A smiling and upbeat Kim Jong Un arrived Wednesday in far-eastern Russia aboard an armored train for a much-anticipated summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin that comes amid deadlocked global diplomacy over the North Korean leader's nuclear program.
Both leaders have high hopes for their first one-on-one meeting: Kim for a win after his failed second summit with U.S. President Donald Trump and Putin for a chance to raise Moscow's clout in the region and gain more leverage with Washington.
Speaking to Russia's state-owned Rossiya-24, Kim said he was hoping for a "successful and useful" visit and would like to discuss with Putin the "settlement of the situation in the Korean Peninsula" as well as bilateral ties with Russia.
It was Kim's first visit to Russia as North Korean leader; his late father, Kim Jong Il, visited Russia in 2011. The North Korean leader evoked his father's "great love for Russia" and said that he intends to strengthen ties between the two countries.
"I have heard a lot about your country and have long dreamt of visiting it," Kim was quoted as saying at his first stop, Russia's Khasan train station, near the border with North Korea. "It's been seven years since I took the helm, and I've only just managed to visit."
He then traveled on to the Russian Pacific port city of Vladivostok, the site of Thursday's summit, where he was greeted by a military orchestra as he stepped out of his khaki-green armored train. Dressed in a black coat and clutching a black fedora, he then got into his personal limousine, which travels with him, and drove away.
Putin's foreign affairs adviser, Yuri Ushakov, told Russian media the Putin-Kim summit would focus on North Korea's nuclear program, noting that Russia will seek to "consolidate the positive trends" stemming from Trump's meetings with Kim.
In February, Kim's second summit with Trump in Hanoi ended without any agreement because of disputes over U.S.-led sanctions. There have since been no publicly known high-level contacts between the U.S. and North Korea, although both sides say they are still open to a third summit.
Kim wants the U.S. to ease the sanctions to reciprocate for some partial disarmament steps he took last year. But the U.S. maintains the sanctions will stay in place until North Korea makes more significant denuclearization moves.
Some experts say Kim could try to bolster his country's ties with Russia and China. Others say it's not clear how big of a role Russia can play in efforts to restart the nuclear negotiations. Still, the summit could allow Putin to try to increase his influence in regional politics and the standoff over North Korea's nuclear program.
"Kim wants to show that he's cooperating with Russia too, rather than looking to only the U.S. and China. But I think it's not easy for Russia and China to provide North Korea with practical assistance that leads to the inflow of dollars," said Chon Hyun-joon, a former senior researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul.
North Korea has increasingly expressed frustration at the deadlocked negotiations. Last week, North Korea tested a new weapon and demanded that U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo be removed from the nuclear talks.
Ushakov said the Kremlin would try to help "create preconditions and a favorable atmosphere for reaching solid agreements on the problem of the Korean Peninsula."
He pointed at a Russia-China roadmap that offered a step-by-step approach to solving the nuclear standoff and called for sanctions relief and security guarantees for Pyongyang. He noted that the North's moratorium on nuclear tests and the scaling down of U.S.-South Korean military drills have helped reduce tensions and created conditions for further progress.
Ushakov said the summit's agenda will also include bilateral cooperation. Russia's trade with North Korea is minuscule at just $34 million last year, mostly because of the international sanctions against Pyongyang.
Russia would like to gain broader access to North Korea's mineral resources, including rare metals. Pyongyang, for its part, covets Russia's electricity supplies and investment to modernize its dilapidated Soviet-built industrial plants, railways and other infrastructure.
Vladivostok, a city of more than half a million on the Sea of Japan, faced gridlock on its roads Wednesday as traffic was blocked in the city center due to Kim's visit.
Local media reported that some platforms at Vladivostok's main train station would be closed for several days, and that buses were rerouted from the train station Wednesday.
Maritime authorities said the waters around Russky Island, across from Vladivosok, would be temporarily closed to all maritime traffic. The island has a university with a conference hall and is seen as a likely summit venue.
After his summit with Putin, Kim was to meet with "ordinary people" in Russia, who favor closer ties with the North, Primorye Gov. Oleg Kozhemyako told Rossiye-24. He said Kim will also be given a chance to sample such traditional Russian dishes as borscht, pelmeni meat dumplings and caviar — although he brought his own cooks with him.