by Dan Sneider, Stanford University, Associate Editor Nelson Report, APP member
This week's Tokyo Report will focus on two summit meetings - the Kim-Putin encounter in Vladivostok earlier today (April 25) and the Abe-Trump meeting at the White House tomorrow (April 26). Both summits fall more into the realm of symbolism than substance but neither are without significance. Let's start with the events on the Pacific rim - and a reminder that your correspondent comes to this from a deep involvement with Russia, beginning with four years as Moscow Bureau Chief for The Christian Science Monitor and continuing today to regular visits to Russia. I have a long acquaintance with Vladivostok, having first visited the Pacific port in 1990 as one of the first American correspondents to go there after the previously closed city was opened to foreigners.
In recent years, I went there twice, including lecturing at the campus of the Far Eastern Federal University (FEFU), where the Kim-Putin summit took place, and carrying out a study of regional cooperation in the Russian Far East. I joined my son, who is the Moscow correspondent of The Economist, in a reporting trip that took us to rundown border crossings with China and a glittering Chinese-built casino outside of Vladivostok, as well as conversations with local officials who manage the railway line to the Russian docks at the North Korean warm water port at Rajin.
THE DRIVE BY VLADIVOSTOK SUMMIT
A visit by Kim Jong Un to Russia has been rumored, and even planned, many times over the last few years. Both Moscow and Pyongyang were interested in a meeting, which would have been the first between Putin and Kim, but it was never a high priority for either leader. What finally took place was a Russian version of a drive-by summit - not a grand official visit to Moscow, with all the pomp and circumstance that entails, but a short train hop across the border to Vladivostok for Kim.
For Putin, the Vladivostok summit was a stopover at one his favorite haunts - the beautiful modern campus of the Far Eastern Federal University spread out along the shores of Russky island, built to host the 2012 APEC summit - on his way to a far more strategically important summit in Beijing of China's Belt and Road Initiative. Putin had already moved on to Beijing by the night, leaving Kim to wander around Vladivostok on his own for a day - a charming and historic city that is highly recommended for all global travelers!
The two men spent a couple of hours together, followed by a meeting with senior officials, and then by an official banquet. Only Putin talked to the gathered media. Kim presumably had little to say, especially compared to his loquacious appearance in Hanoi. There was no joint statement, no formal declarations, no announcements of new economic projects, no diplomatic initiatives. No hugs were exchanged - from the body language to the imagery of the meetings, it was a somewhat formal affair. So why hold this drive-by summit?
For Kim, the decision to finally go, but not too far, to Russia has a transparent logic. He is now engaged in a somewhat desperate attempt to recover the bargaining leverage that was squandered in Hanoi. He is eager to remind the United States, China, and even South Korea, that he can still command a world stage. Kim may have hoped as well for some sign that Moscow was prepared to ease economic sanctions - there has been some of that taking place in unofficial fashion, mainly in the form of allowing North Korean coal exports to be transshipped via Russian Far Eastern ports and some sales of oil.
Very important to North Korea's thirst for hard currency are the remittances of North Korean workers who at one point reached the level of 40,000 plus in Russia. These are no longer just the North Koreans sealed off in labor camps doing forestry work - a legacy of Soviet days - but North Korean construction workers whose work ethic and honesty (and low wages) make them the favored choice for Russians remodeling their apartments in Vladivostok or building a new dacha. Russia has cut back their numbers greatly as part of UN sanctions enforcement but at least 10,000 or more remain. Pyongyang was seeking to keep them in place and there is great demand for them in the labor-short Russian Far East.
For Putin, North Korea mainly is viewed within the broader context of the less than successful effort to promote its role as a global player and also as a Pacific power, an age-old Russian obsession. The location of the meeting at FEFU, which is the symbol of the hopes for development of the Russian Far East, was deliberate. Out in the region, though, there is a healthy dose of cynicism about this. Little money is coming from Moscow these days, with regional authorities encouraged to seek investment from China, South Korea and Japan. The business with North Korea is a minor part of that. There is no pot of gold waiting for Kim in Russia.
Russia of course wants to be part of the diplomatic game, which is formalized in its participation in the six-party talks, which exist in name only. But Putin's main focus is on China, whose dominance in the Korean peninsula is readily acknowledged by Moscow. Putin, in his comments after the Kim meeting, did not really call for resuming the six party talks as some misreported. He was more precise in saying that the structure could play a role in providing a broader security guarantee for any deals reached bilaterally - in fact, the role it played before.
"I don't know if we should resume six-party talks right now, but if we get to the point where we will have to come up with guarantees for [North Korea], we will certainly need international guarantees," Putin told reporters.
For an excellent analysis of Russian policy, I recommend very highly the writings of Alexander Gabuev and Dmitri Trenin of Carnegie's Moscow Center. In an analysis published ahead of the summit, Bad Cop, Mediator or Spoiler: Russia’s Role on the Korean Peninsula, Gabuev writes:
The summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in the Russian city of Vladivostok brings Moscow back into the diplomatic game focused on the Korean Peninsula. This symbolic breakthrough aside, however, Russia doesn't have a very strong hand among all the global and regional powers involved in the crisis resolution. The tools Russia has at its disposal are too limited to have an impact on the calculations and behavior of North Korea or the U.S. As asymmetry in the Sino-Russian entente gradually grows in China's favor, Moscow is increasingly receptive to Beijing's agenda and prepared to play bad cop in an unofficial division of labor on the Korean Peninsula. Russia could, however, be an indispensable partner in a broader conversation on security mechanisms in Northeast Asia, including offensive missiles and missile defense systems. The current lack of this broader conversation makes a solution to the North Korean nuclear issue less likely, if not impossible.In the short term, there were only a few visible crumbs on the table for Kim Jong Un to dine upon. Putin referred to the long-discussed project, heavily promoted by South Korea, to create rail and pipeline links that would run up through the peninsula into Russia, allowing rail freight to be transshipped on the Trans-Siberian and bringing Russian natural gas to South Korea.
As TASS reported it:
"I spoke about it before. It is not the first year we have been talking about it," the President said, answering a question about possible joint projects between Russia and two Koreas. "In particular this includes a direct rail link between the south of the Korean Peninsula, the north, and Russia, with access to the Trans-Siberian Railway. This also includes the possibility of laying pipelines, if we talk about oil and gas and possible construction of new power lines," the Russian leader said.
Putin also made clear that these projects will have to await a diplomatic solution to the nuclear issue, on which Moscow remains firm in its own belief that dismantlement is the only acceptable final outcome. As is his custom, Putin did not miss an opportunity to take a shot along the way at the U.S. and its security presence in the region, again as reported by TASS.
"All this is possible. Moreover, in my opinion, it is in the interests of the Republic of Korea. But there seems to be a lack of sovereignty in making final decisions, there are some allied obligations of the Republic of Korea to the US, and at some point everything stops," the Russian leader noted. "If these projects and the similar ones were implemented, this would create necessary conditions for building trust, which is so needed for solving the key issues."
The only thing left was a hint that Moscow would allow some North Korean workers to remain in Russia - "those Korean laborers work well in Russia, they're diligent, law-abiding people" - by possibly trying to exploit the loophole in UN sanctions allowing for humanitarian aid. Russian press reports make it clear that Moscow is ready to support an easing of sanctions at the UN, but it will not act unilaterally, except in very marginal ways.
It is not much yield for a summit, but then again, there was not much invested either in this drive-by summit. Not even the class schedule at FEFU was disrupted, so no loss there. One hopes that Comrade Kim, as Putin nostalgically referred to him, will enjoy his visit to the metropolis of Vladivostok. Maybe next visit, he can spare some time for a trip to the marbled gaming rooms at the Ho family casino in the woods outside the city, where Chinese high rollers go to lose their money to the beautiful Russian lady blackjack dealers.
ABE'S OWN FLY-BY SUMMIT
Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo will be in DC for his own version of a quick visit/summit - he stops on his way from Europe, and will also visit Canada. Trade negotiators Lighthizer and Motegi met again today in DC (see elsewhere in the Nelson Report for updates on this) and there is still talk of a quick path to a trade deal. But your correspondent, based on touching base with veteran Japanese political reporters back in Tokyo, would guess that Abe's mind, not unlike that of our own Supreme Leader, is focused like a laser on his own domestic political situation.
Everything is heading toward a possible double election in July - the Upper House has a schedule vote for part of its seats but Abe is increasingly inclined to dissolve the Lower House in hopes of not only increasing voter turnout, which he believes will favor the ruling coalition of the Liberal Democratic and Komei parties, but perhaps set him up to extend his time in office beyond current plans to leave in 2021. The opposition parties are accelerating their own talks aimed at a partial merger in preparation for this vote, well aware that the split in their ranks almost guarantees an easy LDP victory.
The double loss suffered by the LDP in the by-elections for two open Lower House seats in Okinawa and Osaka had some negative impact for Abe - it cracked a bit the six-year long myth of invincibility that he so carefully cultivates. That myth is important not only for keeping the opposition confined to the role of gadflies but perhaps more crucially in restraining the ambitions of those inside the LDP who are eager to have their own turn in power. But the election losses were too driven by local issues - bases in Okinawa, the call to merge the city and prefectural governments of Osaka, a la Tokyo - to be seen as harbingers of a national trend. Even though there has been turmoil in Tokyo with the resignation of two gaffe prone and incompetent members of Abe's cabinet, this does not seem to have harmed his poll ratings.
All this makes Abe more likely to go for double elections, confident that even with higher turnout, the voters will not be in a mood to punish him. But in Japanese political culture, there has to be an ostensible reason to call an early election. One idea was to reach a territorial deal with Moscow and call the election to ratify that diplomatic triumph. But that seems out of reach now, thanks to Putin.
This leaves the tried and true - it was used before for the same purpose - gambit of delaying the planned hike in the value added tax to 10 percent in October. The Finance Ministry is opposed of course, as are some in the business community and even within the LDP, where fiscal policy concerns remain strong. But the signs of a slowdown in the economy are feeding the argument that a tax hike at this time could send the economy into recession. So Abe can plausibly portray himself as coming to the relief of poor Japanese consumers and households. Of course, many will see this - justifiably - as a cynical ploy. But that is not likely to stop Abe.
That brings us to tomorrow's meeting in DC. Whatever the ostensible agenda is said to be - or what the Japanese media is told by the Prime Minister's Office and dutifully reports as if it is true - the actual purpose of this meeting, and the current tour of Europe, is to show off Abe as the irreplaceable leader of a Japan that is again emergent on the world scene. That includes Japan as the leader and defender of the liberal world order and the internal trading system. So a bad trade deal, one that does not reinforce the TPP and remove the threat of auto sanctions, is not in Abe's interest.
Abe's political future is now linked to the new Imperial era going forward and the showcase for that is to be the official visit of Trump to Japan in late May, for the first audience of the new Emperor with a foreign visitor, and other dog and pony show moments (Sumo tournaments, a visit to Japan's own de facto aircraft carrier, soon to be equipped with American-made F35B short take and landing jets, and whatever else they can come up with). That will be followed in June by hosting the G20 meeting in Osaka. The meeting with Trump is all to prepare for this "grand political gala in May/June," as a veteran Japanese journalist told me, "as long as Trump behaves."
And that, as is always the case, is the rub.