Moscow vs. Vladivostok: Prospects for a Russia-North Korea Summit
Vladimir Putin has been exceptionally busy of late. Casual observers of such pulse-taking events as the Munich Security Conference, or White House press conferences with Angela Merkel, will be able to recognize how fully the Ukraine crisis is dominating Russia’s relationship with the West and western perceptions of Russia, and how low Moscow’s standing is at the moment. Even as NATO and sundry European states have had to improvise ersatz responses to Putin’s moves in Ukraine, the Russian leader, too, appears to be improvising, with no real endgame in sight. The ruble is sinking in value, and at Davos last month, Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister nakedly stated that “there is nothing good in the current situation, which is very serious, and I think it will get worse.” Russia’s leverage with the West as an interlocutor on the Iranian nuclear program remains hampered by the fact that Moscow is, at best, a friend of convenience for Tehran.
When it comes to the Far East, Putin has done a fine job of creating an imposing front. State investment in the region is up; a similar uptick has occurred in writings about Russia’s activity as an aspiring Pacific power. But structural factors loom large: The population of the Russian Far East is comparatively tiny, and markets in border cities are dominated by Chinese consumer goods. Measured in any terms other than landmass and timber, the country is anything but a colossus. North Korea’s perceived “pivot to Russia” is therefore somewhat cosmetic; the country is not and will never be the full counterweight to China for the current North Korean regime, even in the most favorable scenario.
Having previously written for Sino-NK about his situationist trek into North Korean territory in the early days of Dandong’s expansion, the China-based writer known as “Spelunker” returns with some words of insight on North Korea’s foreign policy as it relates to Russia and the Supreme Leader. — Adam Cathcart, Editor in Chief
Moscow vs. Vladivostok: Prospects for a Russia-North Korea Summit
Kim Jong-un has been officially invited to Moscow this year by President Vladimir Putin. The Pyongyang regime’s leader, whom the UN Commission of Inquiry on North Korea claims can be held personally accountable for unspeakable atrocities akin to those of Adolf Hitler’s concentration camps, was apparently deemed an appropriate guest to help mark the 70th anniversary of the Soviet defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II.
A Summit too Far: Whither Sino-North Korean Relations? | The invitation to attend the ceremony on May 9 raises three questions: First of all, will Kim actually make the trip? Second, would Kim bypass Xi Jinping for Putin when it would be his first presidential meeting? And third, possibly directed at the Kremlin organizers of the event: “Are you completely out of your minds?”
For the record, presidential aide Yuri Ushakov sent 70th anniversary invitations to the leaders of South Korea, the United States, Japan, China and a host of other countries–it was not just Kim. Mind boggling is the thought of Kim Jong-un appearing on a world stage next to so many bemused heads of state, especially since much of his previous diplomatic experience involves sharing hors d’oeuvres with foreign ambassadors and Dennis Rodman in Pyongyang.
There is a historical precedent for all these world leaders converging on Moscow. Among those present at the 60th anniversary of Victory Day in 2005 were US President George W. Bush, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, South Korea President Roh Moo-hyun, China President Hu Jintao, and Japan Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. Kim Jong-il did not attend, though the White House wasn’t entirely sure if he was on the guest list:
Like the spectacle of Mr. Bush sitting next to Kim Jong-il, the president of North Korea, who last week caused new worries at the White House that he might be close to conducting a nuclear test. When the rumor made its way through Washington that the elusive, eccentric Mr. Kim might actually turn up in Moscow, an administration official said he did not discount it and could only throw up his hands. “We had to laugh,” the official said, although it was unclear if that was in fact his first reaction, “because there was nothing we could do.” There was in any case relief when the rumor proved untrue. “I don’t think he wants to be in the same city as the American imperialist who would contaminate him,” the official said.
We know Kim Jong-un is not afraid to take an airplane ride, or co-pilot one, and there has been recent speculation about a potentially attractive invitation he received to an event in Bandung in April. However, showing up in Moscow at the same time as other heads of state does not seem suitable for the North Korean style of tête-à-tête diplomacy. His father Kim Jong-il traveled to Moscow via the Trans-Siberian railway to meet Putin in the summer of 2001, but only after Putin first visited Pyongyang for a brief summit in 2000. Kim Jong-un has yet to host any world leader in North Korea, so the prospect of him meeting dozens of them in Moscow seems unbelievable. Is the Kremlin prepared for such a spectacle? Does Putin imagine Kim Jong-un will suddenly convene impromptu nuclear disarmament talks with South Korea, China, Japan, essentially creating a “six-party talk” in the middle of Red Square?
And what about China? China was Kim Jong-il’s first foreign visit in his capacity as North Korea leader, so should not Jong-un follow in his father’s tracks? A recent New York Times article quotes “Chinese analysts” claiming that Kim Jong-un did indeed accompany his dad during Kim Jong-il’s second visit to Jilin province in 2010 (he went twice that year) and met Vice President Xi Jinping:
Though they have not met as presidents, Mr. Xi was vice president of China and met Mr. Kim when he accompanied his father to China, several Chinese analysts said. What happened in that exchange is not known, but Mr. Xi, an experienced and prominent member of the Chinese political hierarchy, was unlikely to have been impressed with the young Mr. Kim, who at that stage was not long out of a Swiss boarding school, the analysts said.
However, to this day there remains no published photographic evidence of the meeting nor any waitress/interpreter/bystander anecdote of Kim Jong-un exiting the iron carriage of his father’s train. It remains one of the modern mysteries of Sino-North Korean relations. Kim Jong-il was spotted by a waitress at Beijing’s Quanjude Peking duck restaurant in 2004 and even photographed by Japanese media there, yet nobody has obtained so much as an accurate anecdote about Kim Jong-un’s ostensible appearance in Jilin in 2010. Likewise, the rumor of a meeting between Kim Jong-il and former Chinese president Jiang Zemin in Yangzhou during the North Korean leader’s 2011 zig-zag rail journey through China has yet to be confirmed.
China has so far not invited Kim Jong-un to make his diplomatic debut on their turf. Clearly a rendezvous in Dandong could have been appropriate upon completion of the new Yalu River bridge on October 30 2014, but construction of a North Korean road leading up to the span was not quite being done at “Masikryong Speed.” There’s still time before the May 9 ceremony in Moscow, however it would be awkward for Kim to meet Xi in a Russian banya before paying tribute in Beijing. Kim Jong-il did not make his first trip across the border to China until his sixth year as leader, so Jong-un’s journey may be on hold for quite a while.
Strategic Postponement: Better to Wait than Agitate | Perhaps it would make more (common) sense for Putin to meet Kim Jong-un elsewhere in Russia and at some other time. When Kim’s envoy Choe Ryong-hae visited Russia for a week in November 2014, he stopped in Khabarovsk and Vladivostok on the way back to Pyongyang. The same two Russian Far East cities were on Kim Jong-il’s 2002 itinerary, which included a meeting with Putin in Vladivostok to discuss economic cooperation. An exclusive summit in Siberia would be much easier for the reclusive Pyongyang regime to micromanage. Vladivostok as a summit site would even allow Kim to arrive by sea at the Russian naval port from his mansion in Wonsan if he so-wished. If such a meeting were held, Kim Jong-un would not have to worry about appearing in front of (or behind) any other world leaders–unless one or two were specifically invited.
So, could a DPRK-ROK summit really be held in Moscow? Not likely during the Victory Day parade; it would be too much of a distraction and a logistical nightmare, and clearly it has already shown the potential to throw Seoul’s ruling circles into annoyance, if not disarray. However, if Putin were to be credited with bringing the leaders of North and South Korea together at a neutral site where all parties shared economic interests, then Vladivostok would appear to be the ideal venue.