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Kim Jong Un, Vladimir Putin To Meet Face-To-Face In Vladivostok

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

A little more than a year ago, North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un, had never traveled outside his country on diplomatic missions. Well, he's become quite a globetrotter now. He's gone to China, South Korea, Singapore and Vietnam to meet with world leaders, and now Kim has arrived in the Russian port city of Vladivostok, where he's meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin tomorrow. NPR's Anthony Kuhn is following this from Tokyo.

Hi, Anthony.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Hey there, David.

GREENE: I guess some geography here - Vladivostok is actually a lot closer to North Korea than it is to Moscow. It's Putin who had the long trip here.

KUHN: That's right. If he flies, he has an 8 1/2-hour flight. Kim, on the other hand, is taking a train, so it's going to take him a bit longer, even though Vladivostok is in his backyard. But he's already there. We've seen him on TV exiting his train and being greeted by Russian officials. He's expected to meet with Putin one-on-one on Thursday and then go into a bigger meeting. He'll probably tour the city a bit and then head back to North Korea on Friday. And the Kremlin is saying that Putin and Kim are going to be discussing the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

GREENE: Why now? What's the timing of this visit, do you think?

KUHN: Well, as you noted, Kim was in diplomatic isolation until last year. And you know, Russia is North Korea's second main ally, really, after China. And the Soviet Union was North Korea's first main backer; they installed Kim Jong Un's grandfather as the country's leader after World War II. So there's a lot of historical significance, and Kim has to make up for lost time.

GREENE: I want to play a little bit of tape here of President Trump. This was Trump back in February in Hanoi, where he was meeting with Kim. The two were shaking hands in front of the media.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I think that your country has tremendous economic potential - unbelievable, unlimited. And I think that you will have a tremendous future with your country - a great leader. And I look forward to watching it happen and helping it to happen, and we will help it to happen.

GREENE: Now, of course, Anthony, Trump and Kim's meeting ended early; there was no agreement. So I guess - I wonder, is this Kim saying, OK, if nothing feels like it's moving forward with the United States, I'm going to reach out to more traditional allies now?

KUHN: That's definitely part of it. I mean, you know, Trump walking out of the summit saying that, you know, this is a bad deal, and we can't accept it, was a tremendous loss of face for Kim, especially to a domestic audience, and he's trying to repair that damage. So what he's saying now is, following Hanoi, we're going to try to rely on ourselves to get through the sanctions, we're going to hold out hope still of a third summit with Trump, but we're also going to explore alternative options - Plan B is China, with which they do most of their business, and Plan C is Russia.

GREENE: Well, if the Kremlin and Russia are saying that the goal is denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, I mean, what does Putin bring to the table? What does he have to offer?

KUHN: Well, economically, he doesn't have much; the two sides only did $34 million in trade last year, mostly because of sanctions. You've got North Koreans working in Russia, doing things like working as lumberjacks, but because of the sanctions, they're going to come home. So Putin really, I think, wants influence and leverage in the region, and it's really very symbolic. He doesn't have a lot of money, which is what Kim needs.

GREENE: Think this could put pressure on President Trump to come back to the negotiating table, if he's watching these two leaders' meeting?

KUHN: Yes, well, people have - in the Russian media, people have voiced that hope; it's impossible to tell. But they are going to talk about denuclearization, and the U.S. is clearly interested in this visit because the U.S. special envoy on North Korea, Stephen Biegun, paid a visit to Moscow just ahead of Kim's trip.

GREENE: NPR's Anthony Kuhn reporting on this meeting between Kim and Putin. He's been following this from Tokyo. Antony, thanks as always.

KUHN: You're welcome, David.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOR'S "VAULTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.