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Could potential Putin-Kim summit be a game changer?
THE Kremlin confirmed on Monday that preparations are underway for a historic first summit between Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un. With the meeting potentially as soon as next week, the key question is whether Russia can help unlock the stalled nuclear talks between Washington and Pyongyang.
Following the collapse of the Trump-Kim summit in Vietnam in February, this looks like a big ask. In Hanoi, there were clear and significant differences between the two sides over the scope and pace of denuclearisation and sanctions rollback, with growing uncertainty now whether the talks process will collapse altogether or continue.
And it is into this potential negotiating "black hole" that Mr Putin is now venturing.
To be sure, there are historical precedents for such high-profile negotiations to fall down, and then recover, including the US-Soviet negotiations between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1986 and 1987. However, it appears the gaps between US President Donald Trump and Mr Kim remain substantial, and the North Koreans have asserted post-Vietnam that they will not change their position, and also disputed Mr Trump's account that the reason the talks collapsed was that Pyongyang asked for full sanctions rollback.
One of the key reasons Mr Putin may find it hard to move Pyongyang far or fast on its position is that, to date at least, it is Mr Kim - rather than Mr Trump - who has emerged as the bigger winner from the engagement process. So far, the young leader has made few concrete concessions to the United States with Mr Trump touting pre-Vietnam that the evidence of his diplomatic success with Pyongyang was the recent absence of missile and nuclear testing, rather than denuclearisation.
At the same time, the US president has already given a significant amount away, such as calling off joint military exercises between US and South Korean forces, exchanging effusive letters of praise with Mr Kim, holding out the prospect of an easing of sanctions on Pyongyang if it does "something meaningful" on denuclearisation, said he is in no rush to conclude the negotiation process, and has already said that he hopes to meet again with the North Korean leader after Vietnam.
This underlines how much Mr Kim has already received from Mr Trump in exchange for the ambiguous pledges in the Singapore agreement. And this in a context too where there is reported evidence that North Korea is continuing uranium enrichment and has stepped up missile production.
On a personal level, for instance, the previously isolated young leader has assumed significantly higher political importance on the international stage, from erstwhile allies and previous foes alike. This was highlighted in Mr Kim's multi-day tour of Vietnam, his fourth foreign trip destination in less than 12 months after not leaving his nation's borders for more than six years after assuming power.
In this context, a key question is why Mr Putin wants to get involved and thinks he can make a difference. The simple answer is that he recognises the flux in the Korean geopolitical chessboard and the significant new political and economic opportunities possibly opening up.
While China has played a key role in facilitating this process, Russia also perceives itself to have major interests in the peninsula. It and several other major powers with a stake in the future of the area, including Japan, have therefore all been jockeying for position as the region's military and strategic landscapes are potentially recast around the world's last Cold War-era frontier.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met Mr Kim last year in Pyongyang, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in also met with Mr Putin last June in Moscow. The latter was the first state visit by a sitting South Korean president to Russia since 1999.
Mr Putin's session with Mr Moon underlines Russia's interests in the historic change that could now be in the air on the Korean peninsula. For instance, Mr Moon is promoting a "New Northern Policy" which, alongside peace talks with Mr Kim, is a key foreign relations policy driver under which his administration is seeking to improve ties with key Eurasian neighbours, including Moscow.
As part of these discussions to strengthen bilateral cooperation, the two leaders explored potential options that may come from the decision by Mr Kim and Mr Moon to link roads and railways along the western and eastern corridors of the Korean peninsula. In coming years, these transport networks would be extended to China and Russia, opening up new opportunities into these important political and economic frontiers.
It is in this context that Mr Putin will endeavour to coax Mr Kim back to the negotiating table, albeit on terms that favour Moscow's interests as much as possible. Russia, like its ally China, knows that the security problems on the Korean peninsula have no easy resolution, and both grappled in 2017 with how best to respond to not just the regular missile launches by Pyongyang, and also its nuclear tests.
Previously, both Moscow and Beijing had been very concerned that the tensions on the peninsula could spiral out of control with the ever-mercurial Mr Trump, and had indicated support for a UN Security Council initiative. That UN measure would have required the United States and South Korea to halt military drills, as Mr Trump has now committed to post-Singapore summit, and also the deployment of the controversial Terminal High Altitude Area Defence missile system (THAAD).
Both Russia and China vehemently oppose THAAD which they fear could be used for US espionage on their activities, as much as for targeting North Korean missiles. Former Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov has asserted for instance that THAAD is a "destabilising factor…in line with the vicious logic of creating a global missile shield" and undermining "the existing military balance in the region".
Taken overall, the potential Putin-Kim summit and the wider grand diplomacy on the peninsula involving Moscow, Washington, Beijing and Tokyo underline that the geopolitical tectonic plates are still moving around, despite the Vietnam summit's collapse. With historic change potentially in the air, Mr Putin is keen to steer this in a pro-Russia direction, and avoid the significant downside risks that might happen if the North-South dialogue ultimately proves a mirage, and the warming of relationships underway could yet go into reverse.
- The writer is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics