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NKorea's Kim Needs a Win in Putin Talks04/23 06:41

   TOKYO (AP) -- When North Korean leader Kim Jong Un meets with Russian 
President Vladimir Putin for their first one-on-one meeting, he will have a 
long wish list and a strong desire to notch a win after the failure of his 
second summit with President Donald Trump.

   But it's not entirely clear how much Putin can or will oblige. 

   Despite a relationship that goes back to the very foundation of North Korea, 
relations between Pyongyang and Moscow haven't always been the picture of 
comradery, or even particularly close.

   A look at what Kim is hoping to get out of his furtive pivot north, and why 
he might be looking to shake things up as his talks with the U.S. and parallel 
campaign to win massive investment from South Korea have stalled:

   ___ 

   KIM'S WISH LIST 

   Kim has two urgent concerns as he heads to the summit. 

   More than 10,000 North Korean laborers still employed in Russia, many 
working in the logging industry in the Russian Far East, are being kicked out 
by the end of this year as a 2017 U.N. sanctions resolution takes effect. The 
laborers, who previously numbered as many as 50,000, have provided a revenue 
stream estimated by U.S. officials in the hundreds of millions of dollars that 
the Kim regime would like to keep flowing.

   Kim is also looking at the possibility of a food shortage this summer. 
Russia has shown a willingness to provide humanitarian aid and just last month 
announced that it had shipped more than 2,000 tons of wheat to the North Korean 
port of Chongjin.

   But his decision to more actively court Putin undoubtedly goes deeper than 
that. 

   Despite all the talk in Washington about denuclearization, Kim's primary 
concern is improving his country's economy. After the breakdown in his February 
summit with Trump in Hanoi, his efforts to get out from under sanctions that 
are keeping him from doing that have reached an impasse.

   North Korea has long depended on China as its primary trading partner. But 
that reliance, and the influence it threatens to give Beijing, makes many 
officials in Pyongyang nervous.

   Kim has also pushed Seoul hard to participate in joint inter-Korean projects 
to rebuild its railroads and improve its moribund infrastructure. His appeal to 
Korean unity, however, has run headfirst into the South's allegiance to 
Washington, which has warned Seoul against any actions that would undermine 
sanctions.

   According to internal documents obtained by a South Korean researcher and 
published this week in a Japanese newspaper, Kim wants to boost trade with 
Russia tenfold --- to $1 billion --- by 2020.

   That would obviously require some significant easing of sanctions, which 
would seem unlikely. But it would also require a change in Russian behavior.

   Unlike China, which has lots of businessmen on the ground in North Korea, 
Russia has a very small footprint in the North. Officials have long talked 
about big projects --- including rail routes to Europe, or pipelines across the 
Korean Peninsula --- but Putin hasn't shown much interest in actually carrying 
them out.

   ___ 

   WHY NOW? 

   The Kim-Putin meeting, whose exact date has not been announced, is coming 
surprisingly late in the game.

   It's been nearly a year and a half since Kim announced his plan to emerge 
from relative isolation at home and expand diplomatic relations with China and 
South Korea and open denuclearization talks with Washington.

   He has since held four summits with Chinese President Xi Jinping, three with 
South Korean President Moon Jae-in and two with Trump.

   The summitry has done a lot toward establishing Kim as a serious player on 
the world stage.

   But the Hanoi summit showed his limitations. It ended with no agreements on 
either denuclearization measures or the lifting of sanctions, which may now be 
even more difficult to accomplish since both sides are digging in on hard-line 
negotiation positions.

   Kim's decision to meet with Putin now may reflect his frustrations over 
that. 

   Putin has more experience with North Korea's leaders than most. He visited 
Pyongyang in 2000, and met with Kim's father, Kim Jong Il, in Moscow in 2001 
and in Vladivostok in 2002. Former President Dmitry Medvedev also met Kim Jong 
Il in Vladivostok, in 2011.

   Moscow played an instrumental role in bringing Kim's grandfather, Kim Il 
Sung, to power and helped rebuild the country after the 1950-53 Korean War. 
Those ties fell apart after the 1991 Soviet collapse and Russia's decision to 
end support for former Soviet allies amid its own economic meltdown.

   Like Kim, Putin is no admirer of Washington's use of sanctions as a 
political tool. Even a cautious statement of solidarity with the North, or a 
rebuttal of any of Washington's "maximum pressure" policies, would be a win for 
Kim.

   But Putin has a lot on his plate and good reason to be cautious about making 
any big new commitments.

   He particularly doesn't want to anger China. Immediately after seeing Kim, 
Putin will fly to Beijing for a major international meeting on China's "Belt 
and Road" initiative, which could be lucrative for Russia.

   ___ 

   WHAT'S NEXT? 

   If Putin chooses to take a more hands-on approach to North Korea, 
Washington's efforts to keep Kim's focus on denuclearization could get a lot 
more complicated.

   He has already expressed his opposition to Trump's sanctions-centric 
approach. 

   It's also in Putin's general interest to weaken Washington's influence in 
the region --- though, like China, Russia does not want a chaotic collapse in 
the North that would create a wave of refugees and economic instability.

   So what's the bottom line? 

   Even if he isn't planning to make any immediate changes in his policies 
toward Pyongyang, meeting with Kim provides a good opportunity for Putin to 
reassert himself as a player in a contest for political influence that is, 
after all, right on his own border.

   And for Kim, with the pressure from Washington not likely to let up soon, 
keeping all options open makes a lot of sense.


(KA)

 
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