The dangerous friendship of Putin and Kim

Kim and Putin photo EPA-EFE/

For months, Russian watchers have speculated that President Vladimir Putin would head to North Korea. After North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's high-speed train moved through the Russian Far East last year, the North Korean leader invited Putin to visit in the near future. That invitation was duly accepted.

But this long-awaited visit is now said to take place at any time. South Korean sources suggest it could be as early as today, and some satellite images also spy apparent preparations in North Korea for some sort of special event. The Kremlin insists that those details will come in due course, but speculation is now at its loudest.

Kim Jong Un now has a new best friend. After former US President Donald Trump, who had repeatedly tried to improve relations between Washington and Pyongyang, was defeated, Russia's Vladimir Putin emerged, courting Kim to send weapons that many speculate Russia is using in Ukraine.

The two leaders now have an "unbreakable relationship," the North Korean dictator said in a recent message to his Russian counterpart. Kim has visited Russia twice to meet Putin since 2019, and Putin is now expected to soon make his first visit to Pyongyang since 2000, the year he became president.

The friendship blossomed thanks to geopolitical changes. Kim walked away from talks with the US after the failed summit in Hanoi and began making new moves towards Russia. The response was tepid – until the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine happened and Russia needed ammunition, one of the few things the Kim regime has in abundance.

Leaders Kim and Putin agreed on the delivery of weapons and ammunition - Photo EPA

Common benefit

North Korea plays a useful role in Russia's broader confrontation with the West, helping to complicate US strategy in Asia and undermine multilateral institutions. In March, Russia vetoed a United Nations resolution to extend the mandate of the Panel of Experts, the main international body monitoring sanctions against North Korea. By cooperating with North Korea, Russia also aims to deter South Korea, a major arms producer and US ally, from providing direct aid to Ukraine.

For North Korea, Russia has proved to be a "godsend" in its time of need. Kim was particularly isolated on the international stage, but also domestically after the debacle in Hanoi. Neither the years under sanctions nor the covid pandemic helped him. Only trade with Russia helped stabilize the economy, while the summit with Putin improved Kim's image. Delegations working on agriculture, culture, security and technology have moved between the two countries in recent months. Russian tourists have become the first foreigners to visit North Korea since the pandemic, and travel agencies in Vladivostok are now advertising summer trips to North Korea.

The renewed affinity has fueled talk in Washington of a new axis of evil between Russia, China and North Korea. Both China and the Soviet Union aligned themselves with North Korea during the Korean War, and some now worry that their mutual support could rekindle North Korean aggression. Those fears have so far proved exaggerated, but at the very least, with two major backers active, North Korea has little incentive to cooperate with the United States.

Whenever Kim and Putin meet, ammunition will be among the key topics of conversation. US officials say North Korea has shipped about 11.000 containers full of weapons to Russia since September, when Kim visited Putin in Vladivostok. The goods include artillery shells as well as Hwasong-11-class ballistic missiles, which have been linked to dozens of deaths across Ukraine. Much of the material is of dubious quality, but it has helped Russia buy time to ramp up its own production, a senior Ukrainian official says.

Putin and Kim / Photo EPA-EFE/VLADIMIR SMIRNOV/SPUTNIK/KREMLIN POOL MANDATORY CREDIT

No one knows what Pyongyang got

What Russia gave in return is the subject of much speculation. The South Korean government believes at least 9.000 containers have been sent from Russia to North Korea since last September. North Korea's wish list likely includes nuclear weapons designs, re-entry vehicles for intercontinental ballistic missiles, as well as technology related to satellites, submarines and hypersonic weapons. Russia can also provide less flashy but still important support for North Korea's conventional forces, such as spare parts for aircraft or ships and more modern air defenses.

South Korean officials say Russia has yet to transfer sensitive military technology related to ballistic missiles or nuclear weapons. One area of ​​more immediate concern is space technology. A recent failed North Korean satellite launch attempt may have used a variant of the engine used in Russia's Angara system, which Russia has at the spaceport Kim visited last fall. For now, food and fuel probably make up the bulk of the trade. Putin also presented Kim with a luxury Russian-made limousine.

However, such seeming affection belies the true limits of their friendship.

- Russia's new love affair with North Korea is shallow and artificial, claims Andrei Lankov, a Russian expert on North Korea based at Kookmin University in Seoul.

Putin is more likely to use the threat of technology transfer to limit South Korean support for Ukraine than to actually do so. South Korea, in turn, could threaten more support for Ukraine to enforce its red lines regarding support for North Korea.

- While Russia may want to undermine international sanctions, that does not mean it will rush to help North Korea expand its nuclear arsenal. Russia has enough power to extract what it needs without giving up its most sensitive technology. So far, North Korea is not satisfied with the scope and depth of military cooperation with Russia, says a former South Korean official.

As Russia's weapons production increases, its need for North Korean shells may decline. And while the partnership is likely to last as long as the war in Ukraine lasts, it is unlikely to last beyond the eventual end of the conflict.

China has the final say

In the long run, South Korea is a more attractive economic partner, it was Russia's fifth largest export destination before the war. Russia seems to want to keep the door open. Russia's ambassador to South Korea recently said he expects South Korea to be "the first among hostile countries to return to the ranks of friendly countries." For Russian elites, North Korea remains synonymous with dysfunction that few would like to be associated with, unlike the economic powerhouse that is China.

China itself may also shape how deep Russia-North Korea cooperation becomes.

- It is not a bilateral relationship, the older brother always watches them from Beijing, says Fyodor Tertytsky, a professor from Kukmin University.

China's feelings seem mixed. Its diplomats did not stop Russia from overturning the UN sanctions panel. But during a recent summit with South Korea and Japan, China endorsed a call for denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, prompting a rebuke from the Kim regime. China's primary interests are to maintain North Korea as a stable buffer state between it and South Korea, a US ally, and to maintain influence over Pyongyang. Closer military ties between Russia and North Korea could threaten these goals.

Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping in Beijing / Photo EPA-EFE/SERGEY GUNEEV / SPUTNIK / KREMLIN POOL MANDATORY CREDIT

China also seems keen to avoid the appearance that the three countries belong to one bloc.

- China wants to be a global leader, not a scoundrel, says Lee Sang-Hyun from the Sejong Institute, a non-governmental organization from Seoul.

Putin reportedly wanted to travel to Pyongyang earlier, right after visiting Beijing last month, but China suggested he wait. The picture that emerges is less of a neat authoritarian axis and more of a messy love triangle.

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