The North Korean leader Kim Jong Un met Russian President Vladimir Putin on 25 April. This was the first meeting between the two leaders in Russia. It is hailed as an important event. Its significance can be because of the following factors:
Moscow and Pyongyang are Cold War allies and this meeting has taken place as Russia steps up efforts to increase its influence in the region.
While the meeting between President Putin and North Korean leader Kim took place, military drills between US-South Korea also took place which outraged Pyongyang. This military drill between America and Seoul was in small scale in comparison to their annual Key Resolve and Foal Eagle joint military drills. Both sides in March decided to cancel this large scale exercise as part of steps to support the diplomatic efforts to achieve the complete denuclearization of the peninsula.
Criticizing this decision of South Korea as a violation of the Panmunjom Declaration and the subsequent joint declaration in Pyongyang, where the both the divided Koreas committed to work towards demilitarization, ending of hostilities and eventual reunification. “In March also, the south Korean authorities held a joint military drill under the codename of Alliance.”
The negotiations between North Korea and the US have met with another stalemate.
Fresh sanctions were imposed on Pyongyang in March by America.
The US accuses North Korea of not abiding to the negotiations on Pyongyang’s denuclearization program which would lead to the uplifting of all sanctions being imposed on the country while Pyongyang says that it is willing to give up the nuclear weapons but based on strong security and sovereignty guarantees as well as lifting of all sanctions. Both America and Pyongyang accuses each other for the derailment of negotiations.
Russia, since the Soviet Union time, has been an ally to Pyongyang (though the relationship has experienced its ups and downs because of Moscow’s balancing relations with South Korea). Moscow along with China has been supported Pyongyang regime. Moscow at the same time also supports US’ policy of denuclearization in the Korean Peninsula. However, Russia supports dialogue rather than unilateral actions such as sanctions and use of force for negotiations. Last year, Moscow called for a phased lifting of sanctions in exchange for North Korea’s denuclearization.
Meanwhile, the agenda of the meeting was to discuss issues of resolving the situation on the Korean Peninsula and developing the bilateral relations between Russia and North Korea. During a press conference after their meeting, President Putin said that the North Korean leader is interested in denuclearization, but first and foremost wants guarantee of the country’s national interest and ensure Pyongyang’s security. He said that Mr. Kim understands that this is achievable only if the partners of North Korea – primarily the US – are ready to engage in constructive dialogue.
Putin also urged South Korea to be more independent of the US in its dealings with North Korea. Russia somewhere thinks that in the last few months the situation around the peninsula has stabilized somewhat because of Pyongyang’s efforts, including by engaging in talks with US and South Korea and reaching out to Russia and China, and initiatives of stopping rocket testing and closing its nuclear test site. Hence, it becomes important for America and Seoul to carefully and sensitively handle the situation. It is because North Korea believes that the impasse in the peninsula is because of America and Seoul’s actions and policies.
In fact, after his meeting with President Putin, Mr. Kim said that the situation in the peninsula has come to a standstill after the positive developments since 2018 because of US’ policies. He said that peace and security on the peninsula will ‘entirely depend’ upon the US’s future attitude. He also said that North Korea will till then guard itself from any event that might put the country’s security at stake.
The two leaders did not sign any documents or agreements after their meetings. The Kremlin described the talks between the two leaders as constructive. US President Donald Trump also praised President Putin’s efforts.
For Moscow, this meeting was important as it helps to build its image as a pragmatic power who understands the geopolitics involved in this kind of conflicts. It also helps in protecting Moscow’s national interests in the region as Pyongyang’s closeness to America threatens Russia’s stakes, including the repossession of the Noktundo Island and the installation of the US missile defence system named THAAD.
Pyongyang on the other hand might have wanted to take advantage of the tensed relationship between Russia and the US by trying to have concessions from Moscow, especially in the economic sector (though nothing was made public on this aspect after the meeting). Cooperation with Russia also helps Pyongyang to lessen its dependence on China.
Overall, the meeting for Russia and North Korea was successful as both the countries have sent respective signals to the international community especially to the US and China.
Pyongyang, despite the unsuccessful attempts to relieve the sanctions, has been able to manage to court Russia who in recent times has been able to reassert its power as well as stand against US unilateral actions.
*Dr. Indrani Talukdar is a Research Fellow at Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: The views are of that author’s and not the Council’s.