SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Russian President Vladimir Putin vowed closer ties as they began their first summit Thursday in the far-eastern Russian city of Vladivostok.
Kim, who is searching for economic help amid deadlocked nuclear talks with the United States, said he hopes to solidify relations with Moscow and looks forward to productive talks with Putin.
“I think it will be a good meeting to further develop the relationship between two countries which have long histories and traditions,” Kim told Putin.
Putin said he supports North Korea’s improved relations with Washington and that he hopes to see closer ties with North Korea.
The meeting is taking place in the Russian port city of Vladivostok, around 200 kilometers from the border with North Korea.
It isn’t clear whether the meeting will go beyond a photo opportunity, or whether the two leaders will sign agreements or a joint statement.
Kim is expected to push Putin for economic aid, specifically relief from international sanctions after Kim’s meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump in February in Hanoi resulted in no deal.
“North Korea needs an ally,” says Jang Se-ho, a research fellow at the Seoul-based Institute for National Security Strategy. “And Russia has been seeking a chance to become involved more in the Korean Peninsula. They now have a chance to do so.”
Kim out of breath
Seated next to Putin during opening comments, the young North Korean leader appeared to be winded and breathing heavier than usual, drawing speculation about Kim’s health from some North Korea watchers.
“(Kim’s health) is a big deal in a long-term perspective,” though it’s not clear it will have a short-term impact, said Olga Krasnyak, a professor at Seoul’s Yonsei University.
Kim, who is believed to be around 35 years old, also appeared to be out of breath during an appearance Wednesday after arriving in Russia.
All of Kim’s appearances are watched closely for such signs, in part because the public does not often get unscripted looks at the North Korean leader.
No longer a pariah?
Until last year, Kim hadn’t left North Korea since taking power in 2011.
Since then, Kim has met twice with Trump, three times with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, four times with Chinese President Xi Jinping, and once with Vietnamese President Nguyen Phu Trong.
“What this has mainly done is give Kim some international credibility. I mean, he was a pariah a year ago. And now he’s everybody’s prom date, everyone wants to be seen with him on their arm,” said Ralph Cossa of the Pacific Forum, a nonprofit foreign policy research institute based in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Although the meetings have raised Kim’s global stature, they have failed to reduce the sanctions pressure hurting his economy.
After a February Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi ended with no deal, the United States has insisted it will not relax sanctions until North Korea commits to abolishing its nuclear weapons program.
Putin: not much help?
With Putin’s own economy hurting, it isn’t clear that North Korea is a priority. And without buy-in from the United States, it is not clear how much he could do anyway.
Russia-North Korea trade fell dramatically last year, by more than 56 percent to $34 million, according to Kremlin aide Yury Ushakov, who was quoted in Russian state media.
“This is primarily due to the fact that Russia is forced to follow international sanctions that were imposed on the DPRK,” said Ushakov, using the acronym for North Korea’s official name.
By contrast, North Korea was earning about $100 million a year in hard currency from the Kaesong Industrial complex before it closed, said Troy Stangarone of the Washington-based Korea Economic Institute.
Kaesong, located just north of the inter-Korean border, used South Korean capital and North Korean labor to produce goods, before being closed after a North Korean nuclear test in 2016.
South Korea has expressed an interest in reopening the complex, but appears unable to do so unless the United States relaxes sanctions.
Russia, a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, signed onto tougher sanctions amid North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests in 2016 and 2017. However, Moscow later called for sanctions against Pyongyang to be eased.
Putin as spoiler?
Under Putin, Russia has attempted to disrupt U.S. interests around the world, in countries including Syria, Ukraine, and Venezuela.
During a visit to Seoul Wednesday, U.S. Senator Chris Coons said it would be a “great disappointment for Mr. Putin to again insert himself in a way that’s unhelpful.”
“But it wouldn’t be the first time,” added Coons, who along with Senator Maggie Hassan met South Korea’s defense and foreign ministers.
But Putin is not likely to play the role of spoiler in the North Korea-U.S. talks, in part because he doesn’t have much leverage over Pyongyang, said Andrei Lankov, a professor at Seoul’s Kookmin University.
“And in this case, Russia’s interests are not that different from that of the United States. Both sides want to preserve the status quo and want denuclearization,” Lankov said.
The Soviet Union was once one of North Korea’s main financial backers. But after the Soviet Union broke up, Moscow prioritized relations with the South, before later adopting a policy of “equidistance” between the two Koreas.