Why Trump Should Meet Kim in Vladivostok

A combination photo shows a Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) handout of Kim Jong Un released on May 10, 2016, and Donald Trump posing for a photo in New York City, U.S., May 17, 2016. REUTERS/KCNA handout via Reuters/File Photo & REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

Russia’s proximity to North Korea will remind all concerned that potent external powers have very significant security assurances to offer Pyongyang.

One of the main intriguing questions about the possible summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-un is the venue for this unprecedented event. The Russian Far East should be a serious possibility among the various choices.

Places all over the world map are being suggested—from Guam to Sweden. Of course, the North Koreans themselves would prefer that Trump to pay a visit to Pyongyang. After all, in 2000 one of his presidential predecessors, Bill Clinton, was already very close to making a trip to the DPRK (and finally made it, but, alas, later, not in the status of POTUS). But this time a president’s arrival in North Korea is highly unlikely. It would make Kim Jong-un look like the master of the situation, with Trump being the supplicant.

Panmunjom, a location in the neutral area in the demilitarized zone on the border between the North and South, is another possible venue. However, it lacks appropriate facilities for such a grand event, although the meeting with ROK President Moon Jae-in scheduled for late April could be a good rehearsal. It is likely, however, that Trump would not want to use the same place for a second time in just one month, as it would diminish the spectacular effect of his historic rendezvous with the North Korean leader.

Holding a meeting on South Korean soil, in Seoul or on Jeju Island, is another option. Yet going to the South may not be acceptable to Kim, as this might be seen as giving too much credit to the South Koreans. There is also an issue of security and trust. Would Kim be willing to travel and stay in a country where he is by constitution a leader of an unlawful entity and where a significant portion of the population, including many in the ROK establishment, exhibit a strong aversion to the North Korean regime. Millions might march against him, as the latest demonstrations in Seoul have shown.

Kim himself suggested being treated at the White House but that might be politically difficult for the American establishment. How about Europe, Southeast Asia or Mongolia? Kim may be reluctant to travel so far from home for a variety of obvious reasons, including logistical ones. Getting to Sweden, for example, would require a stopover in Moscow. It should be kept in mind, moreover, that he has never been abroad as leader of North Korea, so the logistical issues are not minor.

China is an obvious possible option. Beijing, Shenyang or Changchun, would all be logical venues given their proximity to the DPRK border and the availability of overland routes. Yet relations between the two formal allies have hit unprecedented lows in recent years. Pyongyang doesn’t trust Beijing and feels resentful about China’s enforcement of harsh penalties on North Korea. Kim knows that his delegation would be subject to control and Chinese influence in Beijing. The North Koreans seek to avoid dependence on China and would not want to place the Chinese in that powerful position of brokers/mediators that the host status would confer on them. We are hearing from North Korean sources that China as the summit host is absolutely out of the question.

That leaves Russia as the most feasible option. The Russian Far East’s main city, Vladivostok, is just one hundred miles from the North Korean border. Kim Jong-un can safely travel there by air, on his personal train (his father’s preferred mode of making voyages), or even by an automobile cortege. Speaking of Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il visited the Russian Far East, including Vladivostok, several times in the 2000s. He had personal nostalgic feelings as well, since he was actually born near Khabarovsk, where his father stayed during the World War II. Vladivostok possesses world-class convention facilities that were originally built to host the APEC summit in 2012, which are perfect from the point of security, being located on the picturesque Russky Island off the Vladivostok coast. As an aside, many North Korean guest workers participated in the construction of this modern and attractive facility with a majestic view of the Pacific Ocean. Owned by Far Eastern Federal University, the convention facilities have since hosted high-profile international events, above all annual Eastern Economic Forums attended by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, President Moon and other national leaders. Importantly, both the United States and the DPRK maintain consulates in Vladivostok. These consulates will make logistics and security concerns even easier.

Russia has repeatedly suggested Vladivostok as a possible venue for international talks involving North Korea—a sort of a standing invitation. It was one of the options for a possible meeting between Kim Jong-il and Kim Dae-jung in the 2000s, but Putin chose Irkutsk as the suggested venue for the meeting (which never materialized despite Kim Jong Il’s approval). Russian officials would be willing to offer its Far Eastern capital as a convenient place for the Trump-Kim summit, although so far no serious discussions with North Koreans have been held. However, among the major powers, Moscow currently enjoys the best relations with the North and there are lots of contacts (the forthcoming minister-level intergovernmental commission meeting is one example) and channels, where the issue might be discussed. To be sure, Pyongyang trusts no one, but it distrusts the Russians the least. For the North Koreans (and the South Koreans, too), Russia is influential enough to carry weight on the peninsula, but, in contrast to China, her influence does not carry the risk of becoming too overbearing. This is why Kim Jong-un might well like the Vladivostok option, and his security service would be much relieved in comparison to other locations.