No Breakthoughs from Kim Jong Un-Vladimir Putin Summit in Vladivostok

By Eugene Whong
kim-putin-2019 Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, toasts with North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un after their talks in Vladivostok, Russia, Thursday, April 25, 2019.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un held a summit on an island near the eastern Russian city Vladivostok Thursday, marking the first time the two leaders have met face to face, with Putin issuing a call for security guarantees to induce Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapons program.

During the meeting the two leaders are believed to have discussed the terms North Korea would need in order to agree to give up its nuclear program. Reuters and other outlets reported, however, that there was no major breakthough at the summit.

Following the meeting Putin signaled a desire to return to long defunct six-party talks to resolve the nuclear issue.

Starting in 2003, Japan, the United States, South Korea, Russia and China were unable to persuade North Korea to give up nuclear ambitions, and Pyongyang pulled out of the talks in 2009.

“[The North Koreans] only need guarantees about their security. That’s it. All of us together need to think about this,” said Putin in a press conference following the summit.

He added that a multilateral agreement would be the most effective way to achieve denuclearization.

“It’s unlikely that any agreements between two countries will be enough,” said Putin, adding that a multilateral, legally binding agreement that also respects North Korea’s sovereignty would be needed.

Reuters reported that Kim said the meeting was “candid and meaningful.”

Despite the lack of any meaningful resolution, the meeting was seen by outside observers as successful political posturing for Kim, who has already held talks with the leaders of South Korea, China and the United States.

“I think first and foremost Kim Jong Un enhanced his legitimacy. He has met now a fourth major world power after President Moon, President Xi and President Trump,” said David Maxwell, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, in an interview with RFA’s Korean Service.

Sending a message

Beyond increasing his own reputation though, others thought the purpose of the summit was to show that North Korea has more options than negotiating with the United States.

“Both sides want to send a message to Washington. I don’t think message was received well. North Korea was trying to say they have another option and they won’t be isolated,” said Mark Fitzpatrick, of the Nuclear Security Working Group.

Kyle Ferrier, the Director of Academic Affairs and Research at the Korea Economic Institute in Washington, agreed with Fitzpatrick.

“It showed that North Korea has potential options other than the U.S,” he said. “I think this is more signaling to the U.S. much more than signaling actual change.”

Katie Stallard-Blanchette, a fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington, said there were both strategic benefits and domestic propaganda gains for Kim.

“While there are broader strategic reasons why Kim is meeting Putin – as he seeks help weakening sanctions, developing his economy, and demonstrating to China and the United States that theirs is not the only game in town – this summit benefits him in other ways too,” she wrote.

“At a time when many North Koreans are once again facing food shortages, these expeditions make for powerful domestic propaganda, and evidence of how hard the leader is working to improve life for his countrymen,” she added.

But other analysts thought the meeting made Kim and his regime look desperate.

“I think the fact that you see Kim Jong Un meeting with Putin underscores the fact that sanctions are working and the sanctions are putting extreme economic pressure on the North Korean regime,” said William Hagerty, the U.S. ambassador to Japan.

“It is critically important that we all remain in lockstep enforcing UNSC resolutions, sanctions, against North Korea,” he said.

Patrick Cronin, the Asia-Pacific security chair for the Hudson Institute said the summit was a low risk endeavor for Russia, and it signaled that Russia is fine with a nuclear North Korea.

“It doesn’t cost anything for Russia to support that because Russia has been one of the countries that have not fully enforced the sanctions,” he said.

“Russia is happy to be a player and that’s why he keeps talking about six-party talks and other arrangements that are irrelevant at this point until North Korea is willing to make the right steps, because it gives Russia a bigger seat at the table,” he said.

A spokesman at the State Department told RFA that the United States “will continue to closely coordinate with allies and partners on achieving the world’s shared goal of the final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea.

Additional Reporting by RFA's Korean Service.

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