At a Mostly Symbolic Summit, Putin and Kim Play the Long Game

At a Mostly Symbolic Summit, Putin and Kim Play the Long Game
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un after their talks in Vladivostok, Russia, April 25, 2019 (Photo by Alexei Nikolsky for Sputnik via AP Images).

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made his first trip to Russia this week for a long-anticipated summit with President Vladimir Putin. Kim traveled by train to the far eastern port city of Vladivostok, about 75 miles from the North Korean border, where he and Putin met Thursday and discussed the North Korean nuclear issue, as well as bilateral economic engagement.

It was the first meeting between the two leaders since Kim rose to power in 2011, although Putin is acquainted with the Kim family dynasty. He previously met with the young dictator’s father, Kim Jong Il, three times in the early 2000s—once in Pyongyang and twice in Russia. A warm mood prevailed in Vladivostok, as Putin held a banquet in Kim’s honor and affectionately referred to him as “comrade chairman.” Kim repeatedly thanked Putin for “flying here from faraway Moscow,” even though the location was a convenient stopover en route to Beijing, where Putin is attending a summit for China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

As expected, the meeting in Vladivostok did not yield any new agreements, major initiatives or even a joint statement. Though largely a symbolic event, it still had its purposes. It was Kim’s first meeting with a foreign leader after his second round of talks with U.S. President Donald Trump, in Hanoi in February, broke down in acrimony. Negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea have been at a stalemate since then, making this an opportune time for Kim to take up Putin’s invitation for a visit, which had been on the table since last May. Kim was able to show, for both domestic and foreign audiences, that he has powerful friends in the region who share the view that harsh economic sanctions on North Korea should be eased.

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