- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Kim Jong-un’s summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin this week may be a symbolic move by the North Korean leader to show he has a powerful friend in Moscow, but sources familiar with Mr. Kim’s agenda say a key focus of the meeting will be allowing more than 10,000 North Korean laborers to remain in Russia despite U.S. demands.

Thursday’s summit in Vladivostok, just north of the North Korea-Russia border, comes eight weeks after Mr. Kim’s Hanoi summit with President Trump on denuclearization ended without progress. It also comes amid rising tensions at the U.N. Security Council over a 2017 U.S.-backed resolution ordering the repatriation of all North Korean laborers abroad by the end of this year. Washington claims the Kim regime pulls in hundreds of millions of dollars annually by seizing the laborers’ salaries.

With the future of U.S.-North Korean talks in questions, the Vladivostok summit will also likely cover wider geopolitical factors in Northeast Asia.

Analysts say Mr. Putin is seeking to show both the U.S. and China — North Korea’s biggest ally and trading partner — that Moscow still holds serious clout on the divided Korean peninsula. The China factor is being closely watched in the region, where the Japan-based newspaper Sekai Nippo claims Mr. Trump actually pressed on Mr. Kim in Vietnam to explicitly pick sides between the U.S. and China.

While the president has said the February summit in Hanoi collapsed because North Korea rejected demands to dismantle all of its nuclear and missile facilities, Sekai Nippo recently cited a Japanese government sources as saying Mr. Trump actually sought more and that Mr. Kim “was perplexed by the unexpected demand to pick a side.”

Mr. Putin is seeking a deeper role in the stalled talks and analysts say his goal is to show that Russia can challenge China, while also potentially undermining U.S. hegemony in Northeast Asia.

The catch, according to Nicholas Eberstadt, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is that this week’s summit is unlikely to produce much, since Mr. Putin remains generally aligned with the wider international community’s demand that Mr. Kim abandon his nuclear weapons. No final communique or press conference of the two leaders is expected.

Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un will have much to discuss — but what is not yet clear is whether anything will come out of the get-together apart from talk,” Mr. Eberstadt said Wednesday. “Kim desperately wants sanctions relief that Putin cannot provide — and foreign aid that Russia to date has not been inclined to grant. Russia wants, at least in principle, a North Korea denuclearization that Kim dismisses out of hand.”

U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Stephen E. Biegun visited Moscow earlier this month, reminding Russian officials that Washington would be upset if Moscow actively played spoiler in the talks or moved to undercut U.S.-led sanctions pressure on Pyongyang.

Mr. Kim arrived in Russia on Wednesday via armored train and told Russian media he hopes for a discussion with Mr. Putin toward the “settlement of the situation in the Korean peninsula.”

A high-level diplomatic source told The Washington Times that Mr. Kim will likely tell Mr. Putin he hopes a railroad link and potentially a Russian natural gas pipeline can be built through North Korea to strengthen Russian connections to markets in East Asia.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, while a close ally to Trump administration demands for denuclearization, has signaled hope in recent years that such projects could be undertaken in the future. The catch is that they’re currently a fantasy because of sanctions against North Korea.

Mr. Kim may be eyeing less dramatic assistance from Mr. Putin, specifically on the issue of the North Korean workers on the Russian side of the North Korea-Russia border, amid signs of rising pressure on a key source of foreign income for Pyongyang.

Unpublished reports by Russia and China to the Security Council last month claim Moscow has already sent home nearly two-thirds of some 30,000 North Koreans working there in 2018, and that Beijing has repatriated more than half of some 50,000 employed in China, according to the Reuters news agency.

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