With Trump’s Talks Faltering, Putin Wants In on the North Korea Game

Meeting Kim Jong Un may be the Russian leader’s latest effort to undermine the Americans.

Russian President Vladimir Putin gives a joint press conference with his Turkish counterpart at the Kremlin in Moscow on April 8. (Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images)
Russian President Vladimir Putin gives a joint press conference with his Turkish counterpart at the Kremlin in Moscow on April 8. (Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images)

It’s long been Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ambition to turn his country back into a diplomatic powerhouse on the world stage—and especially to exploit U.S. weakness however he can. With U.S. President Donald Trump stumbling in his North Korea talks, Putin will get his next chance later this month, when he is expected to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un for the first time.

The meeting between the Russian and North Korean leaders presents a new and complicating development for Trump’s high-stakes diplomacy with Kim following a breakdown of talks between the two leaders at a summit in February.

The Kremlin on Thursday announced Putin and Kim would meet in “the second half of April.” The details aren’t confirmed, but the meeting is reportedly expected to take place in the far eastern city of Vladivostok, near the Russian-North Korean border, ahead of Putin’s visit to China on April 26 and 27.

For Kim, the meeting is a low-cost opportunity to probe for cracks in international unity around North Korean denuclearization and to thumb his nose at Washington after stalled talks and an impasse on sanctions relief. For Putin, it presents another way to showcase Russia’s diplomatic relevance on in U.S. foreign-policy priorities, after pushing his way into Afghanistan peace talks and the Syrian conflict.

“Russia doesn’t want to be sidelined in any North Korean negotiations—it wants to be a player,” said Jung Pak, a scholar on North Korea at the Brookings Institution and former senior CIA analyst.

North Korea has ratcheted up pressure on the Trump administration in recent days through low-level provocations following talks between Trump and Kim breaking down during their last summit in Vietnam in February.

Russia plays a secondary role to China in helping prop up Kim’s regime through limited shipments of food aid and hosting thousands of North Korean laborers, who in turn send funds back to the cash-strapped government in Pyongyang.

Pak doesn’t expect a Putin-Kim meeting to lead to any major shifts in ongoing nuclear negotiations. “Russia is not a driver of what happens in Northeast Asia. The Russians generally follow the Chinese line,” she said. “They’re not going to contradict each other, they’re not going to go out of their way to do something dramatic.”

Russia played a key role in the six-party talks in 2003—another major diplomatic push to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear program in joint talks between North Korea and the United States, China, South Korea, Japan, and Russia. Those efforts ultimately fell flat.

Kim’s father and predecessor, Kim Jong Il, met then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Siberia in 2011 in the last summit between a North Korean and Russian leader. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met Kim last May in Pyongyang ahead of Trump and Kim’s first summit. Since then, lower-level Russian and North Korean officials have visited each other as part of an uptick in diplomatic engagement between the two countries.

North Korea said on Thursday that it tested a new tactical weapon, in an announcement some experts believe was meant to signal growing impatience with Washington.

While top North Korean officials have been careful to avoid criticizing Trump himself, they haven’t been so shy about the officials surrounding him. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is the latest target. North Korean Foreign Ministry official Kwon Jong Gun on Thursday rebuked Pompeo for making “reckless remarks” on negotiations and said North Korea wanted a counterpart “who is more careful and mature in communicating with us.”

Pompeo dismissed the criticisms in a joint press conference in Washington on Friday with acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan and their Japanese counterparts. “Nothing changed, we’re continuing to work. I’m still in charge of the team,” he said.

Pompeo added that the heavy U.S. sanctions regime on North Korea wouldn’t budge during the negotiations. “We will continue to enforce all sanctions against North Korea and encourage every country to do so,” he said.

Ahead of the meeting between Putin and Kim, the State Department’s top North Korea envoy, Stephen Biegun, traveled to Moscow on Wednesday and Thursday to discuss denuclearization efforts.

Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, also said that Trump’s top National Security Council aide on Russia, Fiona Hill, visited Russia to meet with her counterpart. The NSC did not respond to request for comment on additional details on the meeting.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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