Current rumours concerning the future visit of North Korea’s leader to Russia reflect speculation both regarding its prospects and about the current state of Russia-DPRK relations.
Speculations that Kim Jong-un will soon arrive in Russia have been around for quite a long time, and have intensified recently, especially since September 2018. However, one should not forget that the summit involves discussions on high-level issues that need to be decided upon by the heads of state. Otherwise, such a meeting between the leaders of nations turns into a merely ceremonial event, which in essence means only emphasising friendly relations or expressing support.
Let's look at the relations of both countries from this angle. On the one hand, Russia has a very limited set of levers of influence on North Korea. There is economic cooperation, but it is burdened very much by sanctions, which the Russian Federation is obliged to follow as a member of the UN Security Council. Sanctions hamper the development of existing joint projects, and within the framework of their execution, by the end of 2019 Russia should theoretically get rid of its North Korean workers, which, as we note, are very highly valued by Moscow for providing a successful combination of low cost, punctuality and a readiness to obey local laws. From a political point of view, Russia understands Pyongyang’s nuclear claims, but does not accept them. Moreover, Russia ranks the Far East, including Korea, third in terms of priority, after the Post-Soviet space and the Middle East.
However, at the same time, Russia to a lesser extent has played the role of teaching the North Koreans what to do. That is why both in the government and among ordinary North Koreans, the attitude towards Russia and the Russians is very friendly.
The current situation in relations between North Korea and the United States in many ways corresponds to the Russian-Chinese plan of "double freezing." Moscow understands that the complete nuclear disarmament of North Korea is unrealistic, but the declared course of detente and a moratorium on measures, which exacerbate the situation, can continue indefinitely, and the process here is more important than the result, and the direction is more important than speed. Russia supports this trend and generally believes that the efforts of North Korea, which has already made a certain number of irreversible actions, should be minimally rewarded, and the current negotiation process should not turn into unilateral concessions.
On the grounds of the above, let us think about a possible agenda for the meeting between Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un. Perhaps there will be a place to coordinate the strategy and inform Moscow about the results of the Hanoi summit. Both Moscow and Pyongyang perceive this event not as the end of the dialogue, but as temporary difficulties that may slow the negotiation process, without interrupting it. Therefore one must think about how to make sure that the current state of affairs lasts as long as possible.
Probably, the parties will touch upon the issues of economic and humanitarian cooperation, which on the one hand can be mutually beneficial amid the current sanctions regime; on the other, this regime can be weakened or circumvented.
We cannot rule out, that the parties will discuss joint activity related to Russia's support for North Korean’s position, since the very fact of the summit will undoubtedly indicate an increase of Kim Jong-un’s contractual capacity, and also that Russia occupies an important place in North Korean foreign policy, together with the US or Beijing, which Pyongyang is trying to turn into interaction not only with China, but also with other countries.Will the visit of the North Korean leader to Moscow serve to strengthen relations between the two countries? Of course, yes, but it will not be a very big "brick" in the foundation. The development of the relationship between Moscow and Pyongyang is largely limited by the global political situation. Something can be done in this direction, and perhaps this will be discussed at that hypothetical summit.