What Putin and Kim Want From Each Other

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during their meeting at the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia's Amur region on Sept. 13. Mikhail Metzel/Pool/AFP via Getty Images
Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during their meeting at the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia's Amur region on Sept. 13. Mikhail Metzel/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

After more than three years of intense, self-imposed isolationism amid the COVID-19 pandemic, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ventured outside of his country’s borders this week. Kim headed for the Russian far east—on the same armored train once favored by his father—to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin. It was Kim’s first meeting with a foreign leader since 2019. Playing host allowed the Russian president to project an image of relative diplomatic normality amid his own diplomatic isolation, crystallized by his absences from the recent G-20 and BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) summits.

Putin greeted Kim informally in Russian, displaying a familiarity with the North Korean leader, whom he first met in 2019. Kim, for his part, professed his country’s fealty to Moscow’s “sacred struggle” against Ukraine. While both aimed to project solidarity against a global order dominated by the West, their strategic convergence actually stems from a more transactional logic spurred on by difficult circumstances for both leaders. Simply put, each man has much to offer the other.

Kim and Putin have held their cards close to their chests about what exactly they’ve sought from each other. Unlike typical leader-level summitry, the two chose not to issue any kind of joint statement hinting at what they may have discussed or agreed to. The optics of their meeting, however, along with other recent high-level diplomatic engagements between the two countries, were much more overt.

In the lead-up to Kim’s trip, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, flanked by other senior defense officials involved in the procurement of weaponry, toured an exhibition hall in Pyongyang that was plush with North Korean weaponry. The fact that North Korea remains under a comprehensive United Nations Security Council-backed arms embargo that Russia has long supported seems to not be much of a hindrance.

The choice of venue for the Kim-Putin summit was equally unsubtle. For starters, the two leaders chose to meet at Russia’s relatively new Vostochny Cosmodrome: an eastern spaceport designed to reduce Moscow’s reliance on Kazakhstan’s Baikonur Cosmodrome. Putin said that the decision to meet there was an acknowledgement of Kim’s “great interest in rocket technology”, noting the North Korean leader’s push to “develop space … that’s why we came to Vostochny Cosmodrome”, Russian state media reported. Indeed, North Korea is trying to develop a mature space program, but as its two failed satellite launch attempts this year indicate, it has room to grow. Russian assistance with space launch technology could go a long way in abetting Pyongyang’s military modernization ambitions, which include the development of military reconnaissance satellites.

But there are other perks that Pyongyang seeks from its full-throated support of Russian interests. Following his meeting with Putin, Kim’s train carried on toward Komsomolsk-on-Amur, where he visited a factory producing Su-35 and Su-57 fighter jets—systems far more advanced than the obsolete airframes currently available to the Korean People’s Air Force. Even short of procuring new fighters, North Korea could benefit from a steady supply of spare parts and components to shore up its existing fleet of Soviet-origin military aircraft, significantly improving their airworthiness and reliability.

Kim will also likely seek access to raw and composite materials sourced from Russian suppliers that could supercharge his indigenous missile programs. North Korea has long relied on organized criminal networks to source materials such as Kevlar and aramid fibers from Russia for use in its advanced missiles. Active Russian facilitation of such transfers—while a violation of United Nations sanctions—would assist in fulfilling Pyongyang’s military ambitions. North Korea could also seek covert technical assistance. Putin’s contempt for international rules and norms may make forms of technical cooperation that were previously unthinkable between the two countries increasingly feasible.

Beyond hardware, Kim likely approached Putin about the prospect of food aid, which could address severe nutritional challenges that have intensified in North Korea through the pandemic. Such assistance would not violate sanctions, but nevertheless help Kim address food shortages that he has openly acknowledged in recent years even as he has continued to spend lavishly on nuclear modernization. Separated by only their own land border and territorial waters, North Korea and Russia can conduct large-scale transfers with ease.

Russia can also offer its diplomatic support for North Korean goals. Pyongyang has already benefited considerably from Russian—and Chinese—shelter at the United Nations Security Council. Since the collapse of the last round of U.S.-North Korea diplomacy in 2019, both Beijing and Moscow have been unequivocal in their rejection of any new sanctions or even formal censure at the United Nations—a far cry from their acquiescence to exceptionally broad, sectoral sanctions in 2016 and 2017. Last year, neither state was willing to even support a presidential statement condemning Pyongyang’s testing of intercontinental-range ballistic missiles.

Moscow’s interest in the latest meeting, meanwhile, likely lies in North Korea’s substantial inventory of artillery shells and rocket artillery munitions that are reverse-compatible with Soviet-era launchers in use by Russian armed forces. U.S. intelligence sources, cited by the New York Times last September, suggested such transfers had already taken place, but this was likely premature. Instead, the recent spate of bilateral diplomacy between North Korea and Russia appears to have been designed to facilitate such a transfer, which a White House spokesperson said was “actively advancing” after Shoigu’s visit.

Despite their attempts to project a shared ideological front at the summit, Putin and Kim may not be willing to fully yield to the other’s demands—at least, not yet. North Korea, for instance, may seek access to sensitive Russian naval nuclear propulsion technology, which Moscow is unlikely to part with for little in return. Similarly, Russia may seek to acquire more advanced North Korean missiles for possible use in Ukraine, but Kim may prefer to keep these for his own national defense and deterrence needs.

While their meeting will prompt talk of a new authoritarian axis in northeast Asia, there’s little to suggest that the recent surge in this relationship has foundations deeper than each country’s immediate strategic interests. Moscow may seek to revise the global order in its favor, but enlisting North Korea as a partner in that endeavor will be of limited use.

For North Korea, meanwhile, the desire to build deeper ties with Russia predates both the pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; when Kim met Putin for the first time in the Russian far east in 2019, it was shortly after the last failed U.S.-North Korea summit. Later that year, Kim hinted that he’d follow a “new way” when it came to his country’s strategic approach. Better ties with Russia are one part of this new way, it would seem. Current geopolitical dynamics, including Russia’s isolation and greater willingness to flaunt global norms, have presented Pyongyang with an immense opportunity.

While there is much that is striking about Kim’s visit, what is particularly notable is that he chose Russia over China for his first overseas visit since 2019. In 2018, Kim chose to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping before he eventually turned toward summit diplomacy with South Korea and the United States. At their very first meeting, according to the Chinese readout, Xi first and foremost emphasized the importance of “high-level exchanges” between the two countries and said he was “willing to keep frequent contacts with Comrade Chairman”.

Kim’s choice, however, doesn’t indicate a major rift between Beijing and Pyongyang: He and Xi exchanged letters during the pandemic, and a senior Chinese official attended a military parade in the country recently. However, it does likely suggest that Kim assesses that he will find a more willing patron, at least for the short term, in the increasingly desperate Putin, rather than Xi. While Beijing and Pyongyang have both been supportive of Putin’s war effort, only the latter appears willing to provide munitions at scale.

North Korean support for Russia’s campaign against Ukraine will likely fail to prove transformative on the battlefield. A shortage of conventional munitions is hardly the factor standing between Russia and swift victory. The most important short-term effect of Pyongyang’s expected supply of munitions may be that Russia will be able to backfill and sustain its own stockpiles in the event of a future conflict with NATO.

For the United States, the prospect of closer Kim-Putin ties is bad news, but not apocalyptic. Even if Putin and Kim had little interest in each other, both leaders would independently continue to pose a serious challenge to U.S. interests.

Perhaps no consequence of this relationship will be more significant than its implications for the status quo diplomatic approach to North Korea’s continued possession of nuclear weapons. Open and flagrant Russian support for North Korea in the face of the existing U.N. sanctions regime is going to make what was already a fanciful short-term objective—denuclearization—impossible.

This should prompt the most profound rethink of the U.S. approach toward North Korea in decades. While the prospect of diplomacy appears dim now, Washington should recall that it was largely the same transactional approach to navigating its relations with great powers that once led Kim to board his train to Hanoi to meet former U.S. President Donald Trump.

Incentivizing Kim to look away from Moscow will be difficult, but Washington should be ready to use every tool in its diplomatic kit to give North Korea a reason to at least contemplate the possibility of diplomacy once again. Last year, Kim complained that though the United States has called for open-ended negotiations and professed its lack of hostility toward Pyongyang, the Biden administration’s behavior—in particular, many of the steps it has taken to reassure South Korea—has given North Korea “no reason” to believe it.

Washington should also recall that what Kim sought when he went to Hanoi was a deal that would see sectoral sanctions relaxed on his economy in exchange for limited nuclear concessions. Using the prospect of sanctions relief—with some snapback provision to guard against North Korean noncompliance as an inducement—may continue to have value. Should Washington fail to act soon, however, the salience that Kim once gave to seeking sanctions relief in a negotiation may wane considerably. That’s especially so now, given Russia’s willingness to do business.

Finally, the United States and its allies continue to have an interest in reducing the risk that North Korea’s increasingly capable nuclear arsenal might be used in a crisis or conflict. Indicating to Kim that the premise of a future negotiation can focus on nuclear risk reduction or restraint could create a reason for North Korea to test the waters diplomatically.

Ankit Panda is the Stanton senior fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. He is the author of Kim Jong Un and the Bomb: Survival and Deterrence in North Korea.

Deja una respuesta

Tu dirección de correo electrónico no será publicada. Los campos obligatorios están marcados con *