Kim Jong Un's 'long yet necessary road' toward reaffirming alliances

Kim Jong Un's 'long yet necessary road' toward reaffirming alliances
© KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images

“The Long Road” to peace on the Korean Peninsula is fraught with fuzzy intentions.

This Saturday, April 27, marks one year since the two Koreas held their historic summit in Panmunjom – the first Moon-Kim encounter that, arguably, set the gears in motion for high-speed diplomacy and negotiations over North Korea’s denuclearization. Accordingly, South Korea plans to commemorate this landmark event with an anniversary celebration.

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Under the banner-theme of “the long yet necessary road,” the commemoration will feature artist performances and revisit five locations throughout Panmunjom that encapsulate key moments from the April 2018 summit. The famous footbridge where Kim Jong UnKim Jong UnSouth Korea: US, North Korea to resume nuclear talks 'soon' Romney: 'Putin and Kim Jong Un deserve a censure rather than flattery' Pompeo expresses concern over North Korea missile tests MORE and President Moon Jae-in shared a stroll no doubt will make a backdrop appearance.

Sounds good, but we’ve caught a snag: North Korea will not be participating in the festivities.

Instead, Kim has swerved and embarked on his own “long yet necessary road” this week. Accompanied by a 230-member entourage, Kim boarded his special armored train on a 20-something-hour trip to meet with Russian President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinJoe Walsh 'strongly, strongly considering' a primary challenge to Trump GOP group calls on Republican senators to stand up to McConnell on election security in new ads Trump, France's Macron discuss G-7 ahead of annual meeting MORE for their first summit since Kim assumed power. The last North Korean leader’s visit to Russia took place in 2011, when Kim Jong Il — who also traveled by train — met with then-president Dmitry Medvedev.

Kim Jong Un, speaking to the media upon arriving in Vladivostok, expressed hopes for “very useful talks” with Putin.

His Russia visit — two months after his scuttled second round of nuclear negotiations with President TrumpDonald John TrumpSarah Huckabee Sanders becomes Fox News contributor The US-Iranian scuffle over a ship is a sideshow to events in the Gulf South Korea: US, North Korea to resume nuclear talks 'soon' MORE, two weeks after the lightning-brief U.S.-South Korea summit from which the Moon administration stopped far short of convincing Washington to set its sights lower on a good enough, early harvest deal with Pyongyang — is par for the course in North Korea’s efforts to sustain pressure on the United States in the ongoing nuclear standoff. In reaching for Moscow’s hand, Kim hopes to convey the message that North Korea is considering other options and to convince Putin to advocate for some sanctions relief on Pyongyang’s behalf.

It’s an overdue meeting for Russia, as well, since Moscow made previous attempts to court the North Koreans for a summit. In the heat of Kim’s shuttle diplomacy prior to the first U.S.-North Korea summit, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov traveled to Pyongyang in May 2018 to deliver Putin’s summit invitation. Pyongyang until recently had remained ambivalent to Moscow’s overtures, having focused efforts on relations with Seoul, Beijing and Washington — with the aspiration of clinching a smart deal with the Trump administration that would leave Kim’s nuclear weapons program unscathed.

This week’s summit accords Moscow with the opportunity to secure its diplomatic clout in the region and maintain a strong hand in its relations with Trump. That the Kremlin spokesman referenced the six-party nuclear talks as the only efficient way to address the North’s nuclear dismantlement wafts Russia’s desire to reassert its relevance as an interested party in Washington’s ongoing nuclear negotiations with Pyongyang.

Kim likely will remain on his “long and necessary road” of reaffirming traditional alliances to strengthen his position and challenge Washington’s stance on nuclear disarmament and sanctions relief. In his speech during the Supreme People’s Assembly earlier this month, he imposed a year-end deadline for the United States to abandon its current method of negotiations and approach the North with a “bold decision” — otherwise, he warned, gloomy and dangerous consequences await Washington.

Pyongyang has already elevated its rhetoric, taking swipes at national security adviser John BoltonJohn Robert BoltonSchumer joins Pelosi in opposition to post-Brexit trade deal that risks Northern Ireland accord Why President Trump must keep speaking out on Hong Kong Trump meets with national security team on Afghanistan peace plan MORE and Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard Pompeo'China will not sit idly by' if US sells fighters to Taiwan, official says The Hill's Morning Report - Trump touts new immigration policy, backtracks on tax cuts Iceland's prime minister will not be in town for Pence's visit MORE — another button pushed as part of its gradual, escalatory campaign to pressure the United States. Its recent tactical guided weapon test, while not a clear and present threat toward Washington, is an effective irksome move to further grate on the Trump administration’s patience. And although North Korea has maintained a freeze on nuclear and missile testing since 2017, reports this month showed movement at its Yongbyon nuclear research facility that could be linked to the reprocessing of radioactive material into bomb fuel.

All of this for the Kim regime to continue amassing its negotiating clout for greater leverage over Washington in the ongoing denuclearization tug-of-war, to maintain its stronghold over South Korea, to secure U.S. acceptance of North Korea as a nuclear weapons state. A decades-long, generations-spanning road marked by mass starvation and execution of its people, egregious human rights violations, ever-evolving illicit schemes to evade international sanctions. But a necessary one, in view of the ultimate goal that appears to be closer within Pyongyang’s reach now more than ever. And so, onward Kim goes along this upward, arduous march.

The road to nuclear negotiations with North Korea has been long and circuitous. But the important question remains: are Washington and its allies likewise on the necessary path to the denuclearization of North Korea, one that leads to veritable peace on the Korean Peninsula?

Soo Kim is a former CIA North Korea analyst, focusing on the regime's leadership, nuclear proliferation and propaganda analysis. She was a 2015 National Security Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, where she authored a monograph on the South Korean nuclear program. Follow her on Twitter @mllesookim.