SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - Russian President Vladimir Putin says he believes North Korean leader Kim Jong Un could give up his nuclear weapons if he first receives security guarantees.
Putin made the comment Thursday after holding his first ever summit with Kim in the far-eastern Russian city of Vladivostok.
At a news conference following the talks, Putin also advocated a phased approach to denuclearization, in which the United States and North Korea slowly take steps to build trust.
If we move step-by-step with respect for each others interests, then this goal can be achieved in the final end,' Putin said, according to Russias state-run Tass news agency.
North Korea also prefers an incremental approach, under which it would commit to giving up parts of its nuclear weapons as Washington gradually relaxes sanctions.
Trump is seeking what he calls a big deal in which North Korea agrees to give up its entire nuclear program in exchange for normalized ties with the United States.
Kim said very little during his meeting with Putin, which included nearly two hours of one-on-one meetings, an expanded dialogue session with their delegations, and a dinner.
I had candid, meaningful talks with President Putin, Kim said, adding he would like to relentlessly strengthen ties with Russia.
It is not clear what security guarantees North Korea may demand in exchange for giving up its nuclear weapons. According to the Russian news agency Tass, Putin said it is the international, legal ones.
In the past, North Korean officials have called for the United States to completely remove its strategic and nuclear-capable military assets from the region, which it views as a threat.
The meeting was held in the Russian port city of Vladivostok, about 200 kilometers from the border with North Korea.
Kim is expected to stay in the city through Friday, touring various sites, including the Russian Pacific Fleet and an oceanarium, according to several media reports.
Although Kim and Putin met for almost twice as long as expected, no major breakthroughs were announced at the summit and no joint statement was released.
North Korea, which is hurting from international sanctions, wants more economic and diplomatic support from Russia, especially since nuclear talks with the United States have broken down.
'North Korea needs an ally, says Jang Se-ho, a research fellow at the Seoul-based Institute for National Security Strategy. And Russia has been seeking a chance to become involved more in the Korean peninsula. They now have a chance to do so.'
Putin said he would like to expand economic cooperation with North Korea, but gave no obvious sign that he is willing to give Kim any help that would further damage talks with the United States.
Kim out of breath
As he sat next to Putin during their opening remarks, Kim appeared to be tired and breathing heavier than usual, drawing speculation about his health from some North Korea watchers.
The North Korean leader, believed to be around 35 years old, also appeared to be out of breath during an appearance Wednesday after arriving in Russia.
All of Kims appearances are watched closely for such signs, in part because until recently the public had not often gotten unscripted looks at him.
[Kims health] is a big deal in a long-term perspective, though its not clear it will have a short-term impact, said Olga Krasnyak, a professor at Seouls Yonsei University.
Meetings a boost for Kim
Until last year, Kim hadnt left North Korea since taking power in 2011.
Since then, Kim has met twice with U.S. President Donald Trump, three times with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, four times with Chinese President Xi Jinping, and once with Vietnamese President Nguyen Phu Trong.
The meetings not only help Kim shed his image as an international pariah, they also provide a crucial internal propaganda boost, says Andrew ONeil, a Korea specialist and professor at Australias Griffith University.
A lot of what Kim Jong Un does internationally is directed inwardly, to reinforce his legitimacy in the eyes of the ordinary North Korean population...and within the North Korean elite structures, ONeil said.
But with North Koreas economy suffering from international sanctions and no relief on the horizon, Kim may need more than just symbolic support.
At a February summit in Hanoi, Trump rejected Kims offer to dismantle one of North Koreas main nuclear complexes in exchange for significant sanctions relief.
Trump and Kim agreed last June to work toward the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, but the United States and North Korea have not agreed on what that phrase means.
Putin: not much of a help?
By meeting Putin, Kim may be signaling that he has other options for economic help.
Russias economy has its own problems, partly due to international sanctions imposed after Moscows annexation of Crimea.
And without buy-in from the United States, it is not clear how much Russia could do anyway.
Russia-North Korea trade fell dramatically last year by more than 56 percent to $34 million. Kremlin officials say that is primarily because Russia was restrained by sanctions.
The Soviet Union was once a crucial economic backer of North Korea. But in recent decades, Moscow has carried out a carefully balancing act with Pyongyang.
Russia, a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, signed onto tougher sanctions amid North Koreas nuclear and missile tests in 2016 and 2017. It has since called for the sanctions to be eased - a move that would require unanimous Security Council support.