Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s dutiful son, restores Russia’s role as defender

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s first visit to Russia last week reaffirmed, above and beyond the traditional friendly ties between the two nations, the young Korean leader’s filial piety — a hallowed virtue in the Confucian civilization.

Kim did not quite make it to the birthplace of his father, Kim Jong Il, who was born in Vyatskoye, near Khabarovsk, some 500 miles north of the summit venue, Vladivostok. But in granting Russian President Vladimir Putin a face-to-face meeting, something that Putin sought for more than a year, Kim Jong Un gave Russia, just as his father did in the early 2000s, a seat at the table of high-stakes international politics.

{mosads}Magnanimity known mostly as an alien custom among the top leadership of the (Despotic) People’s Republic of Korea, Kim’s gesture serves above all the DPRK. By showing the world he has friends beyond China and South Korea, Kim immediately acquires an additional layer of cover against United Nations sanctions implementation and also in the wake of the next big provocation. With the meeting, Kim has given back Russia its traditional role of a DPRK defender, a role that Russia played vigorously from 2000 up to the crescendo of provocations in 2016-2017, when outright defense of Pyongyang at the U.N. Security Council became impracticable.

Russia’s interest in courting North Korea today remains the same as that of a bygone era under Putin: Balance the United States and its allies, Japan and South Korea, and reverse the trajectory of Russia’s increasing marginalization in regional diplomacy. 

Putin’s visit with Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang in July 2000 remains to this day the only visit to North Korea by a Soviet or Russian leader. The unprecedented summit thrust Russia back as a bona fide player in global gamesmanship as Putin tried to check the George W. Bush administration’s intention to withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and build a Theater Missile Defense in East Asia, war campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, and bolster ties with former Soviet-bloc states by their accession to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

In the post-Cold War 1990s, Russia lost interest in subsidizing North Korea and turned to cultivating closer economic ties with the South. In 1992, President Boris Yeltsin even told South Koreans that the 1961 Soviet-DPRK treaty, which provided for automatic military intervention in the event the other party is “subject to armed attack from a state or coalition of states,” was just a paper agreement and “in name only.” Indeed, in March 1999, a new treaty was signed in Pyongyang, replacing the robust automatic intervention clause of the 1961 treaty that Kim Il Sung, the original Great Leader and grandfather of the current Great Leader, had with guile and tenacity won, with a wobbly mutual “consultations and cooperation” clause.

But the unfilial son, Kim Jong Il, after having undone his father’s achievement, shaped up in 2000. He showed up in Beijing in May. In June, he received South Korean President Kim Dae Jung. He received in Pyongyang Putin in July and Chinese President Jiang Zemin in September. He sent a special envoy to President Bill Clinton in October and, just 12 days later, received Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

{mossecondads}Kim visited China again in January 2001; in August, he visited Putin in Moscow. In August 2002, Kim met with Putin in Vladivostok, and he received Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in September. The formerly threatening, anti-social leader lined up the leaders of the biggest countries in the world. Through this transformative process, a peace-seeking, denuclearizing reformer had been born.

Putin’s July 19-20, 2000, visit is best remembered for his unfortunate remarks at the G8 meeting in Okinawa, Japan, days later. Putin certainly was not the first to sell the North Korean leader as trustworthy upon meeting him and look foolish afterwards. Like others before and since, he fell for the epiphanous shock of seeing with his own eyes that the weird-looking dictator is actually not only not insane but quite charming; hence, impulsively committing the logical fallacy of concluding he must therefore be honest, too.  

In Okinawa, Putin announced to the world that Kim Jong Il had told him he would end his ballistic missiles program in return for Russia or the United States launching two or three satellites a year on his behalf. Putin insisted that Kim was trustworthy and that it was eminently possible to do honest business with him. Unfortunately, Kim Jong Il later said he had no such intentions and was just joking.

Such sanguine views of the North Korean tyrant would be echoed in 2018 notably by South Korean President Moon Jae-In, who gushed in April upon his first meeting with Kim Jong Un that the Northern tyrant is actually “bold and courageous,” and later in the year at the United Nations that Kim is “very candid and polite … and he will abandon nuclear weapons in exchange for economic development.” Perhaps still remembering the sting of having been played by Kim Jong Il in 2000, Putin’s assessment of the son last week was more measured: “A fairly open person who … is quite an interesting and substantive interlocutor.”

Whereas, until North Korea’s formal declaration of itself as a nuclear weapons state on Feb. 10, 2005, Russia’s position was that the DPRK did not have a nuclear weapons program, in Vladivostok last week Putin called for international law in place of brute force and the resumption of the Six-Party Talks—conference-style gatherings among North Korea, Russia, China, the United States, South Korea and Japan from 2003 to 2008.

Ever the dutiful son, next on Kim Jong Un’s foreign policy agenda is meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Kim has little to lose by resuming normalization talks with Japan and demanding upwards of $20 billion in “economic cooperation” while the two sides just talk about denuclearization and how to resolve Pyongyang’s abduction of Japanese citizens in the past. Winning over new friends makes old friends envious and more eager to give.

“The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide,” reads the opening line of the Chinese classic, “Romance of the Three Kingdoms.” The Pyongyang playbook is punchier, more philosophical, and just as adagial: “The republic, long weird and hostile, must exhibit normalcy and civility; long diplomatic, must resume weirdness and hostility.” Kim Jong Un, ever the filial son, is working hard to honor his father’s proven business model of “maximum pressure and engagement.”

Sung-Yoon Lee is Kim Koo-Korea Foundation Professor in Korean Studies and assistant professor at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University. He has testified as an expert witness at the House Foreign Affairs Committee and advised elected leaders on Korea policy. Follow him on Twitter @SungYoonLee1.

Tags Bill Clinton Kim dynasty Kim Jong Un North Korea North Korea–Russia relations North Korea–United States Singapore Summit Vladimir Putin

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