By Josh Smith
SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is set to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin for the first time this week at a symbolic summit hoping to project himself as a serious world player but likely to come away without a relief from crushing sanctions he seeks.
After his second summit with U.S. President Donald Trump ended without an agreement two months ago, Kim’s meeting with Putin serves as a reminder to Washington that he has other options in the region backing his leadership.
But while Kim is likely to seek more assistance from one of his country’s two main backers, Russia will be limited in what it can provide and the summit will focus more on demonstrating camaraderie than new investment or aid, analysts said.
“When Kim meets Putin, he is going to ask for economic assistance and unilateral sanctions relaxation. Moscow is unlikely to grant his wishes,” said Artyom Lukin, a professor at Far Eastern Federal University in Vladivostok.
That school’s campus is seen to be the summit venue, according to South Korean media which reported the presence of Kim’s top aides there making preparations for the event.
“Being a veto-holding U.N. Security Council member, Moscow can hardly afford to undermine its authority even for the sake of friendship with Kim,” Lukin said.
While Russia says it fully enforces the sanctions that it voted to impose, it has joined China in calling for loosening punishment for North Korea in recognition of steps taken in limiting its weapons testing.
“Steps by the DPRK towards gradual disarmament should be followed by the easing of sanctions,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said at a Security Council meeting late last year, using the initials of the North’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Washington has accused Russia of “cheating” on sanctions and said it has evidence of “consistent and wide-ranging Russian violations”.
In February, Reuters reported a Russian tanker violated international trade sanctions by transferring fuel to a North Korean vessel at sea at least four times between October 2017 and May 2018.
One Russian lawmaker told Interfax news agency last week that North Korea had asked Moscow to allow its labourers to continue to work in Russia despite sanctions requiring their expulsion by the end of this year.
“One particularly sore area for Kim is the issue of North Korean labourers working in Russia,” said Anthony Rinna, a specialist in Korea-Russia relations at Sino-NK, a website that analyses the region.
“Kim will probably be seeking some wiggle-room from Russia, although Moscow will be hard-pressed to accommodate Kim given its desire to portray a responsible image in the world.”
The United States has said it believed Pyongyang was earning more than $500 million a year from nearly 100,000 workers abroad, including 30,000 in Russia.
According to unpublished reports by Moscow to the United Nations Security Council, Russia sent home nearly two-thirds of its North Korean workers during 2018.
The report, reviewed by Reuters, said in 2018 the number of North Koreans with work permits in Russia fell to about 11,500.
Russia-North Korea relations withered after the Soviet demise, with the loss of support from Moscow often cited as one factor that lead to a 1990s famine that killed hundreds of thousands of North Koreans.
Kim Jong Un’s father, Kim Jong Il, worked to renew ties after Putin first became president in 1999. He visited Russia three times before his sudden death in 2011.
Russia could agreed on some limited projects like a vehicle bridge connecting the two countries across the Tumangan River, or provide more humanitarian aid, Lukin said.
Earlier this year, Russia sent more than 2,000 tons of wheat to North Korea through the World Food Programme. Russian lawmakers have suggested Moscow could send as much as 50,000 tons of wheat to North Korea.
According to the United Nations, Russia has continued to sell significant amounts of oil to North Korea, though still officially under sanctions caps.
North Korea’s state media said in March officials met in Moscow to sign an agreement “to boost high-level contact and exchange in the political field (and) actively promote cooperation in the fields of economy and humanitarianism.”
While Moscow is unlikely to risk its authority at the United Nations by overtly breaching sanctions, Putin could promise not to support any additional sanctions, Lukin said.
“Kim can expect a friendly reception here and probably some chance of getting political and economic support from Putin.”
(Reporting by Josh Smith, additional reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin in Moscow.; Editing by Jack Kim and Lincoln Feast.)