The Putin-Kim summit has a symbolic meaning. It has restored Russia’s position in the resolution of the Korean issue and outlined a scenario which could serve as an alternative to a return to tensions. Now, a scenario where negotiations resume has become more realistic, even in a multilateral format. However, as the Russian president said, such a format is only possible if progress is made in negotiations between the US and North Korea. For the time being this is unlikely to happen soon. More than one summit should be held to improve the situation, writes professor Georgy Toloraya, Executive Director of the Russian National Committee on BRICS Research and Director of the Asian Strategy Centre at the Institute of Economics at the Russian Academy of Science.
The meeting between the Russian President and the North Korean leader marks a successful political milestone. It’s been less than a year since the first inter-Korean summit, when the detente began, but after the failure of the summit in Hanoi, inter-Korean diplomacy stalled. Russia is interested in maintaining stability and insists that the Korean Peninsula’s nuclear and security problems can only be resolved through peaceful diplomacy. Incidentally, this point was emphasised by President Vladimir Putin himself at the end of the meeting; it is Russia’s permanent position.
Kim Jong-un, in turn, hoped to win the support of Russia; he had a lot of good things to say about the country and expressed a readiness to cooperate personally with Putin. He spoke warmly about the steady and healthy development of friendly relations between the two countries, which share a lot of history and a tradition of friendship. He also noted the interest of the two countries in strategic support, and the settlement of the unstable situation on the Korean Peninsula. At the same time, Kim, obviously, did not make any concessions and did not say anything that would encourage Russia’s leader. In any case, speaking at the final press conference, Putin was very cautious in his predictions about the development of the diplomatic process between the United States and the DPRK. He said that Kim puts national security at the forefront of his country’s interests, and the Americans need to ask the DPRK leader directly about what Kim is ready to offer. Therefore, we can assume that Putin did not hear any assurances of pliability from Kim regarding the future negotiation process.
It is interesting that, according to Putin, Kim Jong-un asked him to convey a certain message to the American leadership. However, apparently, it contained nothing particularly pleasant. Most likely, the Americans should agree to Kim’s proposed step-by-step approach and a partial lifting of sanctions – that is, with terms the Bolton and Pompeo teams have categorically rejected. Therefore, if we assume that Putin transmits the message to Trump, this will not cause anything but irritation and is unlikely to contribute to the rekindling of the diplomatic process.
The Russian side can only repeat the mantra that political guarantees are possible, if they are based on international law. But international law is now being trampled shamelessly, without any scruples, and the United States plays an important role here. Unfortunately, we cannot say that everybody may rely on international law, especially because the North Koreans themselves violate it. First of all, it concerns a violation of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons – the cornerstone of strategic stability in the world. Moreover, the sanctions, which were imposed against North Korea also constitute a component of international law. So, the Americans have something to say in return to the calls to be more constructive in launching a dialogue with North Korea.
Hopes for economic breakthroughs have gone unfulfilled. Putin spoke very carefully about results; he recalled only the theoretical possibility of creating a railway transit bridge and an oil and gas pipeline. But it is obvious that these questions were not seriously discussed. The linkage of the Korean and Russian railways will provide an opportunity to run test trains from South Korea to the Russian-North Korean border and backward. However, in order to realize this opportunity, it is necessary to invest a lot of money in modernising the railway structure of the DPRK itself. This is not a quick deal, and, most importantly, it is not clear who will pay for it.
The criticism of South Korea, using the oblique term “deficit of sovereignty” in connection with the absence of hope for positive decisions on a gas pipeline or energy projects, is a kind of trick. It is good when there is a culprit, who is so guilty that tripartite cooperation projects are not implemented. After all, South Korea, as a consumer, must make the final decision on whether it needs these projects or not. It is true, of course, that the decision on this matter is strictly forbidden by the Americans. Even if South Korea agrees, the implementation of such projects would require huge funds, and South Korea would become a hostage of the political situation, which currently is not developing in a good way.
Nevertheless, the meeting emphasised not only Russia’s involvement in the process of resolving the Korean problem. It showed the world that North Korea has an alternative, a source of support aside from China. However, the Russian side was extremely cautious about the possibility of providing any economic assistance to North Korea. The reaction of Japan is interesting in this regard: in Tokyo, they immediately began talking about the need to abandon the policy of maximum pressure – because other countries (Russia) are unlikely to follow it. Japanese corporations are afraid to miss a piece of the pie, if the North Korean problem suddenly moves from the dead end.
Putin has promised to discuss the results of the visit with the Chinese, who are slated to host the Belt and Road Summit in Beijing from April 25 to 27. However, he will not say anything particularly joyful to them. On the one hand, the Chinese, perhaps, will calm down to some extent after they realize that Kim Jong-un had failed to play the Russia card and make Russia and China clash. But, on the other hand, this may encourage China to put additional pressure on North Korea to make it more flexible in negotiations with the United States, even if it is mainly the US which is to blame for the stagnation of negotiations. For the Chinese, the result is important – reducing tensions in the negotiation process, no matter who is guilty.
The Putin-Kim summit has a symbolic meaning. It restored Russia's position in the Korean issue settlement and outlined a scenario, which could be alternative for a return to tensions. Now the scenario of negotiations resuming became more real, even in a multilateral format. However, as the Russian president said, such a format is possible only if progress is made on the American-North Korean track. So far, it is far away. More than one summit should be held to improve the situation. However, as Kim Jong-un stressed, he has such a desire.