Kim-Putin’s Vladivostok bromance may risk global security, from Europe to Asia

Updated Sept. 11, 2023, 2:42 p.m. ET

Four years ago, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made a symbolic journey southwards, crossing the border with his armored train to engage with the leaders of the democratic world.

A similar image was in the making Monday, only this time, his train has headed in the opposite direction – towards a deepening bromance with his fellow leader of the authoritarian world, Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Kim had already departed the North Korean capital, a person familiar with the matter told Radio Free Asia, but did not say exactly when.

Kim will “soon visit the Russian Federation at the invitation of the President of the Russian Federation, Comrade Vladimir Putin,” North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency said late Monday. Simultaneously, the Kremlin also confirmed the visit, according to Russia’s official news agency, Tass. The Kremlin added that the visit will be made in the “coming days.”  

The reports confirm days of speculation of an impending summit between North Korea and Russia in Vladivostok. The increased bilateral diplomatic exchanges – the most recent being the Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s visit to Pyongyang in July – have also served to signal that preparations for a major visit are underway.

Japanese media including ANN reported that Russia is preparing for what appears to be a welcome ceremony at its border station of Khasan, where a red carpet will be rolled out.

While the  reports stopped short on saying where Kim and Putin will meet, an earlier report from Tass said Putin is on a two-day work trip to Vladivostok to attend the Eastern Economic Forum, coinciding with information from multiple South Korean diplomatic sources who told RFA that Kim will be traveling to Russia during the period of the forum.

Kim and Putin’s last summit in April 2019 also took place in Vladivostok, where the two reinforced their diplomatic ties. The meeting came a mere two months after Kim’s high-stakes nuclear negotiation with the United States collapsed in Hanoi. After the summit, where Putin reiterated Russia’s role as a regime backer, Kim returned to his brinkmanship diplomacy, firing multiple missiles.

Experts said this week’s summit between the two authoritarian leaders could exacerbate the precarious geopolitical dynamics and inflict further consequences to global and regional security, not only posing new threats to the U.S. and its allies’ spectrum of policies from Europe to Asia, but also affecting Pyongyang’s relations with its other backer, China.   

‘Hat in hand’

The Kim-Putin summit could change security-related dynamics in Europe, as arms trade is likely to dominate the agenda. 

“As we have warned publicly, arms negotiations between Russia and the DPRK are actively advancing,” U.S. National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson said last week, referring to North Korea by its formal name. “We have information that Kim Jong Un expects these discussions to continue, to include leader-level diplomatic engagement in Russia.” 

Any ammunition supplies to Russia would prolong its aggression against Ukraine and drag the war into a long-term conflict that further destabilizes Europe. Strained ammunition supplies are currently holding Russia back to advance deeper into Ukrainian territories. 

U.S. State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said during a briefing Monday that Russia’s turning to North Korean for weapons support shows that Western sanctions are working.

“A year and a half ago, President Putin launched this war against Ukraine with his full-scale aggression, with a dream of restoring the glory of the Russian Empire. That hope, that expectation of his, has failed. It will continue to fail,” Miller said. “There’s no better evidence of that than now a year-and-a-half later, not only has he failed to achieve his goals on the battlefield, but you see him traveling across his own country hat-in-hand to beg Kim Jong Un for military assistance.”

Miller also pointed out that the meeting is happening on the heels of this past weekend’s Group of 20 summit in India — which Putin skipped, underlining what he called Russia’s “pariah status” in the eyes of many.

“It means that he is having trouble sustaining the military effort,” he said. “So he’s looking for help from North Korea.”

Stronger ties between North Korea and Russia is a worrying development for countries backing Ukraine, said said Ramon Pacheco Pardo, Professor of International Relations at King’s College London and the KF-VUB Korea Chair at the Brussels School of Governance of Vrije Universiteit Brussel.

“This means that Putin will be able to continue his war longer,” Pacheco Pardo said. “It also means that there are countries that think that they can support Russia openly without suffering any serious consequences.” 

The talks would be “aimed primarily at enhancing the bilateral military cooperation,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul who had advised the South Korean government over the years. “Especially from Russia’s point of view, it desperately needs conventional weapons from North Korea, in the form of artillery shells, drones and missiles, as it continues its war with Ukraine.” 

Wang Son-taek, director of the Global Policy Center at the Han Pyeong Peace Institute, agreed. It “wouldn’t be a bad idea” from Russia’s perspective to cooperate with North Korea as leverage to break the U.S.-led order and create a “neo-Cold War-like” confrontational security climate, Wang said.

Denuclearization of North Korea

The summit would also set the U.S. back in its denuclearization efforts in the Korean peninsula. North Korea’s acquisition of hi-tech Russian weapons would inevitably boost the country’s deterrence capability against the U.S. and its regional allies. Some of those technologies may include satellite launch technology, advanced inter continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), and nuclear-powered submarines.  

“It is possible that North Korea could demand a gradual and phased transfer of technology from Russia,” Yang said. “The North could first request technology transfer for its spy satellite, as it has already announced that it will launch one in October. Then, it could ask for ICBM re-entry technology, followed by nuclear-powered submarine technology, and so on.”

Pacheco Pardo also raised the possibility that the bilateral military cooperation may not be a one-time political stunt. “More generally, I think this means that Russia and North Korea will have strong ties as long as Putin is in office, and will provide diplomatic and military support for each other,” he said. 

Any economic support from Russia may also undermine and water down the effects of the international community’s imposed sanctions to force North Korea to denuclearize. On the other hand, a bolstered alliance between Moscow and Pyongyang would reshape the region’s geopolitical dynamics, pulling it further away from the pressure to disarm and non-proliferation.  

Still, Pyongyang’s indignance to international condemnation comes at the expense of a crippling domestic economy. Almost half of the North Korean people were undernourished between 2020 and 2022, a World Food Program report published in July found. The food shortage in North Korea appears to be spreading, with sources inside the country telling RFA that as many as 30% of farmers in two northern provinces are unable to work on collective farms because they’re weak from hunger.

“In the case of North Korea and Russia, they are already under economic sanctions under the U.S.-led world order,” Wang said. “And they may have believed that it may prove difficult for them to remain in compliance with the current order.”

China on the fence

Would the burgeoning Kim-Putin bromance create an opportunity for the United States to thaw the ice with China? China, which wants to elevate its bargaining power against the U.S. and degrade Washington’s global leadership over time, is unlikely to prematurely collide directly with the U.S. However, Beijing could be compelled to reassess its relations with its authoritarian neighbors, as well as with Washington.  

Equally, Washington may use the summit as a means to strengthen cooperation among allies, Wang pointed out. “It could strengthen liberal-democratic alliances and provide an opportunity for the U.S. to align with the democracies, which would put pressure on China to conform more to the rule-based-order.”

For Beijing, the two authoritarian regimes are valued as a strategic asset against the U.S., but cuddling too close with them may jeopardize its relations with the U.S. and its regional allies, which are crucial to improving its economic situation. It needs to maintain access to international markets and foreign investment in order to prevent a further deterioration of its economy. 

“China’s position is to continue its cooperation with North Korea and Russia, but not to confront the U.S. head-on,” Wang said. “In fact, there are fundamental constraints when it comes to North Korea-Russia relations, which arguably question its sustainability. Historically, North Korea has harbored resentment towards Russian imperialism, while Russia perceives North Korea as a demanding friend, often making challenging requests.

“A long-lasting friendship between them might seem elusive. This dynamic may explain China’s fence-sitting, as it appears Beijing is carefully assessing the situation, by neither actively participating nor intervening, gauging the sustainability of these relationships.”

Updates with U.S. State Department spokesman’s comments, attribution in graf 8.

Additional reporting by Alex Willemyns in Washington. Edited by Elaine Chan, Mike Firn and Malcolm Foster.

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