When Russian President Vladimir Putin last met North Korea’s leader in 2019, he was putting forward the image of an international statesman, positioning himself as a potential go-between for broken nuclear talks with the United States. Putin was ready to brief China and the Trump administration on his talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, a nod to the fraught but still functional ties between Washington and Moscow, as well as Russia’s role as a diplomatic powerhouse and potential mediator over ending North Korea’s nuclear program.
Flash forward four years, and Putin has lost all those cards.
Russia’s economy is wheezing, Moscow is isolated on the world stage, and Putin is unable to travel to major summits abroad because there is an arrest warrant outstanding for him from the International Criminal Court, and it is all due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In 2019, Kim was reeling from failed summits with former U.S. President Donald Trump and looking for a diplomatic lifeline. Now, it is Putin looking to Kim for lifelines, on both the diplomatic and military fronts, as he seeks to stave off a disastrous defeat in Ukraine and drastically reshape Russia’s foreign policy.
Putin and Kim are reportedly expected to meet in the Russian city of Vladivostok later this week for the second time ever, in a highly anticipated meeting between two of the West’s most dangerous rivals.
Whether Kim and Putin meet in person—the summit hasn’t been officially confirmed—the two countries need each other now more than ever. North Korea is emerging from a punishing era of self-imposed isolation from the coronavirus pandemic and seeks new technologies to expand its nuclear and missile programs. Russia, meanwhile, seeks to cobble together any international support and military supply lines it can.
“The needs on the Russian side are dire,” said Michael Kimmage, a scholar at the Catholic University of America and former State Department official. “Russia needs new markets for its energy, it needs arms, and it needs ways to get around Western sanctions and is turning to what is considered the most closed-off dictatorship in the world for help now.”
North Korea, often dubbed the “hermit kingdom,” has stubbornly pursued a nuclear weapons program despite years of punishing U.N. sanctions and deep international isolation. Russia for years backed international sanctions on North Korea over its nuclear program: It was one of the only subjects that Moscow and Washington broadly saw eye to eye on.
But that cooperation abruptly stopped after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year, and there is a mounting fear in Western capitals that Russia could now aid North Korea’s expanding nuclear program indirectly by supplying Pyongyang with new missile technologies and countermeasures to Western missile defense systems.
U.S. outreach to Pyongyang to restart talks on ending its nuclear program have been met with radio silence, as it steadily increases its technical capabilities and arsenal of ballistic and cruise missiles.
While Russia has always been uneasy with the prospect of a nuclear North Korea, its setbacks in Ukraine have forced the country to rethink its priorities, experts said. Russia is seeking to completely reorient its foreign policy away from the West, a significant shift from Putin’s initial foreign-policy outlook when he took power over two decades ago. Expanding ties with China, countries in the so-called global south, and even isolated Western rivals such as North Korea fits into this broad strategy.
“Putin has been trying to develop a post-Western Russian foreign policy. This is a very serious enterprise for Moscow and one that North Korea could be a part of in new ways,” Kimmage said.
Now, Putin needs access to North Korea’s military stocks as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—which the Kremlin expected to take no more than a few weeks—grinds through its second year. Pyongyang has vast reserves of ammunition, much of which is based on Soviet-era models that are compatible with Russian weapons systems. North Korea also has the ability to produce more weaponry.
The White House warned last November that Pyongyang was covertly supplying Russia with artillery shells that were being shipped to Ukraine via the Middle East and Africa. “Those discussions are actively advancing,” U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters in a press briefing on Sept. 5. Sullivan said that support has been very limited so far, but that could change in time as Western sanctions continue to squeeze Russia’s defense industrial base.
“Over time, we have not seen them actively supply large amounts of munitions or other military capacity to Russia for the war in Ukraine, [but] I cannot predict to you what will happen at the end of this.”
The scramble for North Korean weapons, which have a high failure rate, underscores Moscow’s desperation to stave off defeat in Ukraine.
“North Korean munitions have a quality problem, and you wonder if the Russians know what they’re buying,” said John Everard, the former U.K. ambassador to North Korea.
North Korean arms have been fired by both parties to the conflict, with some ending up in Ukrainian hands after being recovered from Russian-occupied territory. But the Ukrainian military, which is also grappling with ammunition shortages, told the Financial Times that Pyongyang’s weapons, some of which were manufactured in the 1980s and 1990s, were highly unreliable.
Everard, who also served as coordinator of the United Nations Security Council panel of experts on sanctions on North Korea, noted that an arms deal between the two countries does not require a meeting at the head-of-state level; Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visited Pyongyang in July. The summit is likely to be as much about signaling as it is about substance. Putin has long sought to be taken seriously on the international stage as the leader of a great power. Frozen out of Western-led institutions over his country’s invasion of Ukraine, the Russian leader has sought alternate formats such as the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union and the BRICS grouping to assert his country’s influence. A meeting with the much-pilloried leader of the world’s most isolated country may not be the stuff of historic summitry, but it serves to keep Putin in the news.
“The main priority is he just wants to be looked at, quite frankly,” said William Pomeranz, director of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute, which focuses on Russia and Eurasia.
North Korea, for its part, is looking for its own help from Russia on a variety of diplomatic and military priorities. There are broadly three tranches of aid North Korea could get from Russia in return for agreeing to supply military support to Moscow, according to U.S. and South Korean officials who spoke on condition of anonymity as well as experts tracking the meeting.
The first is food, health, and economic aid, something North Korea is in desperate need of after a yearslong self-imposed quarantine during the coronavirus pandemic that deepened the country’s chronic economic and food insecurity crisis.
Second, North Korea has historically played its two main benefactors, Russia and China, off one another, and a meeting with Putin may be an opportunity for Kim to do so again. While China still props up North Korea, viewing it as a key buffer state against Western-aligned powers in Asia, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s relationship with Kim has soured, experts said.
“China is quite ambivalent about North Korea, but it’s the only North Korea they got, so they’re stuck with it,” said Victor Cha, an expert on Korea at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. North Korea deepening ties with Russia could prompt China to expand its own engagement and economic ties with Pyongyang again, lest it lose out in influence to Moscow.
The third, and most worrying prospect for Western officials, is what military assistance Russia could provide North Korea in return for guns and ammunition to aid its war in Ukraine. North Korea could also seek satellite and nuclear submarine technology from Russia, though the extent to which Moscow would transfer such technology remains unclear. Western officials and analysts also fear that Russia could aid North Korea with its missile programs either by transferring technology on solid fuel propellants for its intercontinental ballistic missiles or technology on countermeasures to defend missiles from any Western interceptors.
“These are two things that make a delivery system for a nuclear warhead much more survivable and not easily stopped by U.S. missile defense systems,” Cha said. “That’s a real concern for the U.S., and something where the Russians can be very helpful to them if they so choose.”
Top Biden administration officials have warned that Russia and North Korea deepening their military ties would be a grave mistake and they would pay a price from the international community, but those officials haven’t elaborated on what that price would be. “This is an act of desperation on the part of Russia, but it would be a huge mistake for … North Korea to do this,” U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris told CBS News in an interview on the heels of a trip to Southeast Asia.
It’s unclear if Putin will heed any of these warnings. “I think [Putin] takes certain satisfaction in knowing he can do something that complicates the U.S. security picture in Asia,” Cha said. In summits with Kim, “he is showing he can impose costs outside of Europe, too.”/FP/