U.S. uneasy, powerless as North Korea's Kim arrives in Russia to meet Putin

U.S. uneasy, powerless as North Korea’s Kim arrives in Russia to meet Putin

SEOUL — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has arrived in Russia for talks with President Vladimir Putin, a situation that has the Biden administration and its ally in South Korea fuming but powerless to prevent.

North Korean state media and South Korean defense officials both confirmed that Mr. Kim had crossed into Russia by train Tuesday. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters in Moscow Mr. Kim and Mr. Putin will meet in the Russian Far East, with both one-on-one and delegation-to-delegation talks slated, as well as a dinner. North Korean press photos of the reclusive North Korean leader’s delegation on the train show that it includes his foreign minister and senior military officials.

Mr. Putin is currently hosting a regular event in Vladivostok, the Eastern Economic Forum, designed to induce investment in the vast, underdeveloped spaces of the Russian Far East. In that endeavor, cheap and plentiful North Korean labor could feasibly play a role. But Mr. Kim has never attended an international forum, and there is speculation in Seoul that the bilateral meeting will take place not at the forum site but in the city of Ussuriysk, some 50 miles north of Vladivostok.

Analysts say the two men will likely discuss an aid-for-arms swap: Pyongyang could supply artillery ammunition, tactical rockets and anti-tank munitions for Russia’s strapped forces fighting in Ukraine in return for food aid, energy aid, and/or assistance with such high-tech items as nuclear propulsion systems for submarines and satellites.

South Korean and U.S figures are demanding — in vain, so far — that Russia and North Korea cease and desist: White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre warned that any arms deal between North Korea and Russia “would directly violate a number of U.N. Security Council resolutions” and that the U.S. will expose and sanction individuals and entities working to facilitate deals.

Yet neither the U.S., South Korea, nor their allies and partners, are positioned to compel the leaders of the two rogue states to bend to their will. And some say a policy of failing to keep lines of communication open to Pyongyang under President Biden and conservative South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol bears a large share of the blame.

“The U.S. has imposed maximum sanctions and pressures on Russia and North Korea, so what other leverage do they have beyond rhetoric?” said Moon Chung-in, a high-profile academic who has advised past South Korean governments favoring engagement with the Kim regime. “There is maximum pressure on both counties, and no business or humanitarian transactions, so beyond the rhetoric of warning, I don’t think these remarks will have any impact” on Mr. Kim or Mr. Putin.

Wider geopolitical policies are driving Moscow and Pyongyang together, he argued.

“The West tried to isolate Russia, China and North Korea and so there are growing bonds among those countries,” said Mr. Moon. “The context of U.S. rivalry with China, the Ukraine war and international efforts to isolate Russia have fostered the Putin-Kim meeting.”

Beyond the prospect of a badly needed arms deal, Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Kookmin University, said the Kremlin is sending a signal to the Yoon government as it ramps up its support for NATO and Ukraine in the war.

“I believe this is all designed to create an impression that Russia and North Korea are going to start military cooperation, and the message is aimed at Seoul as much as Washington,” Mr. Lankov said.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Seoul has sold a massive package of arms to Poland worth over $15 billion, and has transferred hundreds of thousands of artillery shells to the U.S.

So far, however, it has restricted its aid to Ukraine to non-lethal items. South Korean law forbids arms supply to belligerents.

“The message is that South Korea should be careful about providing lethal aid to Ukraine,” Mr. Lankov said. “Otherwise, the Russians are hinting that the North Koreans will get missile and submarine technologies as an act of revenge.”

A South Korean presidential official acknowledged to the Yonhap news agency Tuesday that Seoul is watching the Kim-Putin summit closely, adding, “We hope Russia will act responsibly as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council.”