Not to Stay Away: Why the Putin-Kim Summit Is Important for Détente on the Korean Peninsula

Normal working relations with Pyongyang is the trump card that Russia can use in the complex diplomatic game around North Korea. Professor Georgy Toloraya, Executive Director of the Russian National Committee on BRICS research, Director of the Asian strategy center at the Institute of Economics of the Russian Academy of Sciences, spoke in an interview with about the importance of the planned Putin-Kim summit and how it can contribute to the solution of security issues on the Korean peninsula.

On August 15, Kim Jong-un sent a congratulatory telegram to Vladimir Putin on the occasion of the 73rd anniversary of the liberation of Korea from the Japanese colonial rule. The North Korean leader wished him “great success in the responsible work to build a powerful Russia” and recalled that “the citizens of our countries fought daily shoulder to shoulder against the common enemy in a difficult war”. “This is the strongest basis for friendly relationship between the DPRK and Russia, which becomes the driving force for further development in accordance with the requirements of a new era of bilateral relations”. In his response to Kim Jong-un, Vladimir Putin confirmed the possibility of a joint summit “in the near future”.

At a Convenient Time, in a Convenient Place

Russia is the only country among the “big” partners of North Korea which has not hold a joint summit meeting. Both sides confirmed the possibility of a meeting between Putin and Kim at a convenient time, in a convenient place, but neither time nor place have been determined yet. This remains an open question.

There were ideas that Kim Jong-un could come to the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok. If this happens, he could meet, apart from Putin, with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, the Japanese leader Shinzo Abe, as well as with Xi Jinping (even in a five-sided format). But this plan is unlikely to be implemented. The problem is that in September Kim Jong-un will be busy with activities connected with the 70th anniversary of the DPRK. The same month, a summit is planned between North and South Koreas. Moon Jae-in will come to Pyongyang, and this visit must be well prepared.

The Significance of the Putin-Kim Summit

Today, when the agenda of the Korean peninsula is in the focus of world politics, Russia should not remain on the sidelines. Historically, it has interests and a certain influence in the region. According to many stakeholders, the Putin-Kim summit could be very important – it can change the current balance of forces around the Korean peninsula.

China will lose the ability to monopolize the Korean settlement process. Pyongyang is interested in this, so Kim Jong-un wants to meet with Putin and thereby to show that he is not completely dependent on the Chinese dragon.

From the viewpoint of Japan, for which North Korea presents some kind of scarecrow, Russia’s involvement in North Korean issues can increase the international value of contacts with us, including on national security issues.

As for South Korea, much significance is being attached to northern cooperation and interaction with Russia. However, now it looks more like negotiations at the level of visits, wishes and promises, while not so much action on this happens in reality. Nevertheless, if Russia more vocally proclaimed its role on the Korean Peninsula issue, that would probably inspire southerners to be more active and to advance their own interests without looking back at the Americans.

The Americans in turn want Russia to bring pressure on North Korea and take part in its isolation. Considering that Russia itself is under the US sanctions, it is rather weird to demand from it any commitments in terms of the abstract idea of nuclear disarmament, which is being slowed down by the Americans themselves. Then it is quite natural that they act against the upcoming Putin-Kim summit. We will have to face a lot of criticism, which we need to be prepared for.


The most important thing in Russia’s relations with North Korea is to promote security on the Korean peninsula in a multilateral format. This includes not only the settlement of nuclear issues, which are primarily handled on the US-North Korea track, but also creating a peacekeeping system in the first place. There are still no legal documents that could sharply outline the absence of military operations on the Korean Peninsula and relations between DPRK and its original enemies — the US and Japan, apart from the 1953 Armistice Agreement .

Therefore, it is essential to regulate global security issues in the course of negotiations, and Russia has intention to lend support in this regard. We claim our adherence to six-party format, meant to discuss all of the abovementioned issues.

This seems to be the first and the main issue of the summit agenda — ascertaining how Russia, acting together with North Korea can assist in working out all of those complex issues, as well as in explaining Korea’s intentions and our capabilities in this regard.


For Russia, North Korea is of great interest in terms of logistics, mineral resources and labour force, but for now all the cooperation between us is blocked by the sanctions, which were unwillingly supported by Russia in 2017. At the same time, we are required in a very active and almost offensive manner not only to observe this regime, but also to join the unilateral US sanctions on North Korea, which hardly corresponds to our interests and principles.

That is also a topic to discuss– which fields we have to cooperate on, not violating the UN sanctions. And we have room for this.

One of the opportunities is the cooperation on the Khasan-Rajin joint project, which is not under sanctions. Among other things, it involves the coal transit from Russia through the Rajin Port. Recently, the project was frozen due to the Russian coal suppliers who are afraid to make business with a country under sanctions. Therefore, we have to establish this transit and discuss other important issues. That is the transportation of North Korean containers, primarily by South Koreans and building of a railroad ring in Northeast Asia with Russia, China and North Korea participating. On August 15, the Republic of Korea President Moon announced in his programme speech the establishment of the Northeast Asia Railway Community. This project could be launched, in particular, within the Expanded Tumangan Initiative (RTI) framework. All of these issues are extremely important, so discussing and agreeing on them would be the added value of the planned summit.

Stabile working relations with Pyongyang is the “trump card” which we can use in the complicated diplomatic game over North Korea.

Cultural and Humanitarian Exchanges

It is worth noting that for the North Koreans, considering the centralization of power in one man’s hands, each summit like that is a significant event that permits to develop relations across the board. That happened when Vladimir Putin met the present leader’s father, Kim Jong-Il, in 2001. Thus, we should expect that the forthcoming meeting between Putin and Kim will be perceived as an invitation to cooperate more closely in both North Korea and Russia.

The importance of the summit also stems from the fact that unlike his predecessors, Kim Jong-Un is not akin with Russia. It is well known that his father, Kim Jong-Il, was born in Russia, he spoke Russian a little and visited the country many times, regarding it as a “window into the bigger world”. The same can be said about the majority of North Korean cadres of the older generation, while the new one is completely cut off from this. Therefore, we need to “get to know” each other, to tell about our capabilities and to begin cooperation in cultural and humanitarian fields.

It is very important to expand our public diplomacy, or “soft power” in North Korea: we have to teach them our language, to exchange culturally and humanitarianly. If the summit manages to reach any agreements significant for the lower-level institutions, that would be very healthy and, in addition, would not violate the sanctions regime.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.