North Korean leader Kim Jong Un headed to Russia early Wednesday for his first summit with Vladimir Putin, state media reported.
Kim, accompanied by a high-level delegation, was travelling by private train to Russia, the official KCNA news agency reported, without specifying his final destination.
The Kremlin said Tuesday that the pair would meet in the far eastern Russian city of Vladivostok on Thursday.
The North Korean leader looks to rebuild ties with an old ally amid a standoff with the United States. Kremlin foreign policy aide Yuri Ushakov said the meeting — the first between the two men — would take place in the Pacific coast city of Vladivostok, before Putin heads to Beijing for another summit.
“The focus will be on a political and diplomatic solution to the nuclear problem on the Korean Peninsula,” Ushakov told a briefing on Tuesday. “Russia intends to help consolidate positive trends in every way,” he said.
Anticipation for the summit had been building since the Kremlin announced last week the two men would meet by the end of April. Russian and North Korean flags were already flying on lamp posts Tuesday on Vladivostok’s Russky island, where the summit is expected to take place.
The talks follow repeated invitations from Putin since Kim last year embarked on a series of diplomatic overtures. Since March 2018 the formerly reclusive North Korean leader has held four meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping, three with the South’s Moon Jae-in, two with US President Donald Trump and one with Vietnam’s president. Analysts say he is now looking for wider international support in his standoff with Washington.
At Kim’s last summit with Trump in Hanoi in February, Pyongyang demanded immediate relief from sanctions imposed over its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programmes. But the talks broke down over what North Korea was prepared to give up in return.
Last week Pyongyang launched a blistering attack on US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, demanding he be removed from the negotiations just hours after announcing it had carried out a new weapons test. Moscow has called for the sanctions to be eased, while the US has accused it of trying to help Pyongyang evade some of the measures — accusations Russia denies.
The summit will be the first between the two neighbours since Kim’s father Kim Jong Il met Dmitry Medvedev in Russia eight years ago. Ties between Pyongyang and Moscow, once its most important ally, go back decades.
The Soviet Union installed Kim’s grandfather Kim Il Sung as North Korea’s leader and was a crucial backer and main aid provider to Pyongyang during the Cold War. The USSR started to reduce funding to the North as it began to seek reconciliation with Seoul in the 1980s, and Pyongyang was hit hard by the demise of the Soviet Union.
China has since stepped in to become the isolated North’s most important ally, its largest trading partner and crucial fuel supplier.
Analysts say that by reaching out to Russia Kim could be looking to balance Beijing’s influence, while Putin is keen to project Russian influence in another global flashpoint.