Trump is likely to ask Putin for help with his North Korea problem

  • President Donald Trump may ask Russian President Vladimir Putin for help on denuclearizing North Korea when the two leaders meet on Monday.
  • Moscow has tangible interests on the Korean Peninsula and stands to gain from a greater presence in the region.
Street mural in Brooklyn depicts President Trump in Russian President Putin's hand
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Street mural in Brooklyn depicts President Trump in Russian President Putin's hand

Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump are sure to discuss North Korea at their bilateral summit as the American leader looks to tap Moscow's strategic leverage over the isolated state.

The controversial heads of state are due to meet in Helsinki on Monday, with arms control, Ukraine, Syria and Iran likely to dominate talks. Pyongyang's pledge to denuclearize may not top the agenda, but it's likely to get considerable attention.

The U.S. president will "absolutely" seek Putin's help on the matter, according to Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein, associate scholar at the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute. For one, Trump may ask the Russian leader to maintain sanctions on ruler Kim Jong Un's regime, he said.

Putin imposed restrictions on North Korea to comply with a U.N. Security Council resolution last October, but his administration has generally rejected most U.S.-led efforts to isolate Pyongyang.

For its diplomacy to succeed, it's crucial for Washington to maintain pressure on the pariah nation, but Beijing and Moscow are reluctant to do so following April's inter-Korean summit and last month's Trump-Kim meeting, explained Silberstein.

"Both China and Russia see the cooling of ties as significant enough progress to argue that sanctions should be lessened in the near future, while Trump argues that they should stay on with full pressure until North Korea has abolished its nuclear weapons," the scholar said.

Russia's economic influence over North Korea is nowhere as great as China's, but it still wields considerable sway thanks to deep-rooted trade, cultural and commercial relations. The Eurasian country is a major destination for North Korean laborers and in 2014, it wrote off 90 percent of Pyongyang's $11 billion debt from the Soviet-era. In May, Kim said he "highly" valued Putin for opposing the U.S., according to Russian media.

"Trump will mention North Korea [to Putin] to ensure that all parties are aware of his intended outcome and to listen to any pushback or suggestions that Putin may have," said Tony Nash, founder and chief economist at analytics firm Complete Intelligence: "Every little bit of influence and information helps with North Korea."

But Putin won't be doing Trump any favors — the world's largest nation by size stands to benefit from a denuclearized North Korea.

"Russia is hoping that a potential cooling of tensions in the area will give it economic and geopolitical advantages," explained Silberstein.

A peace process could potentially bring about infrastructure dividends such as railways that connect Seoul with Moscow via Pyongyang or greater benefits from North Korea's port in Rajin, he continued. The facility, located near the Russian border, offers opportunities for Russian exports because water there doesn't freeze during winter — it's also the site of a weekly ferry service to Vladivostok.

Depending on how much progress Pyongyang makes on surrendering nuclear weapons, sanctions may be finally eased. That, in turn, opens a wealth of trade and economic windows for North Korea's allies, namely Beijing and Moscow.

"Putin is well-positioned to exploit these possibilities," said a report published by 38 North, a research group under Washington-based think tank The Stimson Center. From South Korean President Moon Jae-in's June visit to Moscow to a planned Putin-Kim summit set for September, "Russia has a valuable role to play in helping resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis, and Trump and his national security team surely know this," the report stated.

The Kremlin has long sought to be a leader on the Korean Peninsula as part of its ambitions to be a great power in North Asia. If Russia gets more involved in the peace process, experts said, its growing presence could ultimately weaken American influence in the region while simultaneously balancing China's rising clout.

"As Trump spoke of North Korea as a potential destination for foreign investment, so Putin will recall plans for a railway route that would bring South Korean cargoes to the Trans-Siberian Railway and a gas pipeline and electrical power lines that could pass from South Korea to Russia via North Korea," Alexander Gabuev, senior fellow at foreign policy-focused think tank Carnegie Moscow Center, wrote in a June note.

"That would give Pyongyang not just transit revenues but also reasons to be more pacific," Gabuev added.