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Putin summit helps Kim Jong Un show North Korea ‘has options,’ expert says

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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday plays a role in helping the young dictator demonstrate that his regime “has options” apart from the United States, according to one expert.

China for support, U.S. President Donald Trump’s regime is seeking to convince Kim that he could win American assistance in exchange for relinquishing his nuclear weapons. Instead, the highly anticipated summit in Russia is part of a “much broader program of diplomatic outreach” for Kim, said Scott Seaman, the Asia director at political risk consultancy Eurasia Group.

“After Hanoi, Kim has really wanted to demonstrate — maybe not only to President Trump and the outside world, but also to people inside North Korea — that he is in charge, and this is a regime that has options if the relationship with the United States doesn’t go where he wants it to go,” Seaman told CNBC’s “Squawk Box Asia” on Thursday.

A Kremlin advisor told Russian media the focus of Thursday’s meeting will be on North Korea’s nuclear program, with Russia looking to “consolidate the positive trends” from Kim’s recent suggestions that he may be willing to find common ground with adversaries.

Still, Thursday’s summit in the Pacific port city of Vladivostok comes two months after denuclearization talks between Washington and Pyongyang collapsed in Hanoi. The two sides could not come to a consensus on to what extent existing sanctions should be rolled back in exchange for North Korean steps toward denuclearization.

For Putin, talks with Kim are a “relatively easy way” to demonstrate that “he is a player in the region, that his interests need to be kept in mind by the U.S., North Korea and everyone else as this process moves forward,” Seaman said.

However, the Eurasia Group expert said Moscow is unlikely to be “prepared to publicly violate sanctions” imposed on Pyongyang at this point — even though the border between North Korea and Russia is “always going to be a porous” one.

“We already know that there are a lot of exchanges taking place both before and during the process that we’re seeing play out now,” Seaman said. “That ebbs and flows according to, often, the political situation above it, but I think North Korea still is getting squeezed pretty hard by all these sanctions.”

“So, I don’t think that we’re going to see anything dramatic come out of this meeting, but it is an important first step,” he added.

Some experts have suggested Kim is likely to use Thursday’s talks to try to convince Putin to allow the thousands of North Korean workers in Russia to stay.

Washington has said it believes the 100,000 North Korean laborers abroad — including some 30,000 in Russia — contribute more than $500 million a year to Pyongyang’s economy. Under current U.N. sanctions, all of those workers must return to North Korea by the end of 2019.

According to Seaman, that issue may be an area where the U.S. will offer some lenience to North Korea to move talks forward.

“Another twist to this story were some comments that Secretary of State (Mike) Pompeo made a couple of weeks ago, where he reiterated the strong U.S. stance — the need to keep sanctions in place until North Korea shows that it is very ready to denuclearize,” Seaman said.

“But at the same time, he made a comment about North Korean workers abroad — perhaps, at least, some people interpret that to suggest that there might be some wiggle room,” he added. “That might be an area where the U.S. would offer some additional flexibility that would help the talks maybe move a step forward.”

—Reuters contributed to this report.

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