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Summit of two loners: Kim breaks seclusion with Putin by his side

June 19, 2024 - 18:25 By Kim Arin
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un walks down the red carpet to greet Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Pyongyang Sunan International Airport outside Pyongyang, North Korea, on Tuesday. (Vladimir Smirnov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un appeared solemn in the early hours Wednesday as he stood solo on the red carpet laid out at the airport in Pyongyang for the arrival of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was making his first visit to the country in 24 years.

Putin, who is in the habit of arriving fashionably late to meetings with world leaders, touched down in Pyongyang some three hours later than planned, at well past 2 a.m.

After landing at the Pyongyang airport, the Russian president joined the red carpet with Kim and the two exchanged hugs and handshakes. Kim then offered Putin to get in the luxury limo -- reportedly a Russian-made Aurus -- ahead of him.

The back-to-back summit meetings with Putin in Vostochny spaceport in Russia’s far east last September and then in Pyongyang on Wednesday mark a break from Kim’s yearslong absence from the diplomatic stage.

Rep. Kim Gunn, who served as special representative for Korean Peninsula peace and security affairs until February, said the two leaders of old allies were meeting at a time when “they need each other more than before.”

“The war in Ukraine has left Putin internationally isolated, and so is Kim. North Korea isn’t speaking with South Korea and not so much with China, either, it appears,” he told The Korea Herald.

The former South Korean top nuclear envoy said that the early-hour airport reception seems to suggest that “Kim needs this meeting more than Putin does.”

He said that with Putin’s visit, domestically the North Korean leader would want to show his people that “things are going well, despite confrontations with the West and frigid relations with the South.”

“He is also telling the world that he is unfazed by the sanctions, and that he still has Putin by his side.”

Kim’s diplomatic reticence in the past four years or so was likely triggered by the Hanoi summit with former US President Donald Trump in 2019, which ended abruptly with no agreement, according to Nam Sung-wook, a professor at the Convergence Institute for National Unification in Seoul.

“Then there was COVID-19. Kim went into seclusion until the Ukraine war forced Russia to depend on North Korea for weapons supply,” he told The Korea Herald.

The two are anticipated to continue their friendship forged out of mutual need, with Putin extending an invitation to Kim for the another summit meeting in Moscow, according to Russia’s Sputnik state news agency.