With relations between the United States and North Korea still in disarray after an abrupt ending to their recent summit in Hanoi, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is reaching out to another partner: Russia. On April 25, Kim will hold his first summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. But one key figure who won't be accompanying the North Korean leader to the meeting in Vladivostok is Kim Yong Chol, the country's longtime lead nuclear negotiator with the United States, amid rumors that he lost his post heading the United Front Department, a major party institution. Ultimately, Kim Yong Chol's absence suggests that Pyongyang could be changing up its negotiating team.
In its 2019 Second-Quarter Forecast, Stratfor emphasized that the recent breakdown in talks between the United States and North Korea would spur Pyongyang to reach out to third parties, even as it worked to secure concessions from Washington. As a longtime North Korean partner, Russia is one such potential lifeline.
The Putin-Kim summit is finally going ahead after a series of delays, during which time North Korea's leader conducted high-profile regional trips to South Korea and elsewhere. Thanks to its decadeslong ties with North Korea, Russia has become both an economic and diplomatic lifeline for the oft-embattled regime, even if China long ago supplanted it as North Korea's major ally. While sanctions against North Korea, as well as Russia's economic malaise, will limit what Moscow can tangibly provide to Pyongyang, the Vladivostok summit will highlight the host's role as a potential counterbalance to both China and the United States and a possible facilitator in the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
Important Issues to Track
Sanctions: Because neither the United States nor the United Nations (as a result of Washington's veto on the Security Council) is likely to lift sanctions against North Korea anytime soon, Pyongyang is focusing its efforts on enlisting international backing to erode the severity of the measures. Russia, for one, could use its position as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council to rally support for the North Korean cause.
An Economic Lifeline? As long as the sanctions remain in place, North Korea will strive to weather the economic countermeasures as a means of maintaining negotiating leverage with the United States. But given that China is involved in delicate trade talks with the United States, Russia might be more willing to provide a helping hand, especially as Moscow's standoff with the West might make it likelier to assist a U.S. foe. The problem for North Korea, however, is that its trade with Russia — which totaled just $34 million in 2018, representing a 50 percent fall since international sanctions went into force in 2017 — trails its commerce with China ($2.4 billion) by several orders of magnitude. But Moscow could help Pyongyang maintain stability and earn money by continuing to employ North Korean laborers in Russia, offering an outlet for illicit trade that evades sanctions and providing food aid.
Dialogue: In the lead-up to the Vladivostok summit, the Kremlin has touted the potential for alternatives to the bilateral U.S.-North Korean approach to denuclearization, emphasizing the potential for a breakthrough with a return to long-stalled six-party talks involving North Korea, South Korea, Russia, China, the United States and Japan. For now, Pyongyang is concentrating its efforts on direct talks between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump in the hopes of achieving major progress, but North Korea could force the United States to adopt greater flexibility if it reveals that it has alternative possibilities for dialogue.
In the lead-up to the Vladivostok summit, the Kremlin has touted the potential for alternatives to the bilateral U.S.-North Korean approach to denuclearization.
An alternative to China: At present, North Korea's overriding priority is to safeguard its nuclear program, but it ultimately wishes to open up its economy, normalize its role on the world stage and guarantee its independence against major powers like China as well. This, accordingly, means it must wean itself off such overwhelming reliance on China and deepen its links with South Korea — two issues that Moscow can assist on. Russia could provide infrastructure investment for the North, as well as energy that could transit the communist country on the way to the South. Nevertheless, most deals such as that would need to wait until the international community removes some of its sanctions on North Korea.
Questions have swirled over the sustainability of U.S.-North Korean dialogue since Kim and Trump's Hanoi summit ended suddenly in February. Since then, both countries have emphasized their hopes for continued dialogue yet also sounded bellicose warnings at the other side. It remains unclear whether the United States will budge from its all-or-nothing demands that North Korea denuclearize and offer step-by-step sanctions relief. During Supreme People's Assembly and Politburo meetings in North Korea earlier this month, Kim set a year-end deadline for the United States to adopt greater flexibility in its negotiations. Shortly thereafter, North Korean Foreign Ministry officials also called on Washington to replace Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as the lead U.S. nuclear negotiator. For the moment, the United States remains North Korea's foremost interlocutor, but Kim's trip to Russia has shown that Pyongyang isn't bereft of options for dialogue.