Once again North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is showing himself an adept strategist in multidimensional chess, while President Donald Trump and his aides don’t know they’re being played.
Kim’s latest gambit is a trip this week across the border, to the Russian port city of Vladivostok, where he’ll hold his first meeting ever with Vladimir Putin—the first time that any North Korean and Russian leader have spoken face to face since 2011.
Coming in the wake of the disastrous Kim-Trump summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, two months ago, the meeting seems to be a showpiece for four audiences.
First, Kim means to show his own people (especially members of the ruling elite) that, despite what happened in Hanoi, their dear leader is a respected global figure and his regime a peer to the world’s major powers.
Second, he means to show Trump that he’s courting other diplomatic partners in his quest for security.
Third, he’s inviting Putin—who is always eager to demonstrate his global reach—to reestablish an alliance that dwindled away decades ago, just after the Cold War, during Russia’s decline and China’s surge.
Finally, he’s showing Chinese President Xi Jinping that North Korea could be a junior partner in the budding Moscow-Beijing entente, as an alternative to his dalliance with Washington. Or, to the extent there are still tensions between these two large neighbors, he may be exploiting those tensions for his own benefit.
Kim Il-sung, the founder of the North Korean state and Kim Jong-un’s grandfather, once characterized the tiny, impoverished nation as “a shrimp among whales” and devised a strategy to survive by playing the whales—Russia, China, Japan, South Korea, and the United States—off one another. The current Kim seems to have studied the family handbook well.
Meanwhile, Trump is doing nothing to find a lane in this game. In fact, he’s abandoning it, thinking that his great friendship with Kim is all that counts. Trump’s stated policy is to sway or compel North Korea to dismantle its nuclear arsenal. Putin and Xi would like to see that happen, too: Like his Soviet predecessors, Putin is nervous when any nearby country—whether ally or rival—has nuclear weapons, and even though China is a vital lifeline to North Korea, Xi doesn’t much trust Kim with his finger on the button either.
In ordinary times, an American president would form an alliance of convenience—even if just a single-issue alliance—with Russia and China to exert joint pressure on North Korea. But these are not ordinary times. Despite Trump’s fondness for Putin and Putin’s role in putting him in office, U.S.-Russia tensions are as sharp as they’ve been since the Cold War. And Trump is going out of his way to aggravate tensions with China. On Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the U.S. would remove the waiver allowing China, along with seven other countries, to import oil from Iran without triggering U.S. sanctions. Since Iran is a major supplier of Chinese oil, and since Washington and Beijing are already embroiled in tense trade talks inflamed by Trump’s tariffs, Xi is in no mood to do Trump any favors.
It’s not clear what tangible benefits Kim might take away from his meeting with Putin. Neither has much to offer the other. One notable exception: Kim’s regime gets some hard currency from the 40,000 North Koreans who work in Russian enterprises and send their pay home. Under U.N. sanctions, which Russia approved, these workers have to go back to North Korea by the end of the year. Kim will probably ask Putin to ignore the dictum. It’s unlikely that Putin will risk violating a Security Council resolution, short of some extraordinary deal far beyond Kim’s capacity.
In short, the meeting may be mainly for show. But since much of the region’s great game has involved show—demonstrations of force, volleys of harsh rhetoric, repeated rounds of bluff and bluster amid an atmosphere of “drama and catastrophe”—festive shows can have consequences.
Another way that Trump could exert some control over this game is to engage in an arms-control forum that has the slightest chance of success. This could be bilateral talks with North Korea or a multilateral forum—such as the six-party talks in the 2000s—involving all the regional powers. Russia and China prefer that set up, and it could reduce tensions all around. But regardless of the forum, Trump has done nothing. Prodded by Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton, who don’t really want a deal with North Korea, he has put just one offer on the table—a grand bargain in which Kim surrenders all of his nuclear materials (and, in the Hanoi variant of this, his chemical weapons and missiles as well), after which Trump lifts all sanctions. Kim has always insisted on phased, step-by-step measures—which might not lead anywhere either, but which could at least keep the peace and sustain North Korea’s moratorium on nuclear and missile testing.
In the meantime, it’s instructive to watch Kim masterfully running the family plays and sad to see Trump smiling but unaware that he’s getting pushed to the sidelines.
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