SEOUL, South Korea — Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un are reportedly set to meet to discuss possible weapons for the war in Ukraine, space assistance for North Korea and joint naval drills, according to multiple dispatches Tuesday.
The meeting will prove a fresh challenge to the Biden administration, which has been forging a web of multinational coalitions in the Indo-Pacific with allies from Australia to Japan to meet the growing economic and security challenges in the region.
Those relationships are largely aimed at containing China and North Korea. But against the backdrop of Moscow’s war in Ukraine, Russia — a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council which has traditionally kept the volatile rogue state North Korea at arm’s length — has new reasons to upgrade its relationship with Mr. Kim’s regime.
North Korea has supported Russia’s Ukraine invasion at the UN while, Russia, with China, has nixed new, U.S.-proposed sanctions on North Korea missile tests.
As it did in the run-up to Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, the White House appears to be “pre-leaking” intelligence about a possible Kim-Putin meeting, U.S. officials have put out the reports in part to warn Pyongyang about the consequences of helping restock Russia’s depleted arsenal as the Ukraine war drags on.
White House national security spokesman John Kirby late last month warned the North explicitly about upgrading security ties with the Kremlin, telling reporters, “We urge [North Korea] to cease its arms negotiations with Russia and abide by the public commitments that Pyongyang has made to not provide or sell arms to Russia,” and adding Washington was ready to impose fresh sanctions on Pyongyang in the event of any deal.
An upgraded Putin-Kim partnership could bypass sanctions against both and signal the emergence of an anti-American bilateral or — with Beijing — trilateral coalition.
Upcoming summitry may offer some clues.
It was announced Monday that Chinese President Xi Jinping would join Mr. Putin in skipping the two-day G20 summit hosted by strategic competitor India, in New Delhi starting Saturday, an event President Biden is expected to attend. On the day the summit ends, however, Mr. Putin will be hosting his own event in Russia’s Far Eastern city of Vladivostok, barely 300 miles from the tri-border area linking China, North Korea and Russia.
The New York Times, citing senior U.S. officials, reported that Mr. Kim will travel to Russia to meet Mr. Putin, possibly in Vladivostok, where he might visit units of Russia’s Pacific Fleet. Last month, a North Korean delegation visited both Vladivostok and Moscow.
Both sides have needs: Mr. Putin wants artillery ammunition and anti-tank missiles, while Mr. Kim has been seeking space and nuclear submarine technologies, and perhaps food aid. South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported separately that Russia had invited North Korea to join regional naval drills, possibly alongside China.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu made the suggestion while visiting Pyongyang in July, Seoul’s spy chief told the National Assembly’s Intelligence Committee in Seoul, Yonhap stated.
Looking for friends
A senior allied officer told The Washington Times in July that Russian and Ukraine are firing artillery at rough parity, a sharp change from earlier in the war when the Russians were firing far heavier barrages. With the battlefield initiative currently in Ukraine’s hands, a starved artillery force — the only Russian arm to perform effectively in Ukraine — could be disastrous for Moscow.
North Korea is believed to have major stockpiles of tactical artillery munitions — such as 122mm rockets and 152mm shells — calibrated to Russian barrels.
For its part, North Korea appears to need help getting its space surveillance programs off the launchpad. Mr. Kim suffered a major public relations hit when attempts to place reconnaissance satellites into orbit in May and August both failed.
Mr. Kim in recent days also urged an upgraded navy while visiting fleet units. Pyongyang has, for decades, prioritized weapons of mass destruction, leaving its navy out of the funding loop.
Despite the matching security interests, Mr. Putin and Mr. Kim may struggle to find common ground on other fronts.
“The Russian and North Korea economies are not compatible, but we could expect to see North Korean workers in Russia in the near future,” said Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Kookmin University. “Is Russia going to subsidize North Korea the way China has been for years? Probably not: Russia has a much smaller economy than China.”
Diplomacy offers potentially fruitful partnerships.
New Delhi’s G20 Summit ends on the same day Mr. Putin hosts what’s being billed as the 8th Eastern Economic Summit in Vladivostok. hat city was the location of Mr. Putin’s first, and so far only summit, with Mr. Kim, in 2019. If Mr. Kim — or Mr. Xi — turned up in Vladivostok in 2023, the level of U.S. and regional concern would soar.
“The Far Eastern Forum – especially in the current context – is not really a global event, it is a way for Putin to promote the Russian Far East,” said Sebastian Falleti, author of the French-language work “On the Trail of Kim Jong Un.” I don’t see a lot of downside for Kim: It’s not the forum, it is whether he would meet Putin or not, and it is happening just after the G20, which is a real global forum.”
Still, Mr. Putin courts risk in cultivating Mr. Kim, one of the world’s poorest and most isolated countries.
“North Korea remains toxic and Russia must have a road plan to recover the prestige lost with the international community in Ukraine,” said Go Myong-hyun, a North Korea analyst at Seoul’s Asan Institute. “If they [move closer] to North Korea, Russia is going to be seen less as a major power, more a rogue state.”