North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s overseas activity following his unproductive summit with the US in Hanoi is set to kick off with a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin next week. The Kremlin officially announced on Apr. 18 that Kim will be visiting Russia in the second half of April at Putin’s invitation.
Given predictions in the diplomatic community that Chinese President Xi Jinping will be paying a visit to both South and North Korea in May or June, the North Korea-Russia summit is likely to trigger a flurry of “summit diplomacy” around the Korean Peninsula.
The choice of Russia for Kim’s much-pondered next move, following the second North Korea-US summit, stands in contrast with actions that appeared to underscore his chummy relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping around the first North Korea-US summit.
Experts on North Korea had originally predicted that Xi would visit North Korea in April, prior to Kim’s visit to Russia. Those predictions were based on the fact that it was Xi’s turn to visit the North, given Kim’s previous four trips to China, and that it would be an ideal opportunity for Xi to shore up Kim’s political position and ensure that he doesn’t drift from the denuclearization talks after failing to reach a deal in Hanoi.
But those predictions missed the mark. China has kept its distance, despite the hiccups in the North Korea-US talks. That appears to explain why Kim has chosen Russia. A source in the South Korean government explained that North Korea’s relations with China are currently chilly.
Another reason why North Korea and Russia have organized a summit is that their mutual interests happen to coincide. “From North Korea’s point of view, Russia is the country that’s most receptive to the idea of lifting sanctions [on the North]. Given the ambiguity of the Chinese position, North Korea may appear to be cozying up with Russia,” said Koo Kab-woo, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies.
“This is an attempt by Kim Jong-un to build a front to put diplomatic pressure on the US while expanding that front in line with his plans,” said a former high-ranking government official. In other words, Kim’s visit to Russia is designed to counter, or at least pressure, the US, which demands a sweeping deal; South Korea, which is hobbled by sanctions; and China, which isn’t offering much help.
“Kim Jong-un has nothing to lose, and Russia might step forward with a promise to help ease sanctions on the North,” a government official said.
Now that Kim’s trip to Russia has been confirmed, focus in the diplomatic community is shifting toward the possibility of Xi heading to North Korea in May or June.
“I think that a South Korea-China summit will be held following the North Korea-Russia summit in April, an inter-Korean summit in May and a North Korea-China summit in June. This series of summits between the countries on and around the Korean Peninsula will continue until the G20 summit in Osaka at the end of June, serving as a watershed for creating the conditions for denuclearization and a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies.
Another diplomatic source quoted a Chinese official as predicting that Xi will visit the North in May.
The Wall Street Journal and other US newspapers have suggested that the US and China could conclude their trade negotiations in early June, and Xi would probably be able to visit North Korea in May or June, following the conclusion of the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing on Apr. 26-27. But others see Xi’s schedule as being fluid because of the lack of a suitable gift to offer the North on his visit.