Kim-Putin summit to focus on aid, economic ties, denuclearisation and rebuilding Kim’s image

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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un waving to well-wishers at an undisclosed location in North Korea before travelling to Russia by train. PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL - In their first ever summit on Thursday (May 25), North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Russian President Vladimir Putin are expected to discuss issues including bilateral ties, economic cooperation, humanitarian aid and denuclearisation, as Mr Kim seeks closer ties with Moscow amid the nuclear deadlock with the United States.

Mr Kim arrived in the far eastern city of Vladivostok on board his private armoured train on Wednesday afternoon, after a stopover in the border town of Khasan.

His three-day trip could include visits to Russia's Pacific Fleet headquarters, food factories and an aquarium popular with tourists, according to South Korean reports citing diplomatic sources.

As this marks Mr Kim's first diplomatic activity since the breakdown of his February summit with US President Donald Trump in Hanoi, talk has emerged that North Korea may be adopting a so-called "pendulum diplomacy", swinging between its neighbours Russia and China to gain leverage and maximise its own strategic interests.

There is also speculation that Russia could be the "new path" for the North, in line with Mr Kim's New Year's Day address stating that he could seek alternatives if the US maintained sanctions and pressure on the regime.

But US experts visiting Seoul for the Asan Plenum security forum this week said the Kim-Putin summit is just part of Mr Kim's wider diplomacy calculus, and he would return to dialogue with Washington when the timing is right.

The Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi - the second since they agreed to work towards complete denuclearisation during their first meeting in Singapore last June - broke down over US demands for Pyongyang to offer more than just the dismantlement of its main Yongbyon nuclear facility in return for the lifting of five major sanctions.

Both sides have maintained their positions, while asking the other side to come up with new proposals to resume talks.

Dr Sue Mi Terry of the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies think tank said North Korea is still looking to see if it can strike a smaller deal with the US, while working on its neighbours in the meantime.

"It's not that Kim has some grand plan with Russia, it's just part of his plan to continue to work on diplomacy with everybody else to put pressure on Washington," she said at a press conference on the sidelines of the Asan Plenum, in response to a question posed by The Straits Times.

The North Korean leader may also be aiming to rebuild an image of himself being on a par with other world leaders, noted Dr John Park of the Harvard Kennedy School.

"After the Singapore summit, Chairman Kim's status was elevated dramatically and that created a kind of political energy and momentum in getting summit meetings with other world leaders," said Dr Park.

"But there's something of a credibility deficit after Hanoi, and the first glimpse of how Chairman Kim rebuilds that would be his summit with President Putin."

The speed at which the Kim-Putin summit was prepared also gave a sense of how much priority was placed on the task, added Dr Park.

North Korean officials have visited Russia several times since March, giving a hint of the regime's urgency to plan the summit.

The last summit between the two countries was in 2002, when Mr Putin met Mr Kim's father and predecessor Kim Jong Il.

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Tightened sanctions have crippled North Korea's economy and caused food prices to surge. Pyongyang reportedly asked Moscow to donate 100,000 tonnes of flour.

Observers said food aid and the fate of around 10,000 North Korean workers who may have to leave Russia due to sanctions banning new work visas may also be broached during the Kim-Putin summit.

There is also speculation that the two leaders will discuss economic cooperation that can include a railway project and a gas pipeline that could involve South Korea.

Mr Alexander Vershbow, a former US ambassador to Russia and South Korea, said Mr Kim may be hoping to secure Russia's support on sanctions relief while exerting pressure on the Trump administration, and "show that North Korea has other friends and allies".

"We'll see what Putin has to say, but Russia has been a very strong supporter of sanctions and so far not broken ranks with the US on the issue of sanctions. So I'm not sure if Kim Jong Un will get all that he's dreaming of," added Mr Vershbow, who is now a fellow with Atlantic Council.

"I hope Putin makes it clear that Russia is willing to support a deal if there's a deal. But first we need a deal - you can't put the cart before the horse. Kim Jong Un must get serious about denuclearisation before they can talk about railway links or gas pipelines that Russia may be able to support."

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