MOSCOW — Kim Jong Un arrived in Russia on Wednesday ahead of the North Korean leader’s first talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, a meeting designed by both sides to send Washington the message that there are other players when it comes to dealing with North Korea’s nuclear program.
In the morning in Russia’s Far East, Kim’s armored train pulled up to the border town of Khasan, where he was greeted by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov, before being given a traditional ceremonial welcome by a group of women offering him a round loaf of bread and salt.
“I’ve heard so many good things about your country and have long dreamed of visiting,” said Kim, according to the press office of the Primorsky region.
His train later pulled into the Russian port city of Vladivostok, where he will meet Putin at 1 p.m. on Thursday — two months after his second summit with President Trump collapsed in Hanoi.
The Kremlin has said no major agreements will be signed nor joint statements issued during Kim’s meeting with Putin, which is expected to take place behind closed doors.
This has not stopped pomp and ceremony from surrounding Kim’s inaugural visit to Russia. In Vladivostok, a military orchestra played when his train pulled into the station. Members of Kim’s entourage ran to meet the incoming train, where men in white gloves sprung into action, polishing the windows and door of the leader’s wagon. Kim exited, hoisted a black trilby hat and smiled, before stepping down onto a carefully placed red carpet.
“I hope this visit will allow me to concretely discuss the questions surrounding stabilizing the situation on the Korean Peninsula,” Kim told Russian state television from the platform, before setting off in his motorcade of black limousines.
The North Korean leader is also expected to tour the headquarters of Russia’s Pacific Fleet, visit the city’s aquarium and sample Russian soups and caviar, as well as swing by a bread factory, state media reported.
Kim is eager to save face after the breakdown in talks with Trump on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
For Putin, the summit will offer him another chance to intervene in high-stakes nuclear talks and flex Russia’s muscles on the global stage, where Moscow is increasing its diplomatic clout.
After the failed talks with Trump in February, North Korea took aim at the United States, demanding that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo be replaced in any negotiations with Pyongyang with someone more “mature.”
On Wednesday, there were reports that Kim’s top envoy, Kim Yong Chol, who had been instrumental in talks with the United States and in handling ties with Seoul, had been removed from his post, Reuters reported, citing South Korean media. No reason was given for his dismissal.
In the wake of the failed U.S. talks, Kim reached out to Moscow, sending tremors of worry through Washington. Russia has not ruled out changing its previous position and asking that economic sanctions on North Korea be lifted. “These top-level contacts give added impetus to the development of bilateral relations in various spheres, including military cooperation,” Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told a Moscow security conference on Wednesday.
“I hope Putin makes clear that Russia is ready to support a deal, but first you need a deal,” said Alexander Vershbow, a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center on Strategy and Security in Washington.
Wary of a possible Russian turnaround, the State Department sent its envoy for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, to Moscow last week to push for the country’s full denuclearization.
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 revenue for the North, according to officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive diplomatic issue.
Like Beijing, Moscow does not want to create regime change in Pyongyang, which could potentially wreak havoc in the area, inviting more U.S. influence.
But there is also some illicit business, primarily transfers of Russian oil, and Cold War-era ties between Moscow and Pyongyang that the government in Russia may not be willing to relinquish. Last year, Russia secretly offered North Korea a nuclear power plant in exchange for dismantling its nuclear arsenal.
Simon Denyer in Seoul and John Hudson in Washington contributed to this report.