For a guy who was universally despised as a cruel, megalomaniacal despot only a few weeks ago, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un’s dance card is suddenly very full. Hot on the heels of his meeting with President Trump, he was in Beijing chatting up the Chinese about prosperous times to come. This is a worrisome sign, as I recently observed since Chinese cooperation on sanctions is the only thing keeping Kim talking about dismantling his nuclear program. But now, Kim has a new member signing up for his fan club and it’s none other than Vladimir Putin. The Russian leader was meeting with South Korea’s Moon Jae-in this week to discuss plans for reunification and trade routes through North Korea for their two countries. (Reuters)
Putin and Moon agreed to “continue joint efforts to establish complete denuclearization on the Korean peninsula and secure permanent peace and stability on the peninsula and (in)Northeast Asia.”
Both Moscow and Seoul are hoping that reduced tensions with Pyongyang will open up opportunities for economic and infrastructure projects that would directly link South Korea with Russia through North Korea.
Those plans are currently blocked by international sanctions on North Korea which international leaders have said will not be lifted until North Korea makes significant moves to give up its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
The Financial Times has more of the details (subscription link) and it sounds like everything is just sunshine and roses. If you’re wondering why Russia is even involved in the conversation, it can be easy to forget that they actually share a border with North Korea, albeit a tiny one covering a section of land along the coast south of Vladivostok.
The proposals under discussion are almost shocking in their scope. Vlad and Moon were talking about oil and natural gas lines, electric power and even rail transport from Russia to South Korea, with stops in the North so Kim’s people can benefit from all of this commerce. Of course, at least for the moment, the leaders are still talking about this in the context of happening after Kim “begins” taking apart his nukes and missiles, but how much are they going to consider loosening things up before there’s any significant denuclearization happening? The more goodies that are preemptively heaped on Kim’s table, the less incentive he has to go through with the plan.
Seeing Russia being so willing to rush into a relationship with North Korea isn’t any surprise. Putin still maintains good relations with Venezuela despite that country’s leader having torn up their constitution and starved half of his country to the point of famine. Russia is also in tight with Turkey, where a similar dismantling of democracy is well underway.
But perhaps Kim Jong-un is actually serious and I’m being too skeptical about all of this. North Korea continues to send hopeful signals toward the United States as well. The New York Post provides interviews with a couple of people doing business in North Korea who report that nearly all of the anti-US propaganda posters have been removed and replaced by propaganda touting Korean unification. There hasn’t been a negative report about the United States on state-sponsored television since March. Also, news of Kim’s meeting in China was broadcast to his people in real time, rather than their usual pattern of holding it for a few days and releasing heavily massaged versions designed to make Kim look better.
So let’s game this out on the assumption that North Korea is actually ready to give up its nukes and play nice. What happens next? Does the world simply forget all of the horrors that Kim’s family has inflicted on their people and the ongoing human rights disaster which is modern North Korea? Is he simply welcomed into the club as a full member in good standing as a reward for not nuking anyone? I suppose that’s sort of a win if the nukes are off the table, but it still strikes me as a major shift in how the western world does business.