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N Korea at crossroads

Kim Jong Un plays hard to get with Putin

Better ties with Beijing have weakened Moscow's hand on the Korean Peninsula

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, right, meets with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang in May. (North Korea's Korean Central News Agency)   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov visited Pyongyang on Wednesday, laying the groundwork for the first summit between Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Russia, which wants to be involved in North Korea's denuclearization, has invited Kim to visit and repeatedly proposed that he hold talks with Putin. But the geopolitical dynamics surrounding North Korea are in flux and Kim has not yet responded.

One key factor behind Kim's foot-dragging is the warming ties between North Korea and China over the past several months. These were badly strained in 2013 after Kim had his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, executed. Jang was a friend of China. 

Given the cold shoulder by China, Kim looked to Russia for support. In the spring of 2015, Pyongyang and Moscow were discussing a visit by Kim to Russia. Senior North Korean officials made a flurry of trips to Russia to prepare.

But Kim backed out at the last moment due to "domestic affairs," according to Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov. At that time, diplomats in Moscow thought Kim would choose Russia, not China, for his first official trip as North Korea's supreme leader.

As the international community tightened economic sanctions on Pyongyang over its nuclear and missile tests, Kim made a surprise visit to China in March, his first foreign trip since taking power in 2011.

Kim's fence-mending meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping was a success. Now that he was back on good terms with North Korea's largest ally -- a major economic and military power with a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council -- Kim had less need for Russian help.

Russia is much less important to North Korea than China, partly for economic reasons. Annual trade between Russia and North Korea is worth only about $100 million, less than 2% that of North Korea's trade with China. Nor do the countries have strong incentives to trade with each other: North Korea has little foreign exchange to buy Russia's main exports, such as oil and natural gas. There is scant demand in Russia for North Korean coal or textiles.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, greets Kim Yong Nam, president of North Korea's Supreme People's Assembly Presidium, at the Kremlin in June.   © Reuters

The economies of Russia and North Korea are not very complementary, points out Andrei Lankov, a professor at South Korea's Kookmin University. During the Cold War, bilateral trade depended on subsidies from the Soviet Union, Lankov says.

The two countries agreed on a railway project in 2014, but it has made little headway. The project, led by Russian companies, is designed to overhaul North Korea's dilapidated rail network at an estimated cost of $25 billion. In return for its investment, Russia would gain access to mineral resources in North Korea, including gold and rare metals.

But the project is now on ice after a series of disputes between the two sides over how to proceed, according to an official at the Ministry for the Development of the Russian Far East.

One important element in bilateral economic ties is the wages earned by North Koreans working in Russia, which are valuable source of foreign exchange for Pyongyang. But there is strong demand for these diligent, low-wage workers in other parts of the world, especially in the Middle East. Russia is not an essential partner in that regard.

Another factor that may have chilled Kim's relations with Putin is that North Korea's top diplomatic priority is improving ties with Washington. With President Donald Trump facing allegations that he had covert help from Moscow in winning the White House, Kim may have feared that meeting with Putin would make him a target of anti-Russian lawmakers in the U.S. and jeopardize his chances of holding a summit with Trump.

But the tide may have shifted again. Kim achieved his goal of meeting with the U.S. president in Singapore in June, Trump and Putin held a summit in Helsinki on Monday, and public support for the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election is waning in the U.S. This makes it easier for Kim to cozy up to Putin.

North Korea's main foreign policy goal is to avoid being dominated by a foreign country by playing regional powers off against each other. But some Western diplomats say Pyongyang has already resigned itself to becoming, in effect, a Chinese protectorate. In their view, Pyongyang no longer has the freedom to make big foreign policy moves, such as a Kim-Putin summit, without Beijing's approval.

In mid-June, Putin told North Korean officials that he wanted to invite Kim to the Eastern Economic Forum meeting to be held in mid-September in Vladivostok, in the Russian Far East.

Russia has a clear geopolitical interest in influencing the security situation on the Korean Peninsula. Moscow is wary of the U.S. exercising stronger leadership, and of Chinese efforts to reshape the strategic landscape in the region.

Russia wants the moribund six-party framework comprising Russia, China, North and South Korea, the U.S. and Japan, which held a series of inconclusive talks aimed at curtailing Pyongyang's nuclear program, to lead the effort to denuclearize North Korea. Putin is seeking to boost his position in the talks by meeting with Kim.

Kim's response to Putin's overtures will be a good indicator of how much clout China has with the "hermit kingdom."

 

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