On April 24-25, a Russian-North Korean summit will be held in Vladivostok. This meeting is long overdue, especially given the fact that Kim Jong-un has had four meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping, three with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and two with Donald Trump.
The leaders of Russia and the DPRK have something to talk about. Moscow welcomed the inter-Korean and North Korean-US summits, which substantially defused the situation on the Korean Peninsula. But the Kremlin also realises that the declared intentions of the parties to undertake efforts to achieve stability and peace in Korea are not yet supported by real deeds.
The North Korean leadership seems genuinely interested in detente. Pyongyang stopped nuclear and missile tests, destroyed the Punggye-ri nuclear test site, declared its readiness to also close the Tongchang-ri missile test site and allow foreign inspectors there, and “in case of a response from the United States”, to eliminate the nuclear reactor in Yongbyon – the main known nuclear facility of the DPRK. There is no evidence that Pyongyang transferred any nuclear technology to third states. But Washington continues persistently to insist that there will be no substantive discussion about the lifting of sanctions and the normalisation of bilateral relations until Pyongyang has completely and finally eliminated its nuclear missile programme.
It is necessary to take into account the fact that after declaring that détente is a goal, Pyongyang will have to take a number of irreversible steps, for example, providing access to confidential information for verification purposes, not to mention the physical dismantling of the nuclear and missile infrastructure. At the same time, all of the steps being taken by the United States and South Korea are easily reversible: military exercises can be resumed, sanctions restored, diplomatic recognition revoked, etc. Pyongyang remembers that at one time the conservative South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, without hesitation, stopped the “solar heat” policy announced by his liberal predecessors in relation to the DPRK, and that US President George W. Bush scrapped Bill Clinton’s policy of the DPRK appeasement. Is there any guarantee that the peacemaker Moon in Seoul will not be replaced by another sworn opponent in a couple of years, or that Kim’s American friend Trump will not be impeached?
Therefore, Pyongyang needs compliance guarantees to accompany possible agreements. Not so much from Washington’s side, which through its withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran and the ABM and INF treaties vividly confirmed its failings as a reliable partner. Pyongyang wants security guarantees from Beijing and Moscow, which are linked to the DPRK geographically, historically and politically.
With his trip to Vladivostok, Kim Jong-un shows that he assigns no less importance to cooperation with Russia than to work with the inter-Korean, American and Chinese agendas. Moscow emphasises that there is no alternative to a political and diplomatic solution of all Korean issues, and is ready to come up with specific proposals on this subject, as happened, for example, with the Russian-Chinese road map in 2017 to resolve the nuclear problem of the Korean Peninsula. In principle, throughout last year, the process of negotiations between Seoul and Washington with Pyongyang followed this road map.
The very fact of the upcoming summit strengthens the position of the DPRK in its dialogue with the United States. Moscow supports North Korea in this dialogue and agrees that in response to the steps taken by the DPRK, Washington must take reciprocal measures on the principle of “action in exchange for action”. Kim will certainly inform Putin about his new strategy, announced at the recent session of the DPRK Supreme People’s Assembly, when the North Korean leader actually set a deadline before the end of the year: if the United States does not change its tactics by this time, the DPRK can move on to Plan B.
Undoubtedly, issues of trade and economic cooperation will also be touched upon. The settlement of North Korea’s debt to Moscow in 2012 opened the way to its full-scale development. But today, this cooperation is strictly limited by the UN Security Council’s sanctions against the DPRK. Sanctions also block the implementation of such trilateral projects between Russia and two Korean states as connecting the Trans-Korean railway with Russia’s Trans-Siberian railway, building the Russia-DPRK-South Korea gas pipeline and connecting the electric power systems of the three countries.
The failure of the US-North Korean summit in Hanoi and the blatant slippage of the inter-Korean dialogue in recent months urgently require new impulses to address the process of resolving security problems concerning the Korean Peninsula. The Vladivostok summit is able to give such an impetus, especially due to the fact that the President of Russia, from Vladivostok, will proceed to Beijing, where he will meet with President Xi Jinping.