Never mind the substance, here's the visuals: Putin summit a win for Kim

Sunghee Hwang

The first summit between Kim Jong Un and Russian President Vladimir Putin was short on public content but the mere fact of it was a diplomatic boost for Pyongyang in its nuclear stalemate with the US, analysts said.

Thursday's talks in Vladivostok were the North Korean leader's first meeting with another head of state since returning from his February summit with US President Donald Trump in Hanoi, which broke down without a deal on Pyongyang's nuclear arsenal.

In Russia, Kim said little about the specifics of his discussions with Putin, preferring promises of strengthening traditional ties -- and did not mention the word "denuclearisation" once in public.

There was no joint statement -- and the Kremlin had said beforehand there would not be.

The Russian president told reporters that, like Washington, Moscow wanted to see "complete denuclearisation", but added that North Korea's security should be guaranteed, without going into detail.

Despite the limited substance, analysts say Kim got exactly what he was looking for: a strong handshake with Putin in front of international media.

And unlike some other occasions, the Russian president did not keep his guest waiting.

"The summit was heavy on diplomatic symbolism rather than actual cooperation, but the meeting itself is an achievement for Kim," said Shin Beom-chul of the Asan Institute of Policy Studies.

It was the latest chapter in the North Korean leader's summit diplomacy, aimed at chipping away some of the negative public image of his regime, analysts said.

For six years after inheriting power, the North Korean leader was an international recluse and remained within his borders.

But since March 2018, he has held meetings four times with Chinese President Xi Jinping, three with South Korea's Moon Jae-in, two with Trump and one each with Vietnam's president and Singapore's prime minister.

"Kim understands there is clearly a benefit in just holding a summit," said Harry Kazianis of the Center for National Interest ahead of the talks.

"All Kim needs to be successful is images of him shaking Putin's hand -- a sort of selfie diplomacy with summit pictures being plastered all over the media -- to prove to the world he is a global statesman."

- Wining and dining -

In Thursday's expanded meeting, Kim was accompanied only by Ri Yong Ho and Choe Son Hui -- his foreign minister and vice foreign minister.

Opposite them sat about a dozen Russians, among them officials handling economic cooperation with the North, such as mothballed gas pipeline and power grid projects.

Their North Korean counterparts did not travel to Russia with Kim and their absence showed that reviving such joint projects was nowhere near the top of Pyongyang's agenda, said Koo Kab-woo, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies.

For the North, the main goal of the summitry was finding "another exit" -- an alternative option to China -- Koo said, and seek more international support in its nuclear stand-off against Washington.

At the meeting with Trump in Hanoi, the cash-strapped North demanded immediate relief from sanctions imposed over its weapons programmes, but the talks broke up in disagreement over what Pyongyang was prepared to give up in return.

Since then, North Korea has carried out a new weapons test and demanded the removal from negotiations of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo -- who said Wednesday that he expected "bumpy" talks ahead with Pyongyang.

North Korea will expect the sight of Kim and Putin wining and dining together to prompt Washington to return to the negotiating table with a better offer, Koo said.