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How Might a Putin-Kim Summit Impact Efforts to Denuclearize North Korea?

By Troy Stangarone

What began as a round of speculation has now been confirmed. Kim Jong-un will hold his first summit meeting with Vladimir Putin on April 25.

The summit will naturally raise questions for the ongoing denuclearization talks with North Korea, as well as North Korea’s evolving role in the region as Pyongyang has sought to increase pressure and regain negotiating leverage vis-à-vis the United States since the no-deal summit in Hanoi.

On a basic level, a Putin-Kim summit would signal to the United States, and to a lesser extent China, that North Korea has other options should talks with the Trump administration not proceed along a path amenable to Pyongyang. This fits in the context of North Korea’s post-Hanoi decisions to rebuild the launch facility at Sohae, test a tactical weapon, and announce that the United States only has until the end of the year to agree to a negotiating strategy Pyongyang would find acceptable. Each action is designed to slowly raise the pressure on Washington and demonstrate that North Korea is not negotiating under pressure, but also not go so far as to permanently sever the talks with the United States. A meeting with Putin would add to this narrative.

A Kim-Putin summit would also suggest that North Korea is growing less isolated. Prior to last year, Kim had not met with any foreign leader since coming to power, but with his turn to diplomacy at the beginning of 2018 he has had more active relations with states in the region. Meeting with Putin would expand that narrative and leave Mongolia and Japan as the only countries he has not engaged.

However, a Putin-Kim summit would also suggest that North Korea’s options are limited if talks with the United States do not go well. While Russian firms have been behind some of the ship-to-ship transfers that have allowed North Korea to gain access to refined fuel, it is unclear how much support the Russian state could or would provide North Korea if talks with the United States fail.

While Kim has now held multiple summits with Xi Jinping and Moon Jae-in, it is unclear if the summits with Xi provided more than political support at a time North Korea was increasingly looking for sanctions relief to boost its economy. The meetings with Moon laid out a series of tangible economic benefits for Kim, but he has not been able to realize any of those gains in the absence of a deal with the United States to provide sanctions relief.

The early summits with Xi and Moon aided Kim by relieving the pressure that had been building diplomatically and militarily, but seem to have had less of an impact on the economic pressure on the regime. As long as South Korea and China generally enforce the existing UN sanctions, North Korea faces limited options in regard to relieving economic pressure. It seems unlikely that Russia could be the solution to its economic problems in the absence of a broader deal on its weapons programs.

While the Soviet Union was an important trading partner for North Korea during the Cold War, trade between the Russian Federation and North Korea has been relatively small in recent years. In 2016, the most recent year for which goods and services trade data are available, total goods trade between Russia and North Korea was only $77 million and services trade another $73 million. Put into perspective, North Korea was earning over $100 million a year in hard currency from the Kaesong Industrial Complex before it was closed. In addition, Russia has reportedly sent back two-thirds of the overseas laborers that North Korea has sent to Russia.

At the same time, Russia may be constrained by the U.S. sanctions it is under and its efforts to maintain the Assad regime in Syria, the Maduro regime in Venezuela, and the breakaway eastern provinces in the Ukraine. While Russia could help maintain the Kim regime if the situation turned desperate, it is unlikely that Russia could provide the resources needed to allow Kim Jong-un to grow the economy in the absence of UN sanctions being lifted. For Kim to go all in with either Russia or China to get around continuing international sanctions would only reinforce his dependence on either or both states, a situation he would wish to avoid.

For Putin, however, there may be more interesting opportunities from the summit. While the most likely result from the summit is a largely neutral outcome where both sides send mildly positive signals about the prospects for denuclearization if the United States adjusts is policy, and perhaps recommit to economic projects such as a Russian gas pipeline when the time is appropriate, Putin could seek to maneuver in either a more helpful or complicating fashion for the United States.

If Putin merely wished to continue playing the role of a disruptive power complicating matters abroad for the United States, he could use the summit to present a joint front with North Korea against the use of sanctions by the U.S. and to announce limited economic agreements with North Korea within the confines of Russia’s carve out in the UN sanctions or other unprohibited areas. While this might have limited economic utility for North Korea, it would signal to the United States that Russia can complicate matters for the United States on the Korean Peninsula. As for Kim’s hopes that Russia might more explicitly break with sanctions and allow more North Korean workers, a slackening of enforcement seems the best that Kim could hope for from even a Russia looking to make mischief.

The summit chiefly presents Putin with an opportunity to deal Russia into talks regarding the Korean Peninsula. If Putin were to strike a deal with Kim to take positive steps, such as to again dismantle the Sohae test facility in exchange for Russia putting North Korean satellites in orbit, it would take the prospect of a North Korean satellite launch off the table and show Putin to be player who can help to bridge issues in the talks, and perhaps allow Russia to carve out a larger role going forward.  Up to this point, Russia has been peripheral. The question is whether Putin wants to change that.

As a Putin-Kim summit becomes more likely, the challenge that Kim Jong-un faces is that meeting with Vladimir Putin is a stronger step towards relieving diplomatic and military pressure rather than economic pressure. If Kim truly wants to pursue economic reforms he needs to either abandon hopes of sanctions relief and push for deep ties with China, or find a way get sanctions relief from the United States which would provide him with opportunity to pursue reform while minimizing dependence on China or any one state.  Putin may have more to gain but his calculation will be based on the kind of relationship he wants with the United States and China, not with North Korea.

Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the authors alone.

Photo from Jonathan Davis’ photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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