Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un share several similarities, although it’s not quite a bromance. Unlike former US President Donald Trump, who famously claimed to have “fallen in love” with Kim Jong Un, the leaders of Russia and North Korea tend to be more reserved in their public displays of affection. Nonetheless, both Putin and Kim see potential advantages in deepening their relationship.
On Tuesday, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un embarked on an armored train journey through Russia, heading for a meeting with President Vladimir Putin. This unusual encounter brings together two isolated leaders, united by their mutual need for support amid escalating tensions with the West.
Kim emphasized that his decision to travel to Russia, marking his first foreign trip since the COVID-19 pandemic, underscores Pyongyang’s commitment to prioritizing the strategic significance of its relations with Moscow. They are convening for a summit at the Vostochny Cosmodrome space center in Russia’s remote Amur region.
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Both sanctioned governments are poised to negotiate an agreement that involves exchanging weapons for much-needed humanitarian assistance. The Kremlin’s announcement on Tuesday clarified that the comprehensive visit will encompass discussions on bilateral relations, regional dynamics, and global affairs.
Red Flags raised on North Korean arms supply to Russia
Worries are surfacing in the West regarding the possibility of Pyongyang supplying weapons to Moscow in order to compensate for significant losses during the 18-month-long conflict in Ukraine.
North Korea has been repeatedly advised by the White House against pursuing any arms deals with Russia, as such actions would breach several United Nations Security Council resolutions. National security adviser Jake Sullivan stressed last week that North Korea would face consequences in the international community if it decided to provide Russia with military equipment.
Michael Kofman, a senior fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, noted that due to the scarcity of ammunition, Russia has had to enact measures such as conserving shells and rockets, imposing daily firing constraints, and giving more attention to precision-guided munitions instead of relying on large quantities of ammunition.
Among the potential requests Mr. Kim might make, the most unsettling would be for Mr. Putin to provide him with advanced weapons technology or expertise to expedite his nuclear weapons program. His challenges primarily revolve around mastering critical strategic assets, including a spy satellite and a nuclear-armed submarine.
In the short term, a significant worry revolves around whether Russia’s collaboration might involve providing fresh ballistic missile technology to North Korea. “The current pattern of this partnership implies that Moscow may keep assisting Pyongyang in strengthening its missile capabilities,” Teneo Intelligence advisors Victor Cha and Andrius Tursa remarked. Furthermore, they cautioned that any provocative military actions could potentially trigger a crisis in the Korean peninsula, causing challenges for the U.S. and its allies, who possess limited effective means to counteract this developing alliance.
Towards the end of August, John Kirby, spokesperson for the U.S. National Security Council, voiced the U.S. government’s findings, asserting that North Korea had provided rockets and artillery to the Russian mercenary group Wagner “several months ago.” Kirby further revealed that Moscow had been actively searching for additional ammunition.
What’s North Korea’s agenda in this context?
Yang Uk, a research fellow at the Asian Institute for Policy Studies, highlighted the possibility that Russia, even without selling weapons to North Korea, could support its nuclear program through alternative means. It expressed “In the event that Russia opts to supply oil and food, it has the capacity to breathe new life into North Korea’s economy, consequently enhancing its military arsenal. This would essentially serve as an additional revenue stream for North Korea.”
Starved of economic support due to sanctions, North Korea is facing a pressing need for both financial assistance and food supplies. The prolonged closure of its borders, not to mention the collapse of diplomatic discussions with the United States in 2019, has resulted in the country becoming more isolated than ever.
With sanctions on the rise, North Korea has increasingly turned to China for support in overlooking sanctions violations and providing food aid. Over the past year, Beijing’s reluctance to impose penalties on North Korea for its weapons testing at the UN Security Council has enabled North Korea to enhance its nuclear arsenal without facing substantial consequences.
The geographical positioning of North Korea provides a valuable buffer for Beijing, shielding it from the US military presence in South Korea. Consequently, China has incentives to support Pyongyang. However, the North Korean leadership remains cautious about overreliance on China and seeks opportunities to diversify its support base.
With over a year and a half of conflict that has posed significant challenges for Russia, Moscow may be considering the need to replenish its ammunition supplies. A potential agreement with Pyongyang could serve as a means to accomplish this goal. However, it’s essential to recognize that Russia’s war machine won’t necessarily cease functioning without North Korea’s assistance.
Former Russian foreign minister Andrei Kozyrev maintains the view that Putin isn’t in a desperate state. “He possesses the capability to endure this situation for an extended period and is adept at adjusting to it. Putin continuously acquires knowledge, learns, and finds ways to navigate sanctions and establish partnerships with China, North Korea, and various African regimes. While this may not represent a permanent solution for the future, it does serve as an alternative for the current time frame, and it might remain relevant for the foreseeable future.”