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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Russian President Vladimir Putin Meet for Summit


North Korean leader Kim Jong Un wants the world to know that his country won't be isolated. Today he arrived for his first-ever meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin. They're in Vladivostok, Russia, just over the border from North Korea. Back in February, Kim held a second summit with President Trump, and it ended abruptly without any agreement on denuclearization.

Here to discuss this latest summit is Abe Denmark. He served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia during the Obama administration. Welcome to the studio.

ABE DENMARK: Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: Why would Kim Jong Un want this summit with Russia's president?

DENMARK: It does quite a few things for him. As you said, it demonstrates to the United States that North Korea is not going to be isolated, that efforts to maximize pressure in the absence of denuclearization is not going to work. It's at least going to be challenged. But it also sends a message to elites in North Korea that Russia still has his back, that he still has some international clout, that he could meet with some of the world's top leaders including President Trump, Chinese president Xi Jinping and now Russian President Vladimir Putin.

SHAPIRO: What does Putin want out of a summit like this?

DENMARK: He's sending a message also to the United States that Russia can't be ignored, that Russia is an Asia power as well as a European power and that in searching for a solution to this, the United States can't just cut Russia out, that Russia can't really solve the problem, but they can act as a spoiler. And this is sending a very clear message that Russia intends to remain active in this.

SHAPIRO: Are American and Russian interests aligned on this question? Do they both want North Korea to denuclearize?

DENMARK: Russia would like to see North Korea denuclearized. But it's not nearly the same level of priority as it is for the United States. Russia sees things in a very different way. Russia's main objective, broadly speaking, is to throw wrenches into American strategies, to reduce American geopolitical influence in the region. And they see North Korea as a way to keep the United States bogged down and to reduce American power. So for Russia, this is part of a much broader geopolitical game with the United States.

SHAPIRO: We've often heard about how much economic leverage China has over North Korea, that if China wanted to cut off North Korea, it would have a huge impact on that country's economy. Russia has a much tinier border with North Korea. What kind of economic influence does Russia have over Kim Jong Un?

DENMARK: It has some, not nearly the degree as China. Roughly 90 percent of North Korean trade goes through China. But Russian economic relations with North Korea primarily is defined by North Korean laborers.

SHAPIRO: There's, like, tens of thousands of North Koreans chopping down trees in Russia.

DENMARK: Well, it depends who you ask. But there's somewhere between 13,000 and 40,000.


DENMARK: And they're doing logging in Russia. They're also doing a lot of construction. There were reports that the new soccer stadium in St. Petersburg that was the host of the World Cup last year was created by North Korean laborers. That money, though, doesn't go to the workers, doesn't go to their families back home. It goes to the regime. So this is an important source of cash for North Korea. There's also reports that North Korea is facing a pretty significant food shortage, and so it's likely that Kim will look to Russia as a potential source for that food aid. So those are the primary things.

The other thing more broadly that Kim is likely looking to from Putin would be help with sanctions relief, not enforcing some of these U.N. Security Council resolutions. And this is where the laborers come in. According to a U.N. Security Council resolution, the laborers are supposed to go back home by the end of this year. But Russia has a spotty, shall we say, record of actually implementing these sanctions. So Putin may decide or may not decide to send those laborers home by the end of the year.

SHAPIRO: The U.S. is not a formal part of this summit. But last week, the U.S. envoy for North Korea went to Moscow. How do you interpret that?

DENMARK: Clearly I'm trying to both get a sense of where Russia is on this but also trying to send messages about where the United States would like Russia to be on this in terms of supporting denuclearization, in terms of implementing these sanctions. But the clear piece is that Kim Jong Un is sending a message to the U.S. that this is not just between Kim and Trump, that there are other players involved in this and that they're not - don't necessarily have the same objectives or priorities that the United States has.

SHAPIRO: Abe Denmark as director of the Asia Program at the Wilson Center. Thanks so much for joining us.

DENMARK: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.