On April 26, 2019, the Valdai Club hosted an expert discussion following the meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un in Vladivostok. The participants discussed Russia’s potential for resolving the situation on the Korean Peninsula, bilateral cooperation, as well as the internal and external strategy of the North Korean leadership.
For some time now, Kim Jong-un’s foreign policy has been referred to as “summit diplomacy”. The DPRK leader has met four times with Chinese President Xi Jinping and twice with US President Donald Trump. The summit in Vladivostok is a continuation of this trend. Despite the fact that the effectiveness of such meetings is often called into question (for example, the Kim-Trump Hanoi Summit was generally considered as a failure), they work in favour of Kim’s international image and his authority within the DPRK. However, what did Russia gain from this meeting?
According to Gleb Ivashentsov, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Russia to the Republic of Korea (2005–2009), this summit was more than timely and allowed the leaders of the two countries to hear each other’s positions on the Korean Peninsula’s problems. He said that, judging by the results of the meeting, “in many respects their visions coincided, although in some respects they diverged.”
Russia’s policy towards the Korean Peninsula is dictated, above all, by the desire to prevent it from becoming a conflict zone. However, one should be aware that Moscow’s opportunities in this regard are very limited. The main problem, according to Ivashentsov, is inter-Korean relations. Properly within this confrontation, the DPRK is developing its nuclear missile programme in order to prevent a US intervention in the event of an armed conflict. The recent history is full of examples of how detente in relations between the two Koreas gave way to rising tensions. In turn, the inter-Korean relations, according to moderator of the discussion Andrei Sushentsov, are often a function of American foreign policy.
Moscow is aware of its capabilities and limitations; that is why it does not set ambitious targets for an inter-Korean settlement. According to Artyom Lukin, Deputy Director for Research, School of Regional and International Studies; Russia’s Far Eastern Federal University, Moscow relies on cooperation with China in resolving the problems of Northeast Asia. Lukin drew attention to the fact that Vladimir Putin had spent two hours with Kim Jong-un, and his current visit to China will last three days. According to Lukin, we can talk about some kind of an informal agreement, according to which Russia recognizes the leading role of China in East Asia, and China – the special role of Russia in the Middle East, which is a strategically important region for it.
Russia and China have reached a consensus on the DPRK, said Alexey Maslov, Head of the HSE School of Oriental Studies. Both countries are concerned about the possibility of the conflict on the Korean Peninsula heating up and are doing everything to prevent it. They’ve come up with the concept of “double freezing,” which is currently being implemented to the satisfaction of both parties. Also, the two countries are interested in the economic development of North Korea and therefore support the reforms carried out by Kim.
In Hanoi, Donald Trump tried to convince Kim of the attractiveness of the Vietnamese experience with a market economy. However, this path is not suitable for the North Korean leader, Maslov believes, since it would mean economic dependence on the United States as a fee for the lifting of sanctions. Self-reliance was and remains the basis of the DPRK leadership philosophy. Russia and China offer a different scenario: North Korea does not become part of any model, and maintains both political and economic security.
An important feature of Kim Jong-un’s policy is that it is built on a long-term perspective, while his counterparts in Washington and Seoul are guided by election cycle-related considerations. Kim cannot count on the successors of Trump and Moon Jae-in, and he is not sure that they will continue his line on inter-Korean settlement. Therefore, all his steps are cautious and verified: the task of Kim, according to Maslov, is to pursue a policy of reform, avoiding crisis.
The issue of sanctions against the DPRK was raised separately. The experts agreed that one cannot expect sanctions to be lifted soon. This actually negates all the possibilities for full-fledged economic cooperation between Russia and the DPRK. In this case, we are talking not only about the UN sanctions, supported by Beijing and Moscow, but also about the unilateral US sanctions. Artyom Lukin recalled that Russia had invested $300 million in the Hasan – Rajin project, which is the largest foreign investment in the DPRK to date, but since October 2017 it has practically stopped functioning. Despite the fact that the Hasan – Rajin project is excluded from the UN sanctions, larger Russian companies refuse to work with it because they fear it will be targeted by US sanctions.