If you were asked to name the three countries on the planet with the greatest power in terms of their military, economic impact and general, geopolitical influence, which ones would they be? A convincing case could obviously be made for the United States, China and Russia. And what else do these three nations have in common? Very soon, all of their leaders will have met with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. That’s because Kim is looking to complete the hat trick with an announced summit with Vladimir Putin in Russia, possibly by the end of this week. And that means that an already complicated situation on the peninsula just became even more tangled. (Associated Press)
North Korea confirmed Tuesday that leader Kim Jong Un will soon visit Russia to meet with President Vladimir Putin in a summit that comes at a crucial moment for tenuous diplomacy meant to rid the North of its nuclear arsenal…
The North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency released a terse, two-sentence statement saying Kim “will soon pay a visit to the Russian Federation,” and that he and Putin “will have talks.” A date for the meeting was not released, and it wasn’t clear if Kim would fly or take his armored train. There are some indications the meeting will be held this week in the far-eastern port of Vladivostok, not too far from Russia’s border with the North.
The Kremlin said in a brief statement last week that Kim will visit Russia “in the second half of April,” but gave no further details.
It seems unlikely that Kim would risk flying to Moscow, so it’s more likely that he will take his personal train north to Vladivostok for the meeting. Putin is already familiar with this ritual since he met with the dictator’s father, Kim Jong Il in that city in 2011.
As I mentioned above, this could seriously complicate President Trump’s efforts at denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. It’s bad enough that China has been undercutting the sanctions on North Korea, leaving Kim with ample motivation to hold off on serious disarmament. If North Korea can get Russia on a more friendly footing and restart trade deals, Kim will have almost no reason to come back to the table.
But will Putin be interested? The AP’s Eric Talmadge looks at Kim’s wish list and why Russia might be willing to cut a deal.
More than 10,000 North Korean laborers still employed in Russia, many working in the logging industry in the Russian Far East, are being kicked out by the end of this year as a 2017 U.N. sanctions resolution takes effect. The laborers, who previously numbered as many as 50,000, have provided a revenue stream estimated by U.S. officials in the hundreds of millions of dollars that the Kim regime would like to keep flowing.
Kim is also looking at the possibility of a food shortage this summer. Russia has shown a willingness to provide humanitarian aid and just last month announced that it had shipped more than 2,000 tons of wheat to the North Korean port of Chongjin.
But his decision to more actively court Putin undoubtedly goes deeper than that.
The list continues on from there. In other words, there are plenty of things that North Korea would like to get from Russia, but what do they have to offer in return? The answer is, not much. Aside from some cheap labor in the logging industry in Russia’s eastern provinces, Kim doesn’t have a lot to put on the table. But relations between Washington and Moscow haven’t been particularly cozy lately, and Putin is a crafty player. Making nice with North Korea (and by extension, China also) would be a convenient way to jam a thumb into President Trump’s eye without going all DEFCON 1 on us.
Even if nothing substantial comes from the summit, the real winner here is still Kim Jong-un. What he’s wanted more than anything else all along is to stop living in an isolated hermit kingdom and be treated as a “normal” leader on the world stage. Thus far he’s held summits with South Korea’s Moon Jae-in, China’s Xi Jinping and President Donald Trump. Adding Vladimir Putin to the list certainly gives Kim the air of being the leader of an international nuclear powerhouse.
Is that how this long drama ends? Everyone basically forgets about North Korea’s history of terror, murder and international blackmail, welcoming them back into the fold as long as Kim promises not to nuke anyone? I can’t imagine a more unfair resolution of this problem and it would represent a complete victory for North Korea’s family of tyrants.