By Josh Smith
SEOUL (Reuters) - The coming meetings between Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un could help reshape how the reclusive and distrustful North has dealt with its partners in Moscow and Beijing, analysts say.
When Kim visited Russia for the first time in 2019, his summit with Putin was almost an afterthought amid the flashier meetings with then-U.S. President Donald Trump and multiple visits to meet with North Korea's only treaty ally and main economic partner, China.
This year, Pyongyang's relations with Moscow are in the spotlight, with Kim choosing Russia - not China - as his first foreign visit since before the COVID-19 pandemic, raising the prospect that he may be looking to balance the two major powers on his borders against each other, analysts said.
It remains to be seen whether Putin and Kim agree on anything substantive such as an arms deal or economic aid, but their moves to repair ties may have implications for the war in Ukraine, tensions with South Korea and Japan, and the China-U.S. rivalry.
“North Korea has basically been on its own, without any true allies,” said Artyom Lukin of Russia's Far Eastern Federal University. “Now North Korea needs allies in the full politico-military sense of the term.”
China will be Pyongyang's main ally and protector, but Russia will have a role too, he said.
“Unlike the China-North Korea alliance, the Russia-North Korea alliance will be that of equals,” he added.
Early in his rule, Kim's relations with Beijing and Moscow were chilly, with both countries joining international sanctions against North Korea over its nuclear weapons and missile programs.
Since 2018, however, Kim has moved to repair ties and has capitalised on rivalries that have split China and Russia from the United States and others.
Pyongyang and Moscow have denied that North Korea would supply arms to Russia, but they have vowed to boost military ties, possibly including joint drills, and discussions may also include Russian humanitarian aid to the North.
Some analysts and Beijing-based diplomats say China may view Kim's decision to visit Russia in his first international trip in years as somewhat of a slight.
Kim visited Xi in Beijing in his first known foreign trip as leader in 2018, and they last met when Xi visited Pyongyang in 2019, just before the COVID pandemic erupted.
"If you are Xi Jinping, you have to wonder why Kim is visiting Vladivostok and not Beijing on the first trip outside North Korea since before the pandemic," said John Delury, a professor of Chinese Studies at Yonsei University in Seoul, South Korea.
"During the Cold War, Kim's grandfather (Kim Il Sung) subtly and effectively played on the vanities and anxieties of Beijing and Moscow, who were locked in a competition for dominance within the socialist bloc," he added. "In this new Cold War-ish environment, we should not dismiss the possibility that the Chinese are a bit miffed seeing Kim choose Putin over them."
China's foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the summit. Several Chinese academics asked to comment on the summit declined, saying the matter was too sensitive. The few reports in Chinese state media have referred only to official statements from Russia and North Korea on the meeting.
Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, said he was unsurprised that Kim chose Russia as his first post-pandemic destination abroad given the North Korean leader's interest in exploiting "new Cold War" geopolitics.
Even so, tensions and distrust linger among North Korea, China, and Russia, and that may limit cooperation on things such as joint military drills or transferring sensitive military technology, he said.
"Putin is unlikely to provide Kim with technology to miniaturise nuclear devices or propel nuclear-powered submarines because even a desperate war machine does not trade its military crown jewels for old, dumb munitions," Easley said. "Trust is so low among Russia, North Korea, and China that a real alliance of the three isn’t credible or sustainable."
(Reporting by Josh Smith; Additional reporting by Martin Quin Pollard in Beijing. Editing by Gerry Doyle)