MOSCOW — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un left Pyongyang on Tuesday for Russia’s Far East for his first summit with Vladimir Putin, as the Trump administration watches from the sidelines for any potential cracks in sanctions and other pressures on Kim’s regime.
The meeting in Vladivostok — two months after the collapse of talks between Kim and President Trump in Hanoi — offers both Kim and Putin a chance to send messages to Washington.
For Kim, closer ties with Moscow could give the North another card to play in its negotiations with the United States over its nuclear program.
Putin, meanwhile, is likely to use the meeting to further project Russia’s influence in Asian affairs and signal that the Kremlin should have a hand in any grand bargains struck with Kim.
Kremlin aide Yuri Ushakov told Russia’s Interfax news agency that the summit will have a “narrow format” and no that formal agreements or joint statements are planned.
“The talks will definitely be centered on a political-diplomatic resolution of the nuclear problem on the Korean Peninsula,” Ushakov was quoted as saying.
But Alexei Chepa, the deputy head of Russian parliament’s foreign affairs committee, used the upcoming summit to call for a lifting of sanctions of economic sanctions against North Korea.
“The position assumed by the United States of America is not constructive, and we see that,” he told Interfax.
Putin is unlikely to break with the U.N. Security Council over sanctions against North Korea. But Kim also rejects the U.S. position that sanctions cannot be lifted until the North fully dismantles its nuclear program.
U.S. officials remain wary of Putin’s ability to play spoiler in the negotiations. This was a factor in the State Department’s decision to dispatch its point man for the negotiations, Steve Biegun, to Moscow last week ahead of the Kim-Putin summit.
Biegun raised specific instances in which the United States believes Russia violated U.N. sanctions against North Korea, according to diplomats familiar with the discussions.
Biegun urged Moscow to maintain sanctions against the isolated country to fulfill a shared goal of advancing the denuclearization discussion. In response, Russian officials said they would expel North Korean laborers in December when their residence permits expire, potentially limiting a key source of cash for the North, people familiar with the discussions said.
Before Biegun’s visit, Russia proposed a “joint action plan” to address North Korea’s nuclear program, but the United States has not supported it, fearing that it could become a mechanism for Russia to push for the lifting of sanctions against North Korea.
In a journey receiving much attention in the Russian press, the North Korean leader traveled by armored train to Vladivostok, a journey of 435 miles from Pyongyang. His train is expected to pull into Vladivostok on Wednesday morning, a day before Putin arrives.
In Vladivostok, a main thoroughfare has been decorated with flags from the two countries. Major roads were closed in anticipation for Kim’s arrival, and a concert stage was being prepared at a university where the summit is expected to take place.
“It’s not that Kim is some great friend with Russia. It’s part of his plan to continue work on diplomacy with everybody else, to put pressure on Washington,” said Sue Mi Terry, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
At the height of tensions in 2017, Moscow voted alongside Beijing for relatively tight sanctions, although some illicit trade between Russia and North Korea has invited criticism from the United States.
Kim is traveling at a leisurely pace on his famously slow train, with an expected visit at the border town of Khasan, to see a Russian-Korean House of Friendship that was constructed in the mid-1980s.
His trip is an ode to his father and grandfather, both former leaders of North Korea, who also traveled to Khasan by train during their rare foreign trips.
“The biggest gain Chairman Kim can get from a summit with President Putin is essentially the rehabilitation, the elevation of his image and stature. Because at the end of the day this is a meeting at the summit level with a world leader,” said John Park, director of the Korea Project at the Harvard Kennedy School.
By contrast, Putin will jet into Vladivostok on his way to a summit in a far more important eastern neighbor, China.
Denyer reported from Seoul. John Hudson in Washington contributed to this report.