July 24, 2024

SEOUL — Russian President Vladimir Putin will visit North Korea for talks with leader Kim Jong Un on Tuesday, furthering concerns about the growing military cooperation between the two states at a time when Moscow is hungry for munitions to use in its war against Ukraine.

The pair will likely use the visit to again pledge public support for each other, rebuffing U.S.-led efforts to isolate Putin over his invasion of Ukraine and Kim over his pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.

Ahead of his arrival, Putin praised North Korea for “firmly supporting” his war against Ukraine. “We highly appreciate that [North Korea] is firmly supporting the special military operations of Russia being conducted in Ukraine,” Putin wrote in an article published Tuesday by the North’s official Korean Central News Agency. The visit was announced by Russian and North Korean media.

The visit will also highlight the longevity of autocratic leadership in both countries: Putin last visited North Korea 24 years ago, soon after he became president for the first time, when the country was led by Kim Jong Il, the current leader’s father.

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Putin’s trip will reciprocate Kim’s visit to Russia’s Far East in September last year, when the North Korean leader called his country’s relations with Russia his top priority and pledged support for Moscow’s “sacred struggle” against Ukraine.

While the two leaders have grown closer in recent years, their moves are a product of the short-term need for each other out of convenience, rather than a formal, lasting alliance — especially given their complicated bilateral history, experts say.

“There is too much mutual distrust between the two countries. The current improvement in their relations is driven by situational circumstances,” said Andrei Lankov, a longtime scholar of Russian-North Korean relations and professor of Korean studies at Kookmin University in Seoul.

The White House has repeatedly accused North Korea of sending “equipment and munitions” to Russia to replenish its dwindling supplies for the war in Ukraine, including ballistic missiles with a range of roughly 550 miles and missile launchers.

North Korea is believed to have a large stockpile of dated artillery shells and rockets that would be compatible with Soviet and Russian weapons systems used in Ukraine, as well as a production capacity that would help Russia maintain its high ammunition burn rate as the Kremlin seeks to scale up domestic production.

These dynamics have given Kim a rare bargaining chip. And it’s a reversal in their relationship, given North Korea’s history of military dependence on the Soviet Union, including in its Soviet-supported invasion of the South that sparked the 1950-53 Korean War.

Since Kim’s visit last September to Russia, North Korea is believed to have exported some 5 million rounds of ammunition to Russia, the South Korean defense minister told Bloomberg News.

Russia also is in need of workers, which North Korea can provide. Russia has long used North Korean workers as a cheap and reliable source of labor. As of last year, thousands of North Koreans were still thought to be in Russia in violation of U.N. sanctions that required all of the North’s workers abroad to return home by the end of 2019.

Russia used its U.N. Security Council veto in March to neuter a long-running sanctions regime designed to deter and slow Pyongyang’s development of its nuclear arsenal, with Russian officials accusing the West of trying to “strangle” North Korea.

Russia may be providing various forms of technological assistance to North Korea in response, some analysts say, although the military agreements between the two sides are opaque.

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a Swedish think tank, reported Monday that North Korea may have enough fissile material for 90 nuclear weapons and may have 50 nuclear warheads, a “significant” increase from 2023 — although it cautioned there was uncertainty about the number.

Samuel Ramani, associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, said the fears over the deepening relationship between Moscow and Pyongyang had focused on the possibility that Russia could accelerate North Korea’s capacity for producing nuclear weapons, but added there was no evidence that had happened so far.

“The biggest thing we’ve seen so far in terms of technological transfers have so far been in the space sphere, and I don’t think it’s going to lead to Russia immediately helping North Korea in the nuclear sphere because China is very wary of both Russia and North Korea becoming more escalatory in that area,” Ramani said.

Pyongyang, for its part, is seeking to boost its beleaguered economy — it is grappling with financial hardship and food insecurity following pandemic isolation and years of sanctions — and get access to Moscow’s advanced technology for its satellite and nuclear weapons programs.

South Korean and U.S. officials have expressed concerns about the growing military cooperation. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Kurt Campbell and South Korea’s First Vice Foreign Minister Kim Hong-kyun spoke by phone on Friday to discuss the potential visit and agreed to continue coordinating in their responses, the South Korean Foreign Ministry said.

Russia, China, North Korea, Iran and other authoritarian states share Moscow’s eagerness for a global order and international institutions that are friendlier to autocratic regimes, and all have condemned Western sanctions.

Analysts Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Richard Fontaine, writing in Foreign Affairs magazine in April, coined the term “axis of upheaval,” stating that trade and direct or indirect military support to Russia from China, North Korea and Iran had strengthened Moscow’s position on the battlefield and undermined Western attempts to isolate Moscow.

“Cooperation among the four countries was expanding before 2022, but the war has accelerated their deepening economic, military, political, and technological ties,” they wrote.

Kirill Kotkov, the head of the St. Petersburg-based Center for the Study of Far Eastern Countries, countered that the evidence wasn’t yet there for real cooperation, adding that while China had close ties with Russia, it had never embraced a formal alliance with Moscow.

Kotkov said Russia’s use of its U.N. Security Council veto to block the renewal sanctions against North Korea was recognition that Pyongyang had already become a nuclear power and deterrence was useless.

“Surely we know very well that North Korea has long created nuclear weapons and it has been in nuclear power for a while,” he said.

Peter Ward, a research fellow focusing on North Korea at the Sejong Institute outside Seoul, said it that while it was unclear whether North Korea has received weapons technology in reciprocation, there are some indications that Russian technology was used in North Korea’s most recent and failed attempt to launch a satellite, Ward said.

Kim “might use Putin’s trip to argue his case” for such technology, Ward said.

During the September trip, Putin took Kim to the Vostochny Cosmodrome, which symbolizes Moscow’s ambitions for pioneering space technology. At the time, U.S. and South Korean officials warned that North Korea might be seeking critical technologies from Russia to boost Pyongyang’s nuclear and weapons ambitions as missiles and rockets use much of the same technology.

North Korea’s space agency in November put a “space launch vehicle” — its name for what appears to be a military satellite — into orbit after two failed attempts. Kim lauded the satellite as a “space guard” that would intensify his regime’s hostile reconnaissance on enemy nations, and the North Korean state media claimed that the satellite had photographed sensitive military and political sites in South Korea and the United States, although it did not release any imagery.

Still, experts said in February that the satellite was “alive” after observing maneuvers that suggest Pyongyang was controlling the spacecraft.

Dixon reported from Riga, Latvia. Lyric Li in Seoul contributed to this report.

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