Russia-NKorea Ties: Will Putin-Kim Bromance Last?

Warming relations between North Korea and Russia could last as long as the war in Ukraine continues, making Pyongyang either disposable or expandable to Moscow, depending on its need for ammunition and interest in overturning the U.S.-led international order, experts said.

As U.S. President Joe Biden called on global leaders to support Ukraine at the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un returned home after his six-day trip to Russia, during which he pledged to provide “full and unconditional support” for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine.

Kim arrived in Pyongyang in his private train on Tuesday evening, North Korea’s state-run KCNA said the following day. His “good will visit” to Russia “opened a new chapter of the development” between the two countries, touted KCNA on Tuesday as Kim’s train crossed the border.

Using a slightly different tone from North Korea’s, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters Friday that Kim and Putin did not sign any agreements on cooperation, military or otherwise.

Putin said during his meeting with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko on Friday that Russia does not intend to violate any sanctions on North Korea. Putin made his remarks two days after meeting with Kim.

KCNA said on Sunday that Kim discussed defense and security cooperation and exchanges with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in Vladivostok.

Kim’s trip included a summit with Putin at the Vostochny Cosmodrome satellite launch facility in Russia’s far eastern Amur region on Sept. 13 and inspections of fighter jets in Komsomolsk-on-Amur as well as the Pacific Fleet in Vladivostok on Saturday.

Although the specifics of possible but unsigned arms deals between Pyongyang and Moscow were not made public, world leaders gathered at the United Nations are concerned that North Korea and Russia would exchange items banned by the U.N.

In a statement issued Tuesday, the foreign ministers of the G7 countries expressed concerns over “Russia-North Korea cooperation” that “could lead to violation” of U.N. sanctions.

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol warned in his speech before the U.N. on Wednesday that Seoul would consider any arms deals between the two nations “a direct provocation.”

North Korea needs technological help to send a spy satellite into orbit after failed attempts in May and August. But the technology used to launch satellites into orbit could be also used to enhance intercontinental ballistic missiles, which are banned by the U.N. sanctions on the North.

Russia wants to replenish its depleting stockpiles of ammunition and artillery shells to sustain its war in Ukraine. It turned to North Korea late last year for those weapons, the U.S. said, even though U.N. sanctions prohibit importing arms from Pyongyang.

Although their military needs brought Kim and Putin together, some experts say their new relationship is based on short-term transactional exchanges bound to end when their needs no longer exist.

Cho Han-Bum, a senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification, a think tank in Seoul, said the Kim-Putin bonding is a temporary alignment rooted in Russia’s need for weapons to fight in Ukraine.

“North Korea and Russian won’t be closely drawn together as they are now if Putin’s needs for the war in Ukraine are satisfied,” he said.

Won Gon Park, a professor of North Korean Studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, agreed.

“The relationship between North Korea and Russia is a kind of marriage of convenience rather than strategic partnership,” he said.

Putin and Kim are cooperating to evade sanctions, he added, as both countries are isolated by international and U.S.-led sanctions designating them as countries that commit illegal acts.

Russia has been heavily sanctioned by the U.S.-led coalitions since its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. North Korea has been sanctioned by multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions for testing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, especially since 2016.

Attempts to pass new U.N. sanctions on North Korea’s record number of missile launches last year had been blocked by Russia and China, permanent members of the Security Council.

Other experts, however, view the war in Ukraine as unlikely to end soon and see a continuation of the Kim-Putin relationship despite differences in their trajectory of cooperation.

“Putin’s calculation is more short-term than Kim’s,” said Alexander Korolev, an expert in Russia’s foreign policy at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia.

After Putin’s weaponry needs are fulfilled, “Kim could theoretically be disposed of at some point, but the problem is that the war in Ukraine is unlikely to end soon, and even if it ends, the sanctions regime against Russia will stay for longer, which makes Putin more willing to consider longer term cooperation,” Korolev said.

He added that Kim is not essential to Putin in countering the U.S.-led international order in the long run because “China is a better partner for that.”

“Moreover, given how close North Korea is to China, closer Russia-North Korea cooperation could be a convenient and less visible way for China to support Russia when necessary,” Korolev said.

The warming Kim-Putin relationship “is also about diversifying their options, such as exchanging and securing assets that cannot be gained from Beijing – particularly ammunition and military technologies,” said Ryo Hinata-Yamaguchi, a senior nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Indo-Pacific Security Initiative at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.

Kim, on the other hand, might want “a longer-term partnership” as he needs “a whole range of things,” said Samuel Wells, a Cold War fellow at the Wilson Center.

But Putin is probably satisfied with short-term transactional exchanges because “the Russians don’t need that much from the North Koreans,” Wells said. “A lot of it depends on how the Ukraine war goes.”

Some expect the recent warming of Kim-Putin relations may outlast immediate needs for Russia’s war in Ukraine, evolving into strategic cooperation to overturn the U.S.-led international system, also their common goal.

“Even after the war in Ukraine, both of these countries will want to maintain this newly established allied relationship,” said Joseph DeTrani, special envoy for six-party denuclearization talks with North Korea during the George W. Bush administration.

“Both Putin and Kim want a long-term strategic partnership” to “challenge the U.S.-led international order” and each has the other to come to their aid during conflicts, he said.

Although North Korea is “a partner of convenience” for Russia, said Evan Revere, “Putin no doubt sees Pyongyang as a tactically useful partner because of its ability to challenge the U.S.-led alliance system.” Revere served as the acting secretary for East Asia and Pacific Affairs during the George W. Bush administration.

“Moscow finds the DPRK [North Korea] a ‘useful tool’ to remind the United States that, just as Washington is finding ways to hurt Russia by supporting Ukraine, Russia can threaten U.S. interests by supporting North Korea,” he added. 

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