Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov visited Pyongyang on Wednesday, laying the groundwork for the first summit between Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Russia, which wants to be involved in North Korea’s denuclearization, has invited Kim to visit and repeatedly proposed that he hold talks with Putin. But the geopolitical dynamics surrounding North Korea are in flux and Kim has not yet responded.
One key factor behind Kim’s foot-dragging is the warming ties between North Korea and China over the past several months. These were badly strained in 2013 after Kim had his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, executed. Jang was a friend of China.
Given the cold shoulder by China, Kim looked to Russia for support. In the spring of 2015, Pyongyang and Moscow were discussing a visit by Kim to Russia. Senior North Korean officials made a flurry of trips to Russia to prepare.
But Kim backed out at the last moment due to “domestic affairs,” according to Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov. At that time, diplomats in Moscow thought Kim would choose Russia, not China, for his first official trip as North Korea’s supreme leader.
As the international community tightened economic sanctions on Pyongyang over its nuclear and missile tests, Kim made a surprise visit to China in March, his first foreign trip since taking power in 2011.
Kim’s fence-mending meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping was a success. Now that he was back on good terms with North Korea’s largest ally — a major economic and military power with a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council — Kim had less need for Russian help.
Russia is much less important to North Korea than China, partly for economic reasons. Annual trade between Russia and North Korea is worth only about $100 million, less than 2% that of North Korea’s trade with China. Nor do the countries have strong incentives to trade with each other: North Korea has little foreign exchange to buy Russia’s main exports, such as oil and natural gas. There is scant demand in Russia for North Korean coal or textiles.