Kim Jong-un has asked Vladimir Putin to serve as an intermediary with the United States after his nuclear disarmament talks with Donald Trump collapsed in February, the Russian president has said.
Thursday’s first-ever meeting between the Russian and North Korean leaders in Vladivostok has allowed Moscow to reinsert itself into the dialogue around denuclearisation as Mr Putin heads to China, where he will discuss the issue with president Xi Jinping.
“Chairman Kim asked us to inform the American side of his position on questions that have arisen amid the processes taking place on the Korean peninsula,” Mr Putin told journalists. “So there are no secrets here. We will discuss this with our American and Chinese friends.”
Last week, Pyongyang demanded Mr Trump replace his “reckless” point man on the nuclear talks, secretary of state Mike Pompeo, and claimed it had tested a new “tactical guided weapon with a powerful warhead” .
“It is my and my government’s firm strategic position that the strategic and traditional friendly relations between North Korea and Russia be strengthened,” Mr Kim said during the talks, but did not join the press conference afterward.
Russia was in favour of Pyongyang’s “full denuclearisation,” Mr Putin said, but suggested that Washington’s overreaching demands and supposedly threatening posture were hindering this.
In a clear shot at the United States, he said he and Mr Kim had discussed the need to “return to a situation when international law, not the law of the fist, decides the order of things in the world”.
“North Korea needs a guarantee of its security, of the preservation of its sovereignty,” he said. “What guarantees could there be besides those made under international law?”
He also said he welcomed Mr Kim’s efforts to “normalise North Korean-US relations”.
Russia and China drafted a road map in 2017 calling for a step-by-step approach to rolling back North Korea’s nuclear programme, while Mr Trump has sought a sweeping disarmament in exchange for immediate sanctions relief.
A summit in Vietnam in February broke down when the American president reportedly rejected a North Korean offer of partial disarmament in exchange for reduced sanctions.
Thursday’s talks were a chance for Mr Kim to reduce Washington’s leverage in negotiations by showing he has other international partners, while Mr Putin can position Russia as a major player in the Asian region.
North Korean denuclearisation is one of the few areas were the United States has continued dialogue with Russia, sending an envoy to Moscow to discuss the issue earlier this month.
While Mr Putin said the two sides discussed sanctions during more than two-and-a-half hours of talks, he did not provide further details. It was thought Mr Kim could seek humanitarian food aid and sanctions relief from Russia, which voted for the punitive measures in the United Nations but has been accused of helping Pyongyang dodge restrictions on fuel imports.
The Russian president appeared to have established a rapport with his North Korean guest during the summit on an island across from city centre, entertaining him with musical performances and a dinner at which the two leaders toasted each other with champagne.
They also congratulated each other on winning recent elections that in both cases lacked real competition.
Mr Kim initially fidgeted with his notes during the talks, but was in a good enough mood as he departed to roll down the window of his armoured limousine and wave a friendly goodbye.
Mr Putin will travel to Beijing on Thursday for a forum on China’s Belt and Road initiative, which foresees new transport connections through Russia as well as along the northern sea route.
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Mr Kim will stay in Vladivostok for a “cultural programme” that will reportedly include the local oceanarium and sites visited by his father during a 2002 visit on the same armoured train.
His northernmost neighbour has offered him not only diplomatic support but also small yet symbolic joint projects, such as a ferry service and railway connection opened in recent years.
Although trade with North Korea is a shadow of what it was during Soviet times, Mr Putin said Russia was still seeking to establish a rail connection and gas pipeline to South Korea through the north, projects he said had been thwarted as a result of Washington’s influence over Seoul.
He said “calm, non-confrontational decisions” had been made about North Koreans who are still working in strict conditions in Russia after Moscow sent some 20,000 of them home to comply with UN sanctions.