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Kim and Putin: Challenging the US role in denuclearisation

The Kremlin tried hard to present Kim Jong Un‘s first ever visit to Russia as an historic event aimed at proving how important Moscow is in the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula – especially after the failure of US-North Korean talks in Hanoi two months ago.

Kremlin-controlled media described in great detail how Kim’s armoured train arrived in the Pacific port of Vladivostok on Wednesday, how Russian officials welcomed him with traditional round bread and salt, what theatres, museums and landmarks the North Korean leader will visit during his three-day trip.

“We are very much willing to take the Korean-Russian ties to a new, higher level,” Kim said during a reception after talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin that lasted for more than three hours on Thursday.

“Everyone is happy with the outcome of the talks,” Putin added – and toasted to “strengthening the friendship and cooperation” between Moscow and Pyongyang.

‘Mutual interests’

Kim highlighted the importance of the relationship and said ties have strengthened, while both nations had overcome “every hardship thrown to them by history”.

“The people of the two countries … understand [that the] North Korea-Russia tie not only serves our mutual interests but is also indispensable for securing the region’s peace and stability,” Kim said. 

But the summit’s presumed importance seemed to fizzle out as it did not produce a deal of any significance for the Korean settlement, and no accords were signed after the talks.

Experts say, however, that the true purpose of Kim’s visit to Russia was a chance to leave himself some wiggle room when talks with the US resume – and to use Russia as the bogeyman if US President Donald Trump goes too far with his threats.

“This is the breakthrough the [North] Korean side needed to tell the US: ‘Look, we have normal ties with Moscow, if something happens, we will run to them for protection, stop waving your fists,'” Dmitry Zhuravlev, director general of the Institute of Regional Issues, a Moscow think-tank, told Al Jazeera.

China is North Korea’s main international backer, but Russia has plenty of leverage and interest in propping up Kim’s dynasty. If it weren’t for the Soviet Union, North Korea would not exist – Communist Moscow supplied its tiny vassal with foodstuffs, fuel and diplomatic protection for decades.

Moscow still has veto power in the United Nations Security Council, and it wants to play a role in anything related to North Korea. The nations share a border, and Russia serves as a workplace for at least 10,000 North Korean labour migrants, an important source of hard currency for Pyongyang.

Russia does not want a nuclear disaster next door, but its interest in the disarmament of North Korea is limited; the fall of the Kim dynasty would likely mean that a unified Korea becomes a US ally, and American military bases could appear next to Russia’s Pacific provinces.

As a result of Thursday’s summit, Putin and Kim “reached an agreement that Russia will definitely be one of the international guarantors of any accord between North Korea and the United States,” Andrey Fyodorov, Russia’s former deputy foreign minister and an expert on North Korea, told Al Jazeera.

Russia will also help shape a list of conditions for North Korea’s disarmament.

US demands don’t ‘suit Kim’ 

In February, Kim’s talks with US President Donald Trump collapsed because they could not reach an agreement on White House’s demands for Pyongyang to denuclearize and for Washington to drop sanctions.

US demands “don’t suit Kim fully, they are too broad, they involve all walks of life, such as a ban on space research, chemical research and what not,” Fyodorov said.

“That is why the main task of Russia, the US and China is to come up with a real formulation of denuclearisation.”

Putin said he would discuss a possible disarmament deal in China, where he is flying later on Thursday.

“I will, of course, talk tomorrow in Beijing with the leaders of China, but we will openly and frankly discuss today’s meeting with the US leaders,” Putin told journalists after the summit.

Moscow’s role in talks over North Korea’s nuclear programme is one of the few remaining points of contact with Washington as Russia’s ties with the West plunged to Cold War-era lows because of the annexation of Crimea and support to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“Without us, without Russia, one can’t untie the Gordian knot of the Korean problems,” Zhuravlev said.

Kim said that he may board his custom-made train to traverse Siberia for talks later this year the way his father, Kim Jong Il, who was born in a Russian village not far from the Chinese border in 1941, visited Russia several times.

“The people of North Korea have always had affectionate and brotherly emotions about the people of Russia and feel pride that a great country like Russia is a close neighbour,” Kim said after the talks.

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