(ATTN: RECASTS first 2 paras; ADDS more info in paras 7-14)
By Song Sang-ho and Koh Byung-joon
VLADIVOSTOK/SEOUL, April 24 (Yonhap) -- North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and Russian President Vladimir Putin are likely to discuss denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and possible economic cooperation between the neighbors when they hold their first summit meeting this week, observers said Wednesday.
The Kremlin has confirmed that their first summit will take place in Russia's Far Eastern city of Vladivostok on Thursday. The North's state media reported that Kim departed by train for Russia on Wednesday morning. The train is likely to arrive in Vladivostok later in the day.
Given the stalled nuclear talks between the United States and the North, Putin and Kim are expected to discuss cooperation on the denuclearization front. Moscow and Pyongyang favor a phased, incremental approach to the North's nuclear disarmament, while Washington calls for the North to take sweeping denuclearization steps before any rewards are given.
Following the collapse of Kim's second summit with U.S. President Donald Trump in Hanoi in February, Pyongyang has been seen firming up diplomacy with its traditional major power supporters: Russia and China.
The Hanoi summit ended even without a deal due to a failure to reconcile differences over the extent of Pyongyang's denuclearization and Washington's sanctions relief.
Some observers said that during the summit, Putin could reiterate Russia's preference for resolving the nuclear conundrum under a multilateral dialogue platform that may involve the two Koreas and concerned major powers.
The makeup of top North Korean officials accompanying Kim might provide a glimpse into what agenda items the upcoming summit will be focused on.
The North's Korean Central News Agency earlier reported that Kim's entourage includes two vice chairmen of the North's ruling Workers' Party's Central Committee -- Kim Phyong-hae and O Su-yong -- and top diplomats, Ri Yong-ho and Choe Son-hui.
Ri and Choe are top nuclear negotiators who were involved in the Hanoi summit. Choe, in particular, was recently promoted to first vice foreign minister and appointed as a member of the State Affairs Commission, signaling that she has more clout over the communist state's foreign policy.
Observers say that Choe's inclusion could represent Pyongyang's push to enlist support from Russia in its efforts to ease global sanctions on Pyongyang.
Russia has called for easing sanctions on Pyongyang and voiced its support for Pyongyang's step-by-step denuclearization and corresponding concessions from Washington.
Given that O Su-yong, another member of Kim's entourage, handles economic affairs, Kim and Putin could also discuss expansion of bilateral economic cooperation, observers said.
Russia's Tass news agency reported that Moscow will also send top officials handling affairs related to transportation, development, railways and energy.
Last month, North Korean media said that Pyongyang and Moscow agreed to strengthen "high-level contact" and intensify cooperation on the economy and in humanitarian and various other fields.
The Kim-Putin summit is also likely to touch on the fate of around 10,000 North Korean workers in Russia that face repatriation at the end of this year due to international sanctions banning any country for issuing new visas for such workers.
Amid crippling sanctions that have dried up key sources of the North's hard currency, Pyongyang has been fretting about the prospect of their repatriation and the subsequent loss of overseas remittances.
Moscow is unlikely to approve the extension of the workers' stay in breach of the sanctions that it has subscribed to, but observers say it could allow the workers to remain through such ways as reclassifying them as "industrial trainees."
Given the small trade volume between Russia and the North, and global sanctions against Pyongyang, summit discussions on the scope of their economic cooperation are expected to be limited.
Two-way trade was tallied at about US$34 million last year, a decrease of 56.3 percent from the previous year.
At the summit, the two sides could touch on the possibilities of three-way economic projects involving the Koreas and Russia. The projects may include the Rajin-Khasan project, a logistics scheme that got bogged down after Pyongyang's nuclear and missile provocations years ago.
However, most of the bilateral economic exchanges could face restrictions from U.N. Security Council sanctions.
One area that could circumvent the sanctions would be humanitarian aid. Observers said Putin could pledge to bolster such assistance to cement ties with Kim and at the same time burnish Russia's image as an aid donor.
Securing economic backing from the North's major power backers is apparently a key part of Kim's policy focus on economic development, which he committed to last year following his claim in November 2017 to have completed the state nuclear force.
The establishment of new relations between the two countries is likely to be another agenda item.
Although Kim has held four rounds of summit talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping, he has yet to meet face to face with Putin.
This week's summit in Vladivostok will be the first between the leaders of the two countries in eight years, after Kim's late father and former leader, Kim Jong-il, met then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in 2011.
According to Seoul's unification ministry, the North's late national founder and current leader's grandfather Kim Il-sung held 13 summits with Russia, while the late former leader and current leader's father Kim Jong-il held four summits with Russia.
Kim Jong-un is expected to arrive at a Vladivostok train station on Wednesday afternoon and stay there until Friday.
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