From September 12-17, Kim Jong Un made an official visit to the Russian Federation. The Democratic Republic of Korea’s (DPRK or North Korea) supreme leader’s voyage to Russia was not unexpected. The stage had already been set by Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu’s high-profile trip to Pyongyang in July. Shoigu’s visit made clear that Moscow and Pyongyang were engaged in a lively diplomatic-strategic dance. It was an American outlet, the New York Times, that correctly forecasted a Russian-DPRK summit a week before it was announced.
Kim’s visit was clearly intended to be high-profile and spectacular. However, beyond all the theatrics, the real-life effects of the Kim-Putin summit remain to be seen. We still have more questions than answers.
Rockets, Bombers, Ballet and a Walrus Show
This was Kim’s second official visit to Russia. Compared to the first trip, which took place April 24-26, 2019, the voyage was both longer (six days) and more extensive in geographic coverage: in 2019, Kim just went to Vladivostok, whereas this time, his armored train traveled all the way to the Amur Region where Russia’s space center Vostochny is located. Kim’s itinerary, as well as the composition of his entourage—heavy with military and military-industrial chiefs—left little doubt that a major focus of his visit was to promote military and technological links with Russia.
At Vostochny, Kim held a one-day summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Russian host gave his North Korean guest a tour of the spaceport, highlighting Russia’s main space rockets, Soyuz and Angara. Then Kim proceeded to Komsomolsk-on-Amur, a major center of the defense industry. In Komsomolsk, Kim toured an aircraft plant that manufactures Russia’s Sukhoi fighters and SJ 100 passenger planes. The final leg of his tour across the Russian Far East was Vladivostok and the city’s environs, where Kim spent two full days. He visited an airbase where he was shown an array of Russia’s fighter jets and strategic bombers. The North Korean leader was also hosted aboard a guided-missile frigate. The civilian part of his stay in Vladivostok featured Kim’s attendance of “The Sleeping Beauty” ballet performance, a visit to an aquarium where Kim was treated to the show of a trained walrus, a tour of a biotechnology plant, and a visit to Far Eastern Federal University (the venue of Kim’s 2019 summit with Putin), where he met with a group of North Korean youths studying at the university.
Not much is known about the substance of the Putin-Kim talks at Vostochny, and no joint statement or agreements were signed. However, in their public comments, Putin himself and other Russian officials made it abundantly clear that “all issues,” including possibilities for bilateral military cooperation, were discussed. The list of top Russian officials at the Vostochny summit may give some idea about the broad agenda of the talks.
Russia’s delegation included Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Deputy Prime Minister (in charge of Russia’s defense industries) Denis Manturov, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, Deputy Prime Minister (in charge of international trade) Alexey Overchuk, Deputy Prime Minister (in charge of the Russian Far East) Yuri (Yury) Trutnev, Deputy Prime Minister (in charge of Russia’s construction industry) Marat Khusnullin, Minister of Natural Resources and Co-chairman of the Russian-DPRK Intergovernmental Commission for Cooperation in Trade, Economy, Science and Technology Alexandr Kozlov, Minister of Transport Vitaly Saveliev (Savelyev), and the Chief of Russia’s space agency, Yuri Borisov. Kim was accompanied by Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui, Korean People’s Army Marshal Pak Jong Chon, Defense Minister Kang Sun Nam, secretaries of the Workers’ Party of Korea’s Central Committee, O Su Yong and Pak Thae Song, and Vice Foreign Minister Im Chon Il. Apart from the summit at Vostochny, Kim also held separate talks in Vladivostok—with Sergey Shoigu and then with Primorsky Region Governor Oleg Kozhemyako.
There were subtle differences in Moscow’s and Pyongyang’s public messaging during the visit worth noting. North Korea presented it as a milestone in “strengthening strategic and tactical cooperation between the two countries and extending strong support to and solidarity with each other on the common front to frustrate the imperialists’ military threat and provocation.” Kim called relations with Russia Pyongyang’s “top priority.” The North Korean leader gave eloquent support to Russia’s “sacred struggle to punish the evil crowd, which claims the right to hegemony based on the illusion of expansionism.” He also expressed confidence that Russia will succeed in its “special military operation” in Ukraine and “when building a powerful state.” Putin was more reserved in his public statements at the summit. In contrast to Kim, he refrained from lashing out at the West’s US-led “imperialism” and “hegemonism.” Also, he never used the word “strategic” when talking about Russia-DPRK ties. Instead, Putin characterized the bilateral relationship as one of “camaraderie and good-neighborliness.”
North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) may not be off the mark stating that “the historic meeting and talks between Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin…put the traditional and strategic DPRK-Russia friendship, cooperation and good neighborly relations on a new higher level.” What, then, are the motivations of the sides to upgrade the relationship? There are several reasons Moscow is interested in resuscitating strategic ties with the DPRK.
First, it should be kept in mind that North Korea is fully aligned with Russia on the Ukraine issue. Apart from Syria, Pyongyang is the only United Nations member that recognizes Crimea, as well as Donetsk, Lugansk, Zaporizhzhia (Zaporozhye) and Kherson as Russian territories. The visit of a prominent foreign leader who is willing to openly defy the West and speak in support of Russia has its own value for Moscow.
There is little doubt that Moscow’s embrace of Pyongyang is partly a response to Seoul’s position on Ukraine. The Republic of Korea (ROK) has joined the US and European Union-led sanctions regime against Russia. Furthermore, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol has emerged as one of the major international backers of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, complete with Yoon’s visit to Kyiv in July. Despite the ROK’s assertions that it only provides non-lethal aid to Ukraine, it is an open secret that South Korean artillery shells, officially sent to backfill US weapons depots, are highly likely to end up killing Russian troops on the Ukrainian frontlines.
Finally, Moscow cannot but watch with alarm the formation of an axis between Seoul and Warsaw. In particular, the ROK has become a major military-industrial partner for Poland, making huge arms and military technology deals with Warsaw. One wonders if Seoul had not been aware in advance that its growing involvement in fraught Eastern European geopolitics would trigger an inevitable payback from Moscow. Last October, Putin went on record, warning Seoul that South Korea’s military support to Ukraine could “ruin” its relations with Russia.
There are also economic calculations behind the Moscow-Pyongyang reengagement. North Korean labor in exchange for Russia’s cash and commodities like oil, grain and fertilizer is the most obvious area for commercial partnership. Russia has always been short of workers, especially in industries such as construction and agriculture—deals between Moscow and Pyongyang on supplying North Korean labor to Russia date back to the 1960s. North Korean labor exports to Russia halted in the late 2010s due to United Nations Security Council (UNSC) sanctions and then the COVID-19 pandemic. Now is a logical moment for North Korean workers to come back.
Another economic project the two sides may try to revive is the Khasan-Rajin rail-and-port joint venture. A decade ago, Russia completed a rail link connecting the Trans-Siberian Railway via the Russian border township of Khasan with the North Korean port of Rajin. Back then, there were hopes that Khasan-Rajin would serve as a pilot for connecting the envisioned Trans-Korean Railway with the Trans-Siberian. Those expectations didn’t come to pass. Even though Russia had sunk $300 million to construct the link and upgrade the port facilities in Rajin, the project has mostly remained idle due to South Korea’s withdrawal, tightening North Korea sanctions, and COVID-19.
The possibility of North Korean arms deliveries to Russia was perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Kim’s summit with Putin. On the surface of it, the proposition that the DPRK could send arms to Russia looks perfectly logical. The Ukraine war is, after all, a conflict where Russia is pitted against the combined capabilities of “the collective West.” Any military assistance would certainly be of help. Russian military bloggers are especially enthusiastic about North Korean multiple-launch rocket systems KN-09 and KN-25.
Since last year, US officials have been asserting North Korea was sending munitions to Russia. However, no credible evidence has been provided to back those claims except for satellite photos of a few railcars crossing from North Korea into Russia. Russian sources say the train cars in question were, in reality, empty cars returning to Russia after transporting hay to the DPRK.
If North Korean weapons made it to the frontline, it would be impossible to hide them for long, especially taking into account that the Ukraine war is probably the most closely watched and well-documented military conflict in history. If Putin and Kim made an arms deal, we should know soon. In any case, North Korean weapons, even if they do arrive in Russia, can, at best, play an auxiliary role. What matters is Russia’s own ability to maintain and ramp up domestic arms production.
In the same vein, despite showcasing some of Russia’s best weapons to Kim, Moscow providing arms and military or dual-use technology to the DPRK is not a foregone conclusion. It remains to be seen how quickly, how far, and on what terms Moscow is ready to proceed in military-technical cooperation with the DPRK.
Any substantial cooperation with the DPRK, be it in civilian or military areas, would inevitably clash with the UNSC-mandated sanctions imposed on North Korea, for which Russia itself voted as a permanent member of the Security Council. Commenting on his summit with Kim, Putin said Russia continues to comply with the UN-imposed restrictions and is “not going to violate anything.” That said, a creative re-interpretation by Russia of the North Korea sanctions regime may be in order. Many in Moscow are quite explicit Russia should no longer feel bound by sanctions in dealings with North Korea. Sergey Lavrov may have hinted that much when he said that the sanctions against North Korea “had been adopted in an absolutely different geopolitical situation.” As the Director of the Institute of Chinese and Asian Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Kirill Babayev, points out, Russia’s support of sanctions on North Korea “used to be part of a grand bargain with the West. This bargain is now over.”
What is Kim’s game with Moscow? Pyongyang may have short-term commercial considerations, such as receiving from Russia cash, oil and food in exchange for potential supplies of labor and munitions. However, it is a long-term balance-of-power logic that may be the main driver behind Kim’s push for a closer relationship with Russia.
For a long time, the DPRK has basically been on its own in political-military terms. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and China’s rapprochement with South Korea in the early 1990s, North Korea had no allies. The attainment of nuclear weapons made it possible for the DPRK to feel secure—and indeed comfortable—in the situation of strategic solitude. Yet this period of assured security may be coming to an end. North Korea’s nuclear deterrent is not the eternal Ring of Power. Like all weapons, nukes are susceptible to technological change. And Pyongyang’s nuclear missiles, at best, correspond to the technological level the United States and the Soviet Union had achieved half a century ago. The DPRK faces the grave risk that its nukes may, at some future point, be trumped by new emerging weapons. There are assessments, of which Pyongyang is certainly aware, that we may be entering a new military-strategic era of counterforce where highly accurate weapons, coupled with remote sensing and powerful artificial intelligence (AI), make nuclear arsenals extremely vulnerable to disarming strikes.
North Korea’s conventional forces are no match for the combined might of the US-ROK alliance. Nukes may, for now, provide Pyongyang with a deterrent against head-on aggression, but they are useless in most other crisis scenarios. You can’t fight wars, not to mention limited conflicts, with nuclear weapons. This partly explains why Pyongyang, despite its militant rhetoric and spectacular missile launches, has been careful not to cross the line that triggers a kinetic clash with the ROK-US forces. The last major military incident on the Korean Peninsula happened in November 2010, when the North and South exchanged artillery fire. According to US officials, “The North Koreans…are not doing anything that moves toward conventional military confrontation.” The formation of the US-ROK-Japan coalition, epitomized by the recent trilateral summit at Camp David, makes the situation even more worrying for North Korea.
There is no realistic way for North Korea to close the widening gap in modern warfighting capabilities with its opponents on its own. It has neither financial nor technological resources to catch up even to ROK’s conventional capabilities, let alone those of the US and Japan. The only way to redress the increasingly precarious balance of military power is to look for strategic allies, ending the three decades of strategic solitude. That’s where Russia comes in. Moscow may become a source of some critical weapons and technologies, such as reconnaissance satellites and fighter jets, where North Korea’s gap with the South is especially glaring. Furthermore, Russia and North Korea could stage joint military drills, a possibility that Sergey Shoigu hinted at even prior to Kim’s visit.
While the Kim visit to the Russian Far East did not result in any publicized agreements or joint statements, the fact that Russia and the DPRK are engaging in such diplomatic maneuvers is significant in and of itself. In the next few months, we will likely see at least some results from the agreements and/or understandings that Putin and Kim achieved during their talks.
One possible interpretation of Kim’s pilgrimage to Russia is Pyongyang’s quest for security under the circumstances when the balance of military power in and around the peninsula is getting more precarious for North Korea. Given Pyongyang’s extremely constrained domestic resources and inherent limitations of nuclear weapons, it can only rely on external balancing. In a sense, it is going to be a reversal of the Cold War era, when Moscow and Beijing acted as guarantors of military security for Pyongyang. Yet, this time, the division of roles will be somewhat different. China will stay on as Pyongyang’s primary economic benefactor and diplomatic protector, while Russia could play the part of the North’s main military partner. Moscow will be happy with such a role if only because it already has little to lose with Washington, Seoul and Tokyo.
Information provided by an anonymous source.