By playing Korean peacemaker, Putin seeks to revive Russia’s Far East

Why We Wrote This

Is there now an area in which Russia is not in competition with the U.S.? Our Moscow correspondent offers a look at Vladimir Putin in an unexpected role: mediator.

Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un arrives at the railway station in the Russian city of Vladivostok on April 24.

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With nuclear talks between the United States and North Korea in at least temporary disarray, Vladimir Putin sees an opportunity to insert Russia into the peace process for the first time in almost a decade. That’s a key reason behind Thursday’s meeting in Vladivostok, Russia, between Mr. Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Russia may be well placed to play the mediator in any new talks with Washington. “Russia is in a unique situation in that it has good relations with both Koreas and with China, and would probably be ready to accept almost any negotiated settlement in the region,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the foreign-policy journal Russia in Global Affairs.

If the security issues can be resolved and peace breaks out on the Korean Peninsula, the potential benefits for Russia are immense. Russia’s far eastern regions, where Vladivostok is located, have languished economically since the collapse of the Soviet Union, despite being physically located at the hub of booming east Asia. North Korea, a heavily sanctioned economic black hole blocking direct physical access between Russia and fast-developing South Korea, is one reason for that.

President Vladimir Putin flew from his Kremlin control center across seven time zones of Russian territory to play host – on his own home turf – to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in the Pacific port of Vladivostok on Thursday.

For Mr. Kim, it was a relatively brief jaunt in his father’s armored train, roughly the distance from Boston to Pittsburgh.

Despite – or perhaps because of – those geographic facts, it was a trip well worth making for Mr. Putin.

With nuclear talks between the United States and North Korea in at least temporary disarray since they broke down in Hanoi two months ago, Mr. Putin sees an opportunity to insert Russia into the peace process for the first time since the Group of Six negotiations on the Korean crisis, of which Russia was a member, fell apart almost a decade ago. President Donald Trump raised expectations with his extraordinary outreach to the North Korean leader, but after the Hanoi debacle it may now seem to Mr. Kim that he needs to gather a few friends into his corner before facing Mr. Trump again.

And should the Korean Peninsula stabilize, Russia stands to profit – nowhere moreso than in its eastern regions, which have stagnated due to their distance from Moscow and their physical separation from booming East Asia by North Korea's economic dead zone.

“If there is peace in Korea, there will be big infrastructure projects and trade turnover will grow” from its current, dismal $100 million annually between Russia and North Korea, says Andrei Klimov, deputy head of the international affairs committee of the Federation Council, Russia’s upper house of parliament. “Most of all, it will open a corridor for the economic development of Russia’s far eastern regions.”

Peace in the East

Russia may be well placed to play the mediator in any new talks with Washington. Since the collapse of the USSR a quarter century ago, the 12-mile land border between Russia and North Korea has been almost inactive, while China has taken on the role of Pyongyang’s chief patron. For China, it is critically important that any settlement on the Korean Peninsula not come at the expense of Chinese influence. Russia may be more flexible, especially if peace unfreezes the militarized border between North and South Korea, enabling economic forces to come to the fore.

“Russia is in a unique situation in that it has good relations with both Koreas and with China, and would probably be ready to accept almost any negotiated settlement in the region,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow-based foreign-policy journal. “The Chinese stake is much greater. China has far more to lose if a settlement goes against its interests. And the Chinese are very suspicious of U.S. intentions; they feel like everything Washington is doing in this region is against its interests.”

It’s probably not a coincidence that after meeting Mr. Kim in Vladivostok, Mr. Putin headed straight to Beijing for talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping. In the quest for a lasting security arrangement in Korea, they will both be on the same page with Mr. Kim that the long-term goal should be a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War, leading in the longer term to the demilitarization of the entire Korean Peninsula. The U.S. position appears focused solely on obtaining the denuclearization of North Korea.

But during the Cold War the U.S. deployed hundreds of tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea and has lately been talking of doing so again. North Korea, backed diplomatically by Russia and China, is seeking guarantees that the U.S. will renounce its “nuclear threat” on principle in exchange for any North Korean nuclear disarmament. The Hanoi summit may have broken down over this misunderstanding.

“The key thing is to get a deal between North Korea and the United States. That cannot be circumvented, and Putin isn’t thinking of trying to cut the U.S. out of the process,” says Sergei Strokan, foreign affairs columnist for the Moscow daily Kommersant. “But Russia can play the role of mediator, and could be a guarantor of any settlement.”

Alexei Nikolsky/Kremlin/Sputnik/Reuters
Russian President Vladimir Putin (center r.) and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (center l.) attend a reception with other officials following their talks in Vladivostok, Russia, on April 25.

If the security issues can be resolved and peace breaks out on the Korean Peninsula, the potential benefits for Russia are immense. Russia’s far eastern regions, where Vladivostok is located, have languished economically since the collapse of the Soviet Union, despite being physically located at the hub of booming east Asia. Tight bureaucratic control from Moscow, at the end of a 5,000-mile rail line, is one reason for that. A stubborn territorial dispute with Japan over the Kuril Islands, which has kept potential Japanese investment locked out, is another. But North Korea, a heavily sanctioned economic black hole blocking direct physical access between Russia and fast-developing South Korea, is yet another.

Russian economic planners have long-standing projects for extending the Trans-Siberian railroad to Seoul, creating a direct rail link between the Far East and Europe. Russian pipelines could carry oil and natural gas to the industries of South Korea. New transport corridors could multiply mining, industrial, and trading links.

“Integration is the order of the day in Asia. The Chinese have their Belt and Road Initiative, and Russia is looking for ways to get in on this,” says Mr. Strokan. “That frozen conflict in Korea looks like an archaic problem when seen against the opportunities that peace could bring.”

Russian experts say they are optimistic that Mr. Trump’s stalled initiatives might have opened the door to a workable settlement.

“Our ultimate purposes are the same. Both the U.S. and Russia want denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” says Alexander Vorontsov, head of Korea studies at the official Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow. “We differ on tactics. The Americans seem to want everything all at once. They want North Korea to disarm immediately and talk security guarantees afterwards. They seem to think that tougher sanctions will force the North Koreans to agree. But I visit North Korea twice a year and I can tell you, that is not going to happen, they will never submit. ...

“We believe a step-by-step process can work. In this area Russia is not in competition with the U.S. We welcomed Trump’s efforts, and we’d like to be helpful. Mutually complementary steps are the way forward. And we all stand to gain from success,” he says.

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