Sun, 26 May 2019

Kim Jong Un has arrived in Russia for a summit with President Vladimir Putin, the meeting coming just two months after the North Korean leader's meeting with US President Donald Trump in Vietnam that ended abruptly.

Analysts say the Russia-North Korea summit scheduled for Thursday will serve as a reminder to Washington that the North Korean leader has other options in the region backing his leadership.

The failed summit in Vietnam meant that Kim was unable to get the sanctions relief he sought from the United States. He is unlikely to get that in his meeting with Putin as well.

But while Russia fully enforces the sanctions it voted to impose on Pyongyang, it has joined China in calling for loosening the punishment in recognition of steps taken in limiting North Korea's weapons testing.

Why Russia?

Russia's relations with North Korea date back to the latter's foundation. Moscow also helped rebuild North Korea after the 1950-53 Korean War.

The Russian president is experienced in dealing with North Korean leaders. He visited Pyongyang in 2000 and met Kim Jong Il a few times.

The ties were affected after the fall of the Soviet Union but Kim Jong Un's father worked towards renewing them following Putin's election as president in 2000 and visited the country three times.

North Korea also sees Russia as an old and reliable neighbour that is not trying to meddle in domestic policies and wants stability on the Korean Peninsula, according to Georgy Toloraya, a North Korean scholar at the Moscow State Institute of International Affairs, who termed the talks "timely" following the Vietnam summit.

Cho Han bum, a senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification, said that Kim had been in a "catch-22" situation ever since the Vietnam summit collapse.

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"North Koreans are in despair with no hope for sanctions relief," Cho told Al Jazeera.

"China can't help as it is in the middle of a trade war with the US and Kim can't visit Beijing because he might lose face if he makes his fifth China trip."

What's on the agenda?

Kim has two urgent concerns as he heads to the summit - North Korean labourers in Russia and the food shortage in his country.

Around 10 000 North Korean labourers are still employed in Russia. All of them will have to leave the country by the end of the year as a 2017 UN sanctions resolution takes effect.

The labourers, who previously numbered as many as 50 000, provided Pyongyang with more than $500m in foreign exchange annually, according to documents seen by Reuters news agency.

"Maybe, the numbers will stop decreasing after Kim's visit," said Dmitry Zhuravlev, director general of the Institute of Regional Issues in Moscow.

The labourers' presence is crucial in Russia's underpopulated provinces that have plenty of fallow land, timber and natural resources but they are "large enough and there is enough room for the Koreans", added Zhuravlev.

Kim is also looking at the possibility of a food shortage in North Korea this summer. Russia has shown a willingness to provide humanitarian aid.

Last month, it announced it had shipped more than 2 000 tonnes of wheat to the North Korean port of Chongjin.

What does Russia want?

The Kremlin considers this visit a key development in the settlement of the Korean nuclear crisis.

"At the centre of attention will be the political and diplomatic solution to the Korean Peninsula's nuclear problem," Putin's aide Yuri Ushakov told a news conference on Tuesday.

On Friday, Putin's spokesperson Dmitri Peskov said that the two leaders will discuss "bilateral ties", followed by the "issues of denuclearisation, regional partnership".

Putin does not seem to be a believer in Washington's use of sanctions as a political tool but the Russian president will be cautious about making any big new commitments, analysts say, as he is set to fly to Beijing for a major international meeting on China's "Belt and Road" initiative.

What Kim hopes to gain?

North Korea is also looking to develop economic ties with Russia to lessen its dependency on China.

"It is important for Kim to understand what Russia can do in the field of economy," said Andrey Fyodorov, a former deputy foreign minister. "Without Russia and China, it is impossible [for North Korea] to get out of the crisis."

North Korea has long depended on China as its primary trading partner. Kim has also pushed Seoul hard to participate in joint inter-Korean projects to rebuild its railroads and improve its moribund infrastructure.

According to officials, trade between Russia and North Korea fell from $60m in 2017 to $34m in 2018 because of the sanctions.

"Kim and Putin are expected to announce improved bilateral relations. Putin will announce his support for the step-by-step approach to denuclearisation," said Cho.

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"In addition, there's not much for the two to gain from this summit. There is nothing for Russia to do for North Korea in terms of military and economic cooperation under the large-scale sanctions."

Unlike China, Russia has a very small footprint in the North. Officials have long talked about big projects, including rail routes to Europe, or pipelines across the Korean Peninsula but there are reports that Putin hasn't shown much interest in carrying them out.

Will this affect US-North Korea talks?

The Vietnam summit was the second set of talks between North Korean and US leaders.

The historic summit in Singapore last year, which came after months of growing tensions marked by nuclear and missile tests, fresh sanctions and threats of "total destruction", ended with a vague statement that has failed to produce tangible progress.

"The summit will not make any difference to the Washington-Pyongyang relations," said Cho.

"It won't provide a breakthrough either. Recently, Stephen Biegun, US special envoy for North Korea, visited Russia with its deputy foreign minister and to deliver messages to Russia that Trump administration does not want the phased approach to North Korea's denuclearisation."

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