Putin meets Kim Jong Un, looking for arms – and friends
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Vladimir Putin is often accused of trying to restore the old Soviet Union. But his meeting with Kim Jong Un suggests he might be focusing on restoring ties with like-minded former Soviet allies instead.
But analysts suggest that something more than a single transaction is underway. Both Mr. Putin and Mr. Kim made frequent, if selective, public allusions to the strong Soviet-era relationship between Moscow and Pyongyang, and the North Korean leader offered effusive endorsement of Russia’s current struggle against “hegemony,” saying, “We will always stand together [with Russia] against imperialism.”
Russia, analysts say, has given up on any hopes of reconciliation with the West and as an alternative is rebuilding a semblance of the old “Soviet bloc,” country by country, on a bilateral basis, not as an alliance like the Warsaw Pact but something more like a coalition of diverse states that are disaffected with U.S. hegemony.
“Nobody is interested in forming a bloc these days,” says Sergei Markov, a former Kremlin adviser. “This is about countering the so-called rules-based international order, which has undermined its own rules by sanctioning many countries, like Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, and lots of others. Some of those rules might be reasonable, but then they [the West] go and violate their own rules when it suits them. Russia is a country that’s too big to be sanctioned, and it can bring together those countries in a common cause.”
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The Soviet Union played a key role in creating North Korea after World War II, installing Mr. Kim’s grandfather, former communist guerilla Kim Il Sung, as leader of the new Pyongyang regime. When North Korea invaded the U.S.-backed South Korea in 1950, both the USSR and China helped Pyongyang fight a U.S.-led international force to a standstill. This resulted in a 1953 armistice that has frozen the conflict in place for more than seven decades. But North Korea was never an outright Soviet satellite, always walking a careful line between its two great power sponsors, Moscow and Beijing.
Following the USSR’s collapse, Moscow’s aid and support were withdrawn as Russia sought to integrate economically, and even politically, with the West. Pyongyang’s quest for nuclear weapons and ballistic missile technology was condemned by Moscow, which appears to genuinely oppose the idea of a nuclear-armed North Korea: Both Russia and China still enforce United Nations Security Council sanctions against its programs.
After Mr. Putin came to power, relations with Pyongyang improved. But it was only following the fiasco of Donald Trump’s attempts to reach out to North Korea amid worsening U.S.-Russia relations in 2019 that Mr. Kim had a full-scale meeting with Mr. Putin in the Pacific Russian city of Vladivostok and began the full rapprochement that appears to be continuing today.
There have been no top-level contacts until now because “North Korea has been shut down due to COVID for three years,” says Alexander Vorontsov, a Korea expert at the official Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow. “So we are just restoring a process that began earlier.”
Sergei Strokan, a foreign affairs columnist for the Moscow daily news outlet Kommersant, says that “military cooperation is probably the cornerstone of this relationship. But beyond that, there’s a lot of political symbolism. Russia is trying to restore its relations with many countries that were in the former Soviet orbit, utilizing the nostalgia of that past connection and also their present isolation and need for a friend, on a case-by-case basis. This meeting signals that North Korea is on board with Russia.”
The war in Ukraine has clearly added urgency to Russia’s outreach. However, it’s not just about obtaining Pyongyang’s immediate political support and potential deals for military supplies and labor, analysts suggest. It’s also a bit of high-level geopolitics. Russia previously had good economic and political relations with South Korea, but those have evaporated since the war began, and, at the United States’ behest, Seoul even started supplying ammunition to Ukraine. So both Moscow and Pyongyang are signaling that they have alternatives, which they are actively developing.
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Friendly, but with limits
Russia’s hunger for North Korea’s ample stocks of military materiel has dominated the conversation, but what Russia may give Pyongyang in return remains an open question. North Korea, an impoverished hermit state under decades of sanctions, probably needs just about everything. Russia can offer food, energy, and a range of other goods.
But in his public remarks with Mr. Kim, Mr. Putin referenced technical cooperation, specifically in the realm of rocket, space, and satellite technology. For Mr. Kim, the prestige of possessing such capabilities possibly outweighs any concern for feeding his population. Russian experts say that Mr. Putin’s willingness to help in these areas probably doesn’t include anything to do with nuclear weapons, though it might affect North Korea’s ballistic missile program.
“I think Russia will be pretty cautious not to get involved into areas that might be seen as very sensitive, not just to Japan and South Korea, but also to China, which really doesn’t want to see North Korea acquire too many sophisticated capabilities,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a Moscow-based foreign policy journal. “Russia will try to cooperate in ways that cannot be formally seen as violations of international [sanctions] regimes.”
One more item Russia may be quietly negotiating about with North Korea is labor. Russia has announced plans to rebuild the parts of Ukraine that it has captured. But they are tentative and deeply controversial, including claims to be already reconstructing the ruined city of Mariupol, which was occupied early in the war. Any large-scale building program would require a lot of skilled construction workers, something North Korea has in ample supply. It’s a subject that’s been widely discussed in the Russian media for over a year.
“It’s not clear what stage this conversation has reached, but North Korean manpower would be an effective tool should a reconstruction plan for those territories ever go into full swing,” says Mr. Strokan. “At this point, it’s just talk, but down the road, it’s a real possibility.”