By Olga Krasnyak
In the wake of Putin-Kim summit, which was held in Vladivostok on April 25, in order to understand the meaning of the summit and its possible further implications for Northeast Asia, I suggest a Russian perspective.
Given the historical circumstances and pre-conditions in which Russia and North Korea operate, by no means should the Putin-Kim summit be considered groundbreaking or the tables turning. The summit was a meeting between the two state leaders of the two neighboring countries that share common objectives in preserving peace and stability in the region and are interested in maintaining economic relations. Russia-North Korea inter-state relations first were established in 1948 and have been continuously maintained since then. Of course, the caliber of both countries and their geopolitical postures are contrasting, yet bilateral relations can be characterized as amicable.
In the beginning of the summit, in his welcoming remarks, Kim thanked Putin for traveling thousands of kilometers from Moscow (in Russian and Korean) to meet with him. Kim would be very flattered if that would be the case. However, Vladivostok and the summit with Kim weren’t Putin’s main destination: the summit took place between Putin’s inspection of Russia’s Chita city (about 1700 kilometers from Vladivostok) where he monitored the situation with forest fires in Siberia, and Beijing where he attended the 2nd Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation on the next day.
Even the invitation to visit Russia was given to Kim a year ago and then was extended, according to Russian sources, actual diplomatic preparations for the summit started in November 2018. At a working level, mutual diplomatic and political exchanges and consultations were regular and naturally ended up in the summit. In the contrast of the crisis summit diplomacy—the diplomacy of interaction between states under a heightened threat of systemic change or conflict as with South Korea’s Moon, for instance,—the summit between Putin and Kim has been well prepared to exclude any risk of unpredictable or undesirable outcomes.
Thus, an assumption that Kim agreed to meet with Putin after a ‘no-deal’ summit in Hanoi in order to extend his political leverage is merely a speculation. The outcome of Hanoi summit could only encourage Kim to meet with Putin at their earliest convenience. The summit was literally squeezed into Putin’s schedule. Even though, and perhaps for the security reasons, the exact place and time wasn’t announced long in advance, local Vladivostok-based observers reported that actual preparations at the venue—Far Eastern Federal University—proceeded beforehand and not in secrecy. Interestingly, despite the summit, lectures weren’t cancelled and all classes were taking place at a regular basis.
Another moment should be noticed—the simultaneously 8th annual Moscow Conference on International Security, organized by the Ministry of Defense (23-25 April 2019). This conference traditionally attracts high ranking military personnel at a level of ministers or deputies from the Middle East, Africa, Southeast Asia, and might be considered as alternative to Singapore-based IISS Shangri-La Dialogue. What’s important to note regarding Putin-Kim Summit is that at the Moscow conference North Korea wasn’t even mentioned once in the key-speeches delivered by Russia’s top officials: the director of FSB, the Defense Minister and the Foreign Minister. The absence of North Korea in the security agenda means that the whole Korean Peninsula has never been a priority for Russia’s foreign policy. But the post-Soviet space; the Middle East; partly South Asia, Africa, and Latin America are a source for geopolitical interest.
Russia’s foreign policy priorities indicate that the country wouldn’t push too much whether to ensure North Korea’s security guarantees or to severely clash with the position of the United States. Moreover, Russia agrees with the U.S. on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, but suggests a more realistic scenario of a gradual, step-by-step denuclearization in the exchange for easing economic sanctions.
On the other hand, the complete denuclearization might pose another problem for North Korea and Northeast Asia and this problem is well acknowledged by Moscow: If North Korea would eventually be cleaned up from nukes and missiles, who would provide the country with security guarantees? Russia or China? Obviously, the U.S. and its ally South Korea would not be welcomed to the North for such purposes. This question should not be neglected and remains open for further consideration by state leaders, policy-makers, strategists, analysts, and scholars of great and regional powers.
Final remark here: during a brief 19-minute press-conference (in Russian) given by Putin, alongside the questions on Kim and North Korea that consumed around 10 minutes, the other 9 minutes were entirely devoted to an internal issue—Putin’s initiative to simplify the scheme in providing people in the East Ukraine (currently controlled by separatist forces) with Russian citizenship. All that showcases once again that Kim and North Korea are not the first priority for Russian foreign policy. Russia is pragmatically interested in sustaining good bilateral relations with its neighbor and to potentially deepen economic ties (including keeping North Korean workers who are presumed ideal in a proportion of price-quality-safety&security) but wouldn’t be proactive in backing North Korea.
Olga Krasnyak is a Lecturer in International Studies at Underwood International College, Yonsei University. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.