04/25/2019, 16.28
RUSSIA - NORTH KOREA
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Kim Jong-Un, Putin meet to discuss a new 'eastern front'

by Vladimir Rozanskij

Like his father and Mao Zedong, Kim chose to travel on a special train rather than fly. In Vladivostok he gave his first interview to a foreign journalist. North Korea’s strongman wants help to deal with the US. Putin would like to build a bridge over the Tumen River, on the border between the two countries, but Russian companies are reluctant to invest in North Korea.

Moscow (AsiaNews) – North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un arrived in Vladivostok yesterday by train. Like Mao Zedong, he does not like to fly and prefers the train. Indeed, Russians still remember Mao's legendary large bed, custom-made to fit in a railway carriage.

The North Korean leader used the same armoured train as his father, and upon arrival, he granted a brief interview, the first ever to a foreign journalist, to TV host Pavel Zarubin, to whom he said he hoped "to bring the warmth of our people to Russia. [. . .] I hope this visit is fruitful and useful, and that during the talks with the highly regarded President Putin I can concretely discuss the normalisation of the situation on the Korean peninsula, and the development of our bilateral relations." The full video of the interview will be broadcast tonight on the Russia 1 channel.

The welcome ceremony in Vladivostok included a lunch with the best of Russian cuisine. Kim also went to a cottage at a local university on an island opposite the port, where he met with President Putin, who travelled from Moscow.

Since he came to power in 2011, Kim Jong-Un never met Putin, nor visited Russia. In 2011 his father, Kim Jong-Il, travelled by train to Buryatia near Lake Baikal, 3,000 km more to the West than his son, to meet with then President Medvedev.

Russia’s Defence Minister, Sergey Shoygu met with his Korean counterpart No Kwang Chol, expressing hope that Kim Jong-Un's visit would lead to greater cooperation between Russia and North Korea, including in the military field. Shoygu noted that in 2018 the two countries celebrated 70 years of diplomatic relations.

The meeting is particularly significant in the context of the 8th Conference on international security, currently underway in the Russian capital, whose focus is conflict situations in the Middle East, Asia, Africa and Latin America. Defence ministers from 35 States are in attendance as are thousands of experts from all over the world.

Kim Jong-Un's visit to Russia follows negotiations with US President Donald Trump last February, which ended in an impasse. Russia does not plan to mediate between Kim and Trump, but the question of denuclearisation will have to be addressed, at a time when Russia is at loggerheads with the US over the latter’s decision to pull out of existing nuclear disarmament agreements.

In short, an "eastern front" could emerge in the spirit of the Cold War, especially since Pyongyang has long considered itself a defensive bastion for Russia’s eastern borders, and expects some form of compensation for that.

Russia is North Korea's second largest trading partner, but the volume represents only 1.5 per cent of the overall trade, with China alone taking 95 per cent. Still, at a time of sanctions and counter-sanctions, the two countries have an interest in boosting economic ties, especially as Russian products are highly appreciated by North Koreans.

Putin likes "symbolic" bridges. After the one built in the Kerch Strait with Crimea, he would like to build one on the Tumen River, on Russia’s border with North Korea. However, at present there is no investment agreement, as the project is too onerous for both sides. In fact, whilst North Korea can offer materials and labour, Russia would be expected to put up the capital at a time when its economy is not doing very well. For their part, Russian private companies are unwilling to invest in North Korea.

In the end, the summit is likely to focus on deals involving big state-owned enterprises in areas like gas and improved rail links. The latter could allow Kim Jong-Un to go beyond the Urals and reach Europe.

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