Russia’s Vladimir Putin calls for ‘international guarantees’ in first summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un

Park Chan-kyong
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Russia’s Vladimir Putin calls for ‘international guarantees’ in first summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un

North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and Russia’s Vladimir Putin vowed to seek closer ties as they met for the first time on Thursday, in a summit intended to galvanise support amid Pyongyang’s stalled nuclear talks with Washington.

Putin said he believed US security guarantees were not likely to be enough to persuade the North to shut its nuclear programme.

Putin, keen to use his summit with Kim to burnish Russia’s diplomatic credentials as a global player, said he believed any US guarantees might need to be supported by the other nations involved in previous six-way talks on the nuclear issue.

That would mean including Russia, China, Japan, South Korea in addition to the US and North Korea, in a long-standing format that had been sidelined by unilateral US efforts to broker a deal.

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“I’m deeply convinced that if we get to a situation when some kind of security guarantees are needed from one party, in this case for North Korea, that it won’t be possible to get by without international guarantees. It’s unlikely that any agreements between two countries will be enough,” Putin said.

Such guarantees would have to be international, legally-binding, and vouch for Pyongyang’s sovereignty, said Putin.

“We need to … return to a state where international law, not the law of the strongest, determines the situation in the world.”

Putin said that Kim encouraged him to explain the nuances of Pyongyang’s position to US President Donald Trump.

“I will talk about it tomorrow with the leadership of China,” Putin said, referring to his two-day visit to Beijing. “And we will just as openly discuss this issue with the US leadership. There are no secrets. Russia’s position always has been transparent. There are no plots of any kind.”

Putin said he thought a deal on Pyongyang’s nuclear programme was possible and that the way to get there was to move forward step-by-step to build trust.

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The summit came as Kim eyed possible relief from the sanctions hurting its economy amid a stand-off with Washington, and Putin keen to put Moscow forward as a potential broker.

It was a result of repeated invitations from Putin after Kim embarked on a series of diplomatic overtures last year.

Since March 2018, the formerly reclusive North Korean leader has held four meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping, three with South Korea’s Moon Jae-in, two with Trump and one with Vietnam’s president Nguyen Phu Trong.

Since the second Trump-Kim summit in February ended without a deal because of disputes over US-led sanctions, there have been no publicly known high-level contacts between the US and North Korea – although both sides have said they are still open to a third summit.

Kim wants the US to ease the sanctions to reciprocate for some partial disarmament steps he took last year. But the US maintains the sanctions will stay in place until North Korea makes more significant denuclearisation moves.

Cheong Seong-chang, a senior researcher at the Sejong Institute think tank in South Korea, said the summit with Putin was Kim’s way of “sending a message to the US that he will wait out sanctions and pressure”.

At the start of meetings that lasted nearly five hours, Putin and Kim greeted each other warmly, shaking hands and sharing smiles at the venue on an island off Vladivostok.

Putin, known for delaying meetings with international guests, was waiting for Kim when he emerged from his limousine.

The first session between Putin and Kim, comprising one-on-one talks with just a few aides present, lasted twice as long as the 50 minutes allocated in the schedule.

Putin described Kim as “quite open” and as “thoughtful” and “interesting”.

“We discussed the situation on the Korean peninsula and exchanged opinions about what should be done to improve the situation and how to do it,” Putin said. Kim described the talks as “candid and meaningful”.

The North Korean leader said he hoped to turn the modern relationship with Moscow into a “more stable and sound one”.

The Soviet Union was once among Pyongyang’s closest allies, but relations with Moscow cooled following the communist state’s collapse in the 1990s. Russia has since sought to revive ties amid a new stand-off with the West, however, and has already called for UN sanctions on North Korea to be eased.

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There were no concrete announcements or agreements, but analysts said Thursday’s meeting was valuable to both sides.

“For North Korea, it’s all about securing another exit. China talks about sanctions relief but it doesn’t really put it into action,” said Koo Kab-woo, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul. “For Russia, North Korea is elevating it back to one of the direct parties, on the same footing as China.”

Koh Yu-hwan, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul, said it remains unclear what role Russia can play in efforts to restart diplomacy.

“Russia’s cooperation with the North will be limited to humanitarian food aid and hiring of North Korean workers in developing its Far Eastern region at the most,” Koh said.

“Bilateral trade between the two countries is minimal – around US$34 million last year – because of international sanctions against Pyongyang … For Russia, which is under sanctions itself, it is very difficult to help the North without breaching sanctions.”

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse, Associated Press and Reuters

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