim talks process started.
To be sure, there are historical precedents for such high-profile negotiations to fall down, and then recover, including the US-Soviet negotiations between former US president Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1986 and 1987. However, it appears the gaps between Trump and Kim remain substantial and the North Koreans have asserted post-Vietnam that they will not change their position, and also disputed Trump’s account that the reason the talks collapsed was that Pyongyang asked for a full sanctions rollback.
One of the key reasons Putin may find it hard to move Pyongyang far or fast on its positions is that, to date at least, it is Kim — rather than Trump — who has emerged as the bigger winner from the engagement process. So far the young leader has made few concrete concessions to the US.
At the same time, the US president has already given a significant amount away such as calling off joint military exercises between US and South Korean forces; exchanging effusive letters of praise with Kim; and holding out the prospect of an easing of sanctions on Pyongyang if it does “something meaningful” on denuclearisation.
This underlines how much Kim has already received from Trump in exchange for the ambiguous pledges in the Singapore agreement.
On a personal level, for instance, the previously isolated young leader has assumed a significantly higher profile on the international stage. This was highlighted in Kim’s multi-day tour of Vietnam, his fourth foreign trip destination in less than 12 months after not leaving his nation’s borders for more than six years after assuming power.
In this context, a key question is why Putin wants to get involved and thinks he can make a difference. The simple answer is that he recognises the flux in the geopolitical chessboard with significant new opportunities possibly opening up.
Jockeying for position
While China has played a key role in facilitating this process, Russia also perceives itself to have major interests in the peninsula. It and several other major powers with a stake in the future of the area, including Japan, have therefore all been jockeying for position.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met Kim last year in Pyongyang, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in also met with Putin last June in Moscow. The latter was the first state visit by a sitting South Korean president to Russia since 1999. Putin’s session with Moon underlines Russia’s interests in the historic change that could now be ‘in the air’ on the Korean peninsula. For instance, Moon is promoting a “New Northern Policy” which, alongside peace talks with Kim, is a key foreign relations policy driver under which his administration is seeking to improve ties with key Eurasian neighbours.
Overall, the Putin-Kim summit and the wider grand diplomacy on the peninsula underlines that the geopolitical tectonic plates are still moving in the peninsula, despite the Vietnam summit collapse. With historic change potentially in the air, Putin is keen to steer this in a pro-Russia direction and avoid the downside risks that may happen if the North-South dialogue ultimately proves a mirage, with warming of relationships going into reverse.
Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.