The summit meeting on April 25 in Vladivostok between Russia President Vladimir Putin and North Korea leader Kim Jong Un is a useful lesson in the basic reality that power is the currency of international relations, today as through history.
Putin used the opportunity to underscore the influence of his nation, in Northeast Asia as elsewhere. His leadership orchestrates this impact, despite a weak economy. Kim demonstrated that his own nation has more options in the contemporary power game than dealing only with the United States.
Putin emphasized the importance of the multilateral framework to efforts to curtail and eventually remove North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. The Six-Party talks on North Korea nuclear efforts have included China, Japan, Russia and the U.S. along with Pyongyang and Seoul.
These talks currently are on hold, but until a decade ago accounted for limited progress as well as communication. Putin is right they are an important diplomatic mechanism. The U.S. in earlier administrations was active and effective in orchestrating this effort.
Kim specifically dramatized distance from the U.S. government. Among other statements, he declared Secretary of State Mike Pompeo must not participate in any future nuclear negotiations.
Last August, President Donald Trump announced that Pompeo would not go to North Korea as planned. The reason given is that the government in Pyongyang has not followed through on expectations to dismantle nuclear weapons facilities or curtail development.
Another reality is the long-term deterioration of the backward communist economy of North Korea. In May 2016, Kim wore a business suit rather than uniform for a Communist Party Congress. He publicly acknowledged economic challenges, no longer avoidable.
The Communist Party Congress took place in a context of continuing tensions with South Korea. In 2013, North Korea announced a “state of war” with South Korea and threatened nuclear attack. Pyongyang abruptly abrogated the 1953 armistice agreement ending the Korean War, and cut the military “hot line” communications link with the south.
These developments appeared to be a prelude to war, yet there has been no evidence that North Korea has mobilized or is mobilizing to invade South Korea. Moreover, Pyongyang’s nuclear program remains rudimentary. Missile tests include some successes, but also dramatic failure.
Kim has publicly criticized those in the military “developing a taste for money” amid reports of corruption. As part of a major military shakeup, Kim assumed the rank of Marshal of the People’s Army, adding to a series of celebratory titles. He has been ruthless in executing those suspected of disloyalty, including close family members.
North Korea in sum has acted bizarrely for years. In late February 2012, North Korea agreed once more to cease their on-again, off-again nuclear program. In joint announcements coordinated with the U.S. Department of State, the regime agreed to halt enrichment of uranium and construction of weapons, and permit international inspection of nuclear facilities.
Yet two months later, Pyongyang tested a missile. The launch was an embarrassing flop. This erratic shifting course implies infighting among factions in the regime rather than total control by Kim and his immediate coterie.
Regarding Korea, President Dwight Eisenhower understood brutal realities of war. Stalled Korean War armistice talks quickly concluded successfully in 1953 following extensive U.S. bombing. Ike focused on getting the job done.
This built on President Truman’s courageous June 1950 decision to defend South Korea against invasion from the North. These presidents provide the example.
Disciplined diplomats are also crucial to success.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War” (NYU Press and Macmillan). Contact him at email@example.com.