How Putin and Kim stand to gain from a rare visit that’s troubling the West

Russia's President Vladimir Putin and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un attend an official welcoming ceremony at Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang, North Korea June 19, 2024.  (REUTERS)
Russia's President Vladimir Putin and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un attend an official welcoming ceremony at Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang, North Korea June 19, 2024. (REUTERS)

Summary

The authoritarian leaders are deepening their military, commercial and political alliance.

Deepening military and economic cooperation between Russia and North Korea is helping sustain the Kremlin’s war on Ukraine and offering Pyongyang a technological boost, feeding unease in China and the West about the increasingly intimate relationship between the two authoritarian countries.

In recent months, expansionist Russia and reclusive North Korea have exchanged everything from food and oil to weapons. As the Kremlin’s war on Ukraine drags on, Russian President Vladimir Putin has looked to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to help restock his depleted arsenal. In turn, Moscow plans to transfer military technology to nuclear-armed Pyongyang, a move that could further the rogue state’s weapons capabilities, unnerving Western powers.

Putin’s visit to North Korea, which is set to begin this week and is only his second to the reclusive nation in more than two decades, serves a dual purpose for the two leaders. Each wants to extract more from the other while rattling the West, analysts who follow Russian and North Korean dynamics said.

For Washington, military cooperation between its authoritarian adversaries increases the potential for prolonged regional conflicts and the overstretch of its military capabilities.

A growing North Korean nuclear and missile threat, which could trigger greater U.S. military presence in the region, is also worrisome for China.

“The situation in the world, including the Asia-Pacific region, is very tense," said Alexander Zhebin, a lead researcher at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Center for Korean Studies at the Institute of China and Contemporary Asia. “Strengthening ties and cooperation with all countries that support Russia’s policy is obviously very important, now more than ever."

North Korea has been one of the few countries to vocally support Russia’s war effort, and sits squarely in opposition to the West, a stance increasingly adopted by Putin as he rails against the U.S.-led global order.

Ahead of the visit, Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba urged the international community to counter what he described as “the lonely bromance" between Putin and Kim by increasing arms supplies to Kyiv.

“The best way to respond to it is to continue strengthening the diplomatic coalition for just and lasting peace in Ukraine," Kuleba told the Agence France-Presse news agency.

North Korea is also among the only countries where Putin can travel without fear of detention since the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for him. Pyongyang doesn’t recognize the court.

North Korea has already delivered more than 10,000 containers of munitions or related materiel to Russia since Putin and Kim met in Russia’s Far East in September, according to the State Department. Russia and North Korea deny trading arms.

Weapons transfers from heavily sanctioned North Korea violate at least 10 United Nations Security Council resolutions. In March, Russia blocked the extension of a U.N. panel that monitored violations of international sanctions against North Korea. Moscow’s shift from agreeing to adopt sanctions to voting against additional ones could be part of the Kremlin’s move to “more openly engage in banned trade" with North Korea, according to a May report by the Congressional Research Service.

In May, North Korea’s U.N. ambassador condemned Western countries for exploring replacements for the dissolved U.N. panel and urged them to reconsider their “hostile policy" toward North Korea, according to North Korean state media.

In February, South Korea’s defense minister said Russia was providing North Korea with food, raw materials and parts for weapons manufacturing in exchange for the millions of artillery shells Pyongyang was sending.

Yuri Ushakov, a foreign-policy adviser to Putin, told journalists Monday that it was possible that Russia and North Korea would sign a new agreement on a comprehensive strategic partnership when Putin and Kim meet, replacing three earlier such pacts, he said.

For Kim, Putin’s visit will boost the nations’ burgeoning military cooperation. An enhanced relationship with Russia has allowed North Korea to acquire foreign currency by selling weapons, avoid additional international sanctions and gain support for its ambitious spy satellite program, while irking the U.S.

After the failure last month of a military reconnaissance satellite to launch into orbit from North Korea, Kim will be looking for Russian expertise for its space program and possibly ways to increase its weapons production, Pyongyang watchers say.

Russia has said it would assist with North Korea’s satellite program and, along with Beijing, has proved unwilling to slow Pyongyang’s expansion of its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

White House spokesman John Kirby said in January that Pyongyang was seeking military assistance from Moscow for fighter aircraft, surface-to-air missiles, armored vehicles and ballistic missile production. Ukrainian officials have located debris from dozens of North Korean missiles on the battlefield, which has become a kind of testing ground for Kim to gauge how his newer short-range missiles perform.

North Korea and Iran’s weapons have allowed Russia to “get back up on their feet" in its war with Ukraine, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told U.S. lawmakers in May.

The Kremlin has defended its growing partnership with Pyongyang.

“We believe that our right to develop good relations with our neighbors should not cause concern to anyone and cannot and should not be disputed by anyone," presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said last week.

Russia may be wary of giving away advanced technology related to its intercontinental ballistic missile program, especially because it could upset friends such as China who view North Korea’s growing weapons program as a threat to the region, said Peter Ward, a North Korea researcher at Sejong Institute in South Korea.

“But there is incentive from the Russian side to transfer production technologies to allow North Korea to produce munitions more effectively, because whether it be shells or missiles, Russia needs more," Ward said.

North Korea will be looking for economic help as well, through discounted oil and grain and through tourism. Russians were the first tourists to visit North Korea earlier this year when the country opened its borders following the Covid pandemic, and Moscow has been shipping petroleum to the pariah state at levels that exceed U.N. sanctions’ limits.

A record number of North Korean delegations have visited Russia this year, including a group overseeing North Korea’s migrant workers. The issue of migrant labor is critical for Russia, which faces a labor shortage as a result of its war in Ukraine. Russian officials in Siberia and the Far East have expressed an interest in employing North Koreans.

“First, these are cheap and skilled workers," said Fyodor Tertitskiy, a senior researcher at the Institute for Korean Studies at Kookmin University in Seoul. “Second, the Russian Far East is in a desperate need for a workforce because most of Russia’s [current] labor migration comes from Central Asia and these people usually settle in the European part of the country."

Before a 2019 deadline for U.N. countries to expel North Korean workers, Pyongyang had hundreds of thousands of laborers overseas earning foreign currency for the regime.

Pyongyang’s arms sales are a critical national security issue for the U.S., yet Washington has been unable to aggressively enforce sanctions to limit proliferation because of Chinese and Russian support for North Korea, said David Maxwell, a former U.S. Army Special Forces colonel with extensive experience in Asia. Conflicts such as the wars in Ukraine and Gaza have stretched Washington’s resources thin and could leave the U.S. unprepared to deal with the growing threat from North Korea, he added.

“We shouldn’t assume Russia is ever going to act in parallel to our interests," Maxwell said. “Putin may be happy to let North Korea create more dilemmas for the U.S."

Write to Dasl Yoon at dasl.yoon@wsj.com and Ann M. Simmons at ann.simmons@wsj.com

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