North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s impending visit to Russia reflects the fast-changing dynamics of geopolitics in the region. A cause for concern is that South Korea seems to have been sidelined in the brisk diplomatic maneuvers, related in part to the goal of denuclearizing North Korea.
News reports said Kim will visit the Russian Far Eastern city of Vladivostok soon for his first summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. It is the first visit to Russia by a North Korean leader since the late Kim Jong-il visited Siberia for talks with then-President Dmitry Medvedev in 2011.
There may be some positive aspects of Kim’s Russian trip. In an address to the recent session of the Supreme People’s Assembly, the North’s rubber-stamp parliament, Kim said his country would diversify its top-level diplomacy efforts in order to strengthen friendships and cooperation with countries that respect its sovereignty.
It is good for Kim, who hitherto has met only the leaders of South Korea, the US and China, to engage more foreign leaders, as this could help bring the North Korean leader further out of international isolation.
But Kim is not merely seeking to improve his image. It is apparent that he seeks closer relations with Russia as leverage in the North’s denuclearization tug-of-war with the US. China, North Korea’s top patron, may also be wary of closer ties between Pyongyang and Moscow.
For now, Russia is the North’s second-most-important ally. Though on a much smaller scale than China, Russia has been a key source of energy and food for the North. Russia also provides foreign currency to the North by hiring North Korean workers. All these cross-border economic exchanges are constrained in line with the international sanctions against the North due to its nuclear and missile provocations.
Like China, Russia is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and already sides with the North on the lifting of sanctions. Kim’s meeting with Putin will certainly reinforce the North’s position.
For its part, Russia seeks closer ties with North Korea in order to increase its influence on North Korea and play it as a card vis-a-vis the US, and China as well. So both Kim and Putin are set to gain a lot from their meeting in Vladivostok.
The North Korea-Russia summit comes shortly before Putin meets Chinese President Xi Jinping, another sign of a change in geopolitics. In fact, Putin is traveling to Vladivostok on his way to China for a conference on Xi’s pet project, “One Belt, One Road.” Putin’s embrace of a project that some countries suspect is the brainchild of Xi’s imperialistic expansionism speaks volumes about the future direction of Russia-China relations.
Indeed, the series of diplomatic engagements involving Kim, Putin and Xi suggests the possibility of a new three-way alliance being formed against the US, and more broadly against the alliance of the US, South Korea and Japan.
As things stand, there is no problem between the US and Japan. In fact, the two countries and their leaders are on much better terms than at any time in the past.
Japan is also keen on improving ties with China. One symbolic event was China’s decision to welcome a Japanese military ship to a ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the Chinese navy Tuesday, even though the ship was flying Japan’s wartime flag. This stands in contrast with the recent row between Japan and South Korea, which aborted Japan’s participation in a naval review ceremony here due to a dispute over the “Rising Sun” flag.
While South Korea-Japan ties are at rock bottom, mostly due to historical issues, there are more worrisome problems between South Korea and the US regarding how to find a breakthrough in the deadlocked denuclearization process.
On the surface, Trump and Moon are not criticizing each other despite their differences -- Trump wants a “big deal” in which the North gives up all weapons of mass destruction in return for the lifting of sanctions, while Moon tends to support Kim’s vision of “phased” denuclearization. But concerns about their differences are growing within the US administration, Congress and expert groups. Moon is also facing criticism at home.
In addition, since the second summit between Trump and Kim fell through in Hanoi, the North has toughened its antagonistic rhetoric even against the Moon government.
All these developments indicate that Moon’s current policy may not work. The scene of Kim shaking hands with Putin in the Russian Far East should remind Moon of the urgent need to explore a better, more effective approach.