Russia's Putin meets North Korea's Kim: Sideshow or power move in nuclear crisis?

In the wake of stalled nuclear talks with the US, Kim is seeking diplomatic assistance from the Kremlin. Russia wants stability on its far-eastern border — but President Putin may have a bigger picture in mind.

Even the driveway leading out of Vladivostok train station in Russia's Far East was prepared for Kim Jong Un's arrival. According to Russian media reports, city authorities made the driveway leading out of the train station less steep so North Korean leader's limousine could get out without getting stuck.

Kim's special armored train had to travel 684 kilometers (425 miles) from Pyongyang to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin on Russky Island, which is joined to the mainland by a bridge just near Vladivostok. Presidential aide Yuri Ushakov confirmed that apart from Russian-North Korean bilateral relations, the main focus of the talks Thursday will be on denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. "Russia intends to help consolidate positive trends in every way," he said of the crisis.

Read more: Kim Jong Un arrives in Russia for Putin summit

The meeting is Kim's first with Putin since he took office in 2011. And that is not for lack of trying on the Russian side. Since Kim began a flurry of diplomatic activity last year, Russia has invited him several times.

Kim Jong Un arrived in the Russian border town of Hasan earlier on Wednesday

According to Konstantin Asmolov from the Center for Korean Reasearch at the Russian Academy of Sciences, "for Russia, its not so much denuclearization itself that is important, it's stability on the Korean Peninsula." He added that keeping dialogue going is important for Russia: "We don't need an additional conflict on our borders."

Read more: North Korea rebuilding rocket test site

Tensions across the Pacific

The meeting comes as dialogue between the United States and North Korea has stalled. At a second summit between Trump and Kim in Hanoi in February, North Korean officials ended up walking out. The US claimed that North Korea had demanded all sanctions imposed over its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs be lifted completely, a charge North Korea disputed. 

Earlier this month, Pyongyang announced it had tested a new "tactical guided weapon" in what appeared to be a show of strength. Officials have also demanded that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo be removed from denuclearization talks, accusing him of "talking nonsense" and being "reckless."

Read more: North Korea test-fires new 'guided weapon'

ICBM threat and North Korea's overall military strength

Major achievement

In early June 2017, North Korea test-launched an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) for the first time. Testing an ICBM marked a major military achievement for Pyongyang and a serious escalation of tensions with the United States and its allies in the region, particularly South Korea and Japan.

ICBM threat and North Korea's overall military strength

Trouble with warheads

At the time, defense experts said the ICBM could reach as far as the US states of Alaska and Hawaii. However, it was unclear if North Korea can field an ICBM capable of carrying a nuclear warhead on its cone that could survive reentry into the Earth's atmosphere. North Korean state media claimed the ICBM was capable of carrying a "large, heavy nuclear warhead" to any part of the United States.

ICBM threat and North Korea's overall military strength

Pyongyang's nuclear tests - six times and counting

The ICBM is believed to be a step forward in the North's nuclear program. Despite pressure from the international community, Pyongyang has made no secret of its nuclear ambitions. Alongside its ritual ballistic missile tests, North Korea has conducted nuclear tests on at least six occasions, including one in September 2017.

ICBM threat and North Korea's overall military strength

US running out of patience?

Responding to the first ICBM test with a show of force, the US and South Korean troops on conducted "deep strike" precision missile drills using Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) and the Republic of Korea's Hyunmoo Missile II. In April, the US sent its Carl Vinson aircraft carrier towards the Korean Peninsula, saying it was taking prudent measures against the North.

ICBM threat and North Korea's overall military strength

Testing the boundaries

Ignoring international condemnation, Pyongyang test-launched another rocket on July 28, 2017, just weeks after its first ICBM test. In both of the tests, North Korea used Hwasong-14 missile, but the second one reached a higher altitude and traveled a larger distance than the first one, according to the state media.

ICBM threat and North Korea's overall military strength

Whole of US within range?

Pyongyang conducted its third test November 29, using a newly developed Hwasong-15 missile. US, Japanese and South Korean officials said it rose to about 4,500 km (2,800 miles) and flew 960 kilometers (600 miles) over about 50 minutes before landing in Japan's exclusive economic zone off the country's coast.

ICBM threat and North Korea's overall military strength

One of the world's largest militaries

Apart from a developing missile and nuclear program, North Korea has a powerful army with 700,000 active troops and another 4.5 million in the reserves. It can call upon almost a quarter of its population to serve in the army at any given time. The North's bloated army is believed to outnumber its southern neighbor's by two-to-one.

ICBM threat and North Korea's overall military strength

Vast capabilities

According to the 2017 Global Firepower Index, the North has, as part of a far-reaching arsenal, 458 fighter aircraft, 5,025 combat tanks, 76 submarines, and 5,200,000 total military personnel. The picture above from 2013 shows leader Kim Jong Un ordering strategic rocket forces to be on standby to strike US and South Korean targets at any time.

ICBM threat and North Korea's overall military strength

Enemies all around

Alongside the United States, Pyongyang views its neighbors South Korea and Japan as its two other main enemies. North Korea has used US military exercises in the region as means of galvanizing its people, claiming that the exercises are dress rehearsals for an impending invasion.

ICBM threat and North Korea's overall military strength

Huge, colorful demonstrations of military might

Every year, hundreds of thousands of soldiers and citizens roll through the streets of the capital Pyongyang to take part in the North's military parades. Preparations for the rallies often begin months in advance, and the parades usually mark important anniversaries linked with the Communist Party or Kim Jong Un's family.

Russia waiting in the wings?

Political analyst Asmolov insisted that Kim Jong Un is merely "diversifying his foreign policy" by meeting with Putin. The summit was not an attempt by Moscow to show it could be a more useful intermediary in denuclearization talks than the US.

But other analysts see the meeting as a power move.

"This is essentially a sideshow in the continuing saga between Pyongyang and Washington," the head of the Carnegie Research Center in Moscow, Dmitry Trenin, wrote on Twitter. Trenin said the summit allows North Korea to show "it has options" when it comes to foreign policy, while Russia will use the summit to "score diplomatic points by demonstrating its relevance."

In any case, Russia is trying to keep all the negotiating parties on side in the process. It seems the meeting between Kim and Putin was discussed in advance with Washington. Last week, Russian officials met with their US counterparts to talk North Korea.

Read more: North Korea's Kim Jong Un open to third Trump summit

Kim was welcomed at the border

Balancing act

Russia also appears to be keeping China in the loop. After all, China is North Korea's biggest trade partner, which gives it huge leverage over the country. Putin will travel to Beijing for China's "Belt and Road Forum" immediately after his meeting with Kim. Kremlin officials did not explicitly mention that North Korea would be on the agenda when Putin meets Chinese President Xi Jinping at the forum.

In 2017, China and Russia wrote up a road map to settle the North Korea crisis. Putin aide Yuri Ushakov was at pains to emphasize the plan's importance again ahead of the Putin-Kim meeting. He pointed out that things are going according to the plan so far: The first phase of the road map, in which North Korea stops its missile tests while the US halts its joint US-South Korean military exercises, had already been carried out, he said. "Now we have to move on to the second part of the road map. And we will encourage that." Phase two of the initiative outlines more complex negotiations.

According to Artyom Lukin, an international relations scholar at the Far Eastern Federal University in Vladivostok, Russia is indeed using the summit to "demonstrate to the world that it's still an important player on the Korean Peninsula." However, Lukin doubts that Putin is willing to get his hands truly dirty and take on an important mediating role in yet another drawn out diplomatic conflict. "I think Putin's hands are full with so many issues already," he said, citing the civil war in Syria and the crisis in Ukraine in particular. "The question is whether he has any resources to spare for North Korea."

Guns, gold and gas: What UN sanctions target North Korea?

Coal and iron

In August 2017, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution banning all coal, iron, iron ore and lead imports from North Korea. Pictured here is China's Liaoning Greenland Energy Coal Co. in Dandong, on the border with North Korea.

Guns, gold and gas: What UN sanctions target North Korea?

Currency

North Korea is prohibited from opening banks abroad, and UN member states are prohibited from operating financial institutions on Pyongyang's behalf. Any dealings that might help North Korea skirt the sanctions are banned, and UN member states must expel and repatriate anyone working on the regime's financial behalf.

Guns, gold and gas: What UN sanctions target North Korea?

Shipping

This North Korean cargo ship found itself boarded for inspection in the Philippines in March 2016 after the United Nations ordered member nations to de-register any vessel owned, operated or crewed on orders from Pyongyang. North Korean ships also cannot fly the flags of other nations to evade sanctions.

Guns, gold and gas: What UN sanctions target North Korea?

Air travel

Air Koryo, North Korea's national carrier, remains exempt from aviation sanctions and still has scheduled flights to China and Russia, as well as several domestic routes. However, the airline cannot fly to the European Union, which has banned it on safety grounds, and the United States prevents citizens from legally conducting business with the carrier.

Guns, gold and gas: What UN sanctions target North Korea?

Fuel

In December 2017, a new raft of UN sanctions targeted fuel imports in North Korea, meaning its residents could have difficulties driving the country in Pyeonghwa sedans (pictured above). The sale and transfer of diesel and kerosene are limited while the import of crude oil is capped at 4 million barrels a year.

Guns, gold and gas: What UN sanctions target North Korea?

Bank accounts, real estate

UN sanctions limit North Korea's diplomats abroad — at the country's Berlin embassy, for example — to only one bank account each. North Korea is also not permitted to own real estate abroad for any purposes other than consular.

Guns, gold and gas: What UN sanctions target North Korea?

Military training

It's a safe bet that North Korea's marching military did not learn its moves abroad: UN sanctions ban foreign security forces from training the country's army, police or paramilitary units. The United Nations does permit medical exchanges, but otherwise allow very little assistance of scientific or technical value.

Guns, gold and gas: What UN sanctions target North Korea?

Statues

Anyone wanting to own a larger-than-life Kim will have to await the end of North Korea's nuclear program. The UN sanctions currently ban the sale of statues by the nation.

Good neighbors, good friends?

Instead, Lukin argues that Putin's main goal with the summit is simply "to meet Kim Jong-un, to size him up, to establish some personal contact," a factor which the analyst said Putin values. After all, Russia and North Korea have a long history. The Soviet Union was North Korea's first ally and the main backer of Kim Jong Un's grandfather, Kim Il Sung.

The visit is being watched in South Korea

Kim's economic interests in Russia will likely help the two countries closen their ties. Trade between them was down significantly in 2018 as a result of UN Security Council sanctions against North Korea. Russia also had to reduce the number of North Korean workers employed on its territory from around 30,000 to around 10,000. The revenues that the workers sent home were a vital source of foreign currency for North Korea. Now, according to Korea expert Asmolov, Kim is actively looking for economic opportunities to buoy up his country's strained economy. Putin and Kim are likely to discuss "what can be done" about economic cooperation in "sectors that haven't been sanctioned yet," Asmolov said.

Another economic factor could also help give Russia an important role in negotiations over denuclearization — or at least allow Russia and North Korea to become closer allies: Russia has always opposed the West's policy of arm-twisting and economic pressure against North Korea. After all, Putin knows what it feels like to be under economic sanctions.