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Putin and Kim in Pyongyang, making it 'strategic'

Putin and Kim in Pyongyang, making it 'strategic'

But even good friends have geopolitical limits

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

Russian President Vladimir Putin is currently in Pyongyang for a summit with the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, marking their second visit in just nine months and Putin’s first trip to North Korea in 24 years.

Not just symbolic, the summit is anticipated to bring noteworthy advancements in Russia-North Korea strategic cooperation.

According to various reports, Putin and Kim will be seeking to elevate their bilateral relationship to a “comprehensive strategic partnership,” enhancing the overall military, economic, and diplomatic ties between their two countries. While the details of the summit’s agenda and outcomes remain unclear, both sides’ situational needs and interests provide some hints.

Ever since its negotiations with the United States fell through at the Hanoi summit in 2019, North Korea has prioritized meeting the necessary conditions to endure a prolonged confrontation with the United States. Pyongyang has viewed the ruptured relations between Washington and Moscow following the latter’s invasion of Ukraine, alongside the heightened geopolitical rivalry between Washington and Beijing, as opportunities to pull Moscow and Beijing closer to its side and to resist U.S.-mobilized containment.

Indeed, Pyongyang has frequently framed the current state of international relations as a “new Cold War,” emphasizing greater cooperation with Moscow and Beijing to resist Washington.

Besides attaining more Russian food and energy aid to alleviate his country’s chronic resource shortages, Kim would be particularly interested in gaining substantially greater military support from Putin. Since Beijing remains reluctant to cooperate with Pyongyang militarily — perhaps wanting to avoid provoking the U.S. and its regional allies — Kim may be especially determined to make progress with Putin in the military dimension.

As some observers have suggested, it would be ideal for Kim to get Putin to agree on a mutual defense treaty with an automatic military intervention clause. Kim would also surely want Putin’s commitment to assisting North Korea’s development of advanced military capabilities, such as reconnaissance satellites and tactical nuclear submarines.

However, it is uncertain to what extent Putin would be willing to accommodate Kim’s demands. Moscow has an interest in forging closer military ties with Pyongyang, but there are limits.

Russia is entering its third year of prosecuting what is largely an attritional war in Ukraine, characterized by heavy artillery expendage rates. Though its domestic munitions industry is outproducing the West by a considerable degree — Russian troops fire around 10,000 shells per day, which is roughly five times more than Ukraine’s shell usage — Russia’s military finds itself in constant need of rounds to maintain and potentially grow its current firepower advantage over Ukrainian forces.

It is therefore unsurprising that Moscow seeks to accompany its domestic production ramp with concerted efforts to procure munitions from willing foreign partners. According to estimates by the South Korean Defense Ministry, North Korea has provided Russia with an estimated 7,000 containers of munitions and other military equipment to date.

Putin stressed ahead of the trip that Moscow and Pyongyang are committed to fighting Western sanctions that he described as “illegal, unilateral restrictions” and to develop commercial systems “that are not controlled by the West.” These joint efforts complement Russia’s earlier efforts to degrade the international sanctions regime on North Korea, coming on the heels of Moscow’s decision to veto the renewal of a UN Panel of Experts (PoE) responsible for monitoring the enforcement of sanctions and to block the imposition of additional sanctions on North Korea over its previous ballistic missile tests.

Russia’s burgeoning relations with North Korea also provide Moscow with an opportunity to make good on Putin’s earlier threat to retaliate against the West for aiding Ukraine by supplying third parties with weapons that can be used to strike Western targets. But such a move risks upsetting Russia’s stable relationship with South Korea, which would see its core security interests suffer in the event of a North Korean strike on U.S. assets in South Korea.

Russia supplying North Korea with advanced missile and nuclear technologies, which would pose consequential threats to South Korean security, would also be considered crossing a red line for Seoul, prompting it to take actions that would undermine Russian security interests, such as providing lethal weapons to Ukraine.

Provoking Seoul in this way contradicts what has so far been the Kremlin’s approach of deepening the Russia-North Korea relationship without pushing Moscow into an overtly hostile footing with South Korea, which has refrained from directly supplying Ukraine with weapons despite Western pressure.

"Just like in our relations with Italy, we do not see any Russophobic stance when working with the South Korean government. Neither are there any weapons supplies to the conflict zone. We highly appreciate that," Putin said earlier this month.

China is North Korea’s largest economic and geopolitical partner, and does not necessarily want to see North Korea diversify its trade, diplomatic, and security portfolio in ways that reduce its influence over Pyongyang.

Moscow, which has become increasingly dependent on China in the face of continued Western sanctions and attempts at diplomatic isolation, has an interest in signaling its diplomatic clout to Beijing by engaging a traditional Chinese partner without China’s explicit approval.

But there are clear limits to this kind of posturing. Moscow is keenly aware it is in no position to overtly antagonize China, which poses an additional reason why Russia, as noted by South Korea’s Defense Minister earlier this week, is unlikely to take the step of transferring its more advanced military technologies to North Korea. Putin’s visit to Pyongyang will presumably serve to reinforce Russia and North Korea’s comprehensive strategic ties, potentially introducing new joint efforts by the two countries to cooperate on navigating their strategic challenges, including overcoming U.S.-mobilized sanctions and filling each other’s military deficiencies to some extent.

It remains to be seen if Moscow will bear the risks and costs associated with pursuing a deeper form of Russia-North Korea security cooperation, which notably include drawing Beijing’s ire. If the Kremlin goes down this path, it could pose a new regional challenge for Washington and its allies that is distinct from the China-U.S. rivalry in the Asia-Pacific and may spark calls for additional American reassurances to South Korea.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin meets with North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un upon his arrival in Pyongyang, North Korea June 19, 2024. Sputnik/Gavriil Grigorov/Pool via REUTERS

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