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Kim Jong Un to meet Putin following stalled sanctions talks with U.S.

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Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un
Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un -
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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is to be welcomed to Russia for a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, North Korean state media has confirmed.

The two leaders are due to meet following the stalled talks between the US and North Korea over sanctions relief Pyongyang had sought.

Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un met in June 2018 - the first ever meeting between a U.S. president and the leader of North Korea - in an historic summit in which both leaders signalled a desire to improve relations.

A second summit between the two, in Hanoi in February 2019, ended without agreement.

With his Russia visit, North Korea’s Kim is seen working to build up foreign support for his economic development plans.

State media Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said the visit will happen “soon,” but did not elaborate the time or the venue.

What are the sanctions against North Korea?

To explain why North Korea is seeking a way to soften the sanctions against it, Théo Clément, a research associate at King's College London told Euronews that at the current moment "almost 95% of North Korean foreign trade is now sanctioned".

Sanctions have mainly been imposed due to North Korea's nuclear and missile development plans.

Countries have imposed sanctions against North Korea individually, he explained, but there are also wide-ranging multilateral sanctions imposed by international organisations such as the United Nations Security Council.

"Until 2016, multilateral sanctions were essentially limited to military goods, luxury goods and dual-use goods," said Clément, but following a fourth North Korean nuclear test in January 2016, UN sanctions targeted the entire North Korean economy.

Which countries trade with North Korea?

Despite the sanctions, several countries continue to trade with North Korea, most notably its neighbour and main economic partner China.

"China has no direct interest in the implementation of sanctions and bilateral trade between China and North Korea continues to take place in a manner that is almost unaffected by the sanctions, although officially China is still implementing them," said Clément.

He explained that North Korea exports natural resources, such as ores, coal, and seafood for the Chinese market, and manages to export military products such as cruise and ballistic missiles.

Some African countries maintain a trading relationship with North Korea too.

While North Korea "is not hiding from the fact that it does not comply with the sanctions at all," added Clement, it is a little more complicated for partner countries because few or none of them assume any complete breach of sanctions, except Uganda.

What is the relationship with Russia?

The Soviet Union was a very important supporter of North Korea before and after the Korean War in the early 1950s, but the relationship deteriorated after the USSR's collapse.

"From the first half of the 2000s, the Russians had an increasingly pragmatic policy towards North Korea, which was no longer ideological support at all, not even much political support," said Clément.

"Russia is a country participating in the nuclear negotiations but is much further behind than China, which has much closer relations with North Korea.

"The Russians have a little bit of trade with Korea but it is really on a basis of mutual interest. There is not much political collaboration at the moment. That's why Kim Jong Un has never met Putin before."

What does the Kim-Putin summit mean?

"In my opinion, it's more like a first contact," said Clément, who believes it is possible Kim may ask Putin for help over the issue of North Korean workers deployed in Russia, who are expected to return to Korea before the end of 2019 because the export of North Korean labour abroad is theoretically sanctioned.

"So it is possible that Kim may ask Putin for some flexibility on the subject because the exploitation of North Korean labour generates some foreign currency for North Korea."

He could also ask for assistance with the economic sanctions, said Clément, but he doubted whether Russia had the capacity or the will to influence the UN Security Council on this issues.

There is another key reason for this, and other summits: to boost the stature of North Korean diplomacy.

"Kim Jong Un is considered a young leader who had inherited a position far too high for him and in fact he has become a major player in the region. He met Trump, he met Moon Jae-in, he met Xi Jinping, he will meet Putin so he is rather a good strategist, a good graduate," said Clément.

Read more: Trump's reversal on North Korea sanctions raises more questions