Japanese officials have also opposed the idea, which China, Russia, and South Korea all support, of gradually easing sanctions on North Korea as Kim takes steps to roll back his nuclear program. Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono has argued that this “piece by piece” approach doomed the Six-Party Talks.
Officials in Tokyo were likely heartened by Trump’s decision in Vietnam to reject an offer by Kim to dismantle his main nuclear facility in exchange for relief from most sanctions, which would have done next to nothing to reduce the threat to Japan. And that summit’s collapse has provided an opening for Japanese officials to further make their case in Washington, where Abe has a receptive audience with hard-line administration officials such as National Security Adviser John Bolton.
Offering a glimpse of the message Abe will deliver to Trump, Kono declared during recent consultations in Washington that the U.S. and Japan need to “align” their response when it comes to the complete elimination of all of North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction.
In another sign of how the diplomatic landscape has shifted, exactly a year since the leaders of North and South Korea met for the first time at the border between the two countries, Kim headed to Vladivostok to huddle with Putin while South Korea planned celebrations of the anniversary of the inter-Korean summit all on its own.
Read: Why Russia won't help more on North Korea
For the North Korean leader, the Putin meeting was an opportunity to pursue the economic relief he failed to achieve in his summit with Trump. It was also a chance to demonstrate that he is not as isolated as the United States and Japan would like, nor as dependent for support on China—North Korea’s only military ally and largest trading partner by far—as Chinese officials might think.
Kim has had a standing invitation since last May to visit Russia, notes Artyom Lukin, an international-relations scholar at the Far Eastern Federal University in Vladivostok. But he only took Putin up on the offer after the Vietnam summit in February, in order to sidestep deadlocked diplomacy with the U.S. and South Korea.
The stakes of the summit were lower for Putin, who was aiming to “symbolically reaffirm Russia’s great-power role as a major player on the Korean peninsula,” than for Kim, who is in need of something much more vital—an outlet from an international economic blockade, Lukin told me. Putin’s “main geopolitical game” is in the Middle East, “where the Kremlin has established itself as a kingmaker and has got real leverage,” he said. As part of its “strategic partnership” with China, Russia, which was once North Korea’s main patron during the Cold War, “seems to have tacitly recognized that most of East Asia, including the peninsula, is China’s sphere of influence,” according to Lukin. It is coordinating and aligning its North Korea policies with China’s, and “playing the second fiddle to Beijing” in Korean affairs.