What Russia wants from the Trump-Kim summit

Putin with Kim Jong Un’s father in 2002.
Putin with Kim Jong Un’s father in 2002.
Image: Reuters photo
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As Donald Trump meets with  Kim Jong Un in Vietnam this week, Russian officials will not be in the room. But Russia’s interests are likely to be represented.

The US is consulting Russia ahead of the summit, “asking our advice, our views on this or that scenario,” Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov told Russian state news organizations yesterday (Feb. 25). Lavrov is reportedly recommending that the US offer “security guarantees” to the North Korean leader to encourage him to denuclearize and has even flown to Vietnam this week as well.

The notion that the US president is taking advice from Vladimir Putin’s government on North Korea is alarming, analysts said. Yet it shouldn’t come as a surprise. Trump has previously demonstrated his willingness to believe Putin over his own US intelligence agencies.

Putin’s government advising Trump on a meeting with Kim is “odd and abnormal, to say the least,” said Michael Fuchs, a former Obama administration State Department official who is a senior fellow at American Progress, a Washington policy group.

And Russia has much to gain from influencing the meeting. Moscow is eager to establish itself as a diplomatic heavyweight in East Asia and increase economic ties with border neighbor North Korea.

Putin’s overall goals in the region: ease sanctions against North Korea, burnish his government’s image, and make America look weak. Any situation in which Trump offers economic aid or to ease sanctions to the Kim regime, without securing any concrete steps toward denuclearization, would accomplish these steps, analysts said.

The Kim family’s historic ties with Moscow

Lavrov’s advice to the US on what Kim might actually agree to do is likely to be solid, analysts said.

“The Russians more than any other country have a good read on the North Korean calculus,” said Ken Gause, director of the adversary analytics program at CNA’s Center for Strategic Studies, a security research group. After all, he notes, “they’re the ones who set up the system in the first place.”

The Soviet Union helped to establish the Kim family dictatorship in the 1950s that still rules North Korea and supported Pyongyang’s building out the nuclear capability that grew into its current missile program.

The two nations signed a mutual-defense pact in 1961 and another treaty in 2000 that emphasized boosting trade ties. North Koreans studied nuclear science in Moscow in the 1950s and the Kim dynasty recruited Soviet nuclear specialists in the decades to come.

Kim Il Sung, grandfather of Kim Jong-un, with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev after they signed a mutual-defense pact in 1961.
Kim Il Sung, grandfather of Kim Jong-un, with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev after they signed a mutual-defense pact in 1961.
Image: AP Photo

Protecting North Korea’s wealthy

The security guarantees Lavrov is recommending likely include an American promise to protect Kim’s powerful role as an authoritarian dictator, and the establishment of some sort of aid or sanctions relief that flows through the existing government. This would be designed to protect the ruling elite in North Korea from overthrow or unrest.

For Kim’s dictatorship to approve of any Trump deal, “you have to figure out how the elite makes money,” Gause said. That includes “sanctions relief that allows the elite to prosper.”

Any such arrangement would need to mostly ignore human-rights concerns, or North Korea’s history of hacking US government entities and supplying weapons to what the US considers rogue regimes.

US secretary of state Mike Pompeo has already indicated these issues are not important to US’s current policy on North Korea. Pompeo is “rewriting history to sanitize the North Korean regime,” a Brookings Institution senior fellow Thomas Wright wrote in Politico.

A reduced US presence in South Korea

Last year, Trump surprised US military officials and his own advisors when he suggested the US stop participating in “war games” with South Korea, an idea he reportedly got from Putin.

Russian officials are likely pushing for more of the same this time around. The tens of thousands of US troops in South Korea and the two countries’ joint displays of military might have long irked China and Russia. While the Trump administration has said that drawdown of the US troops is not on the table at this summit, South Korean defense experts remain concerned Trump will signal another weakening of the US-South Korea military partnership.

Energy and trade

North Korea’s border with Russia is just 18 kilometers (11 miles) long, with a single rail bridge. Last year, officials from both countries said they would develop a new crossing that would allow goods to travel directly without being detoured through China, their usual path.

Russia’s timber industry on the Siberian peninsula relies on thousands of North Korean workers, who labor under “slave like” conditions, human-rights activists say. Under international sanctions agreements, Russia has to repatriate them to North Korea by this December. Any extension of that deadline would be good for Russia.

Russia’s oil and gas industries would benefit from any reduction in sanctions too, Fuchs notes. Lifting trading bans with North Korea  would allow Putin to push economic growth in Eastern Russia, the least-developed part of his country.

“Russia sees [North Korea] as a potential long-term card to play,” explained Harry J. Kazianis, director of Korea studies at the Center for the National Interest, a DC policy advisory group.

If US-Russia relations sour, Russia can do a lot of damage to US influence in East Asia by further befriending Pyongyang, selling it weapons and making economic investments, Kazianis notes. At this moment, however, Russia is interested in peace in the region, so that it can reap financial benefits.