Putin’s reaching out to Kim Jong-un is a desperate move

Sergey Radchenko

Reports that North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong-un, may visit Russia soon to meet Vladimir Putin – probably to discuss the supply of North Korean weapons for Putin’s war in Ukraine – point to a rather remarkable transformation of Russian-North Korean relations. During the cold war, North Korea was Moscow’s key ally in north-east Asia. But at that time, the North Koreans were, at best, poor supplicants to a mighty superpower. Today, Kim’s hermit kingdom stands tall and proud as Russia’s partner in crime.
Putin’s engagement with North Korea is as old as his presidency. But the relationship was generally more exotic than practical. Russia’s real partner was South Korea, which consistently ranked among its top 10 trade partners, with nearly $30bn in trade volume in 2021. North Korea was never an attractive partner, and it was subject to very restrictive sanctions that Russia, as a permanent member of the UN security council, had helped craft. Until it invaded Ukraine, Russia tried to abide by them in letter and spirit.
Everything changed with the invasion. In May 2022 – in a development that may foreshadow the beginning of the end for the North Korean sanctions regime – Russia (and China) vetoed a UN security council resolution that would penalise Pyongyang for another round of missile tests. In July 2022, Pyongyang recognised the Russian-occupied puppet republics of Donetsk and Luhansk (just over two months before their annexation by Russia made this recognition moot). Then, in July this year, the Russian defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, turned up in Pyongyang to an unprecedented welcome. Kim was seen proudly showing him around the latest models of North Korean weaponry. Amid the smiles and camaraderie, a new relationship was being born.
Russia’s quest for North Korean weapons and ammunition (much like the Kremlin’s purchase of Iranian drones) suggests a high degree of desperation in the Kremlin. With Russia’s vaunted military machine having been proved something of a paper tiger by the Ukrainians, there is an implied humiliation in shopping around for weapons in places like North Korea, a disdained client state at the best of times. There are also important practical considerations that Putin must weigh before embracing Kim. The first – violating the sanctions regime that Russia has helped built up over the years – is probably the least of Putin’s hurdles. Now that Russia itself has become a pariah state, on the receiving end of extensive western sanctions, it is only reasonable that the Kremlin might reach out to fellow rogues. You may argue, of course, that the (partial) dismantling of the sanctions regime will bury all hopes for Pyongyang’s denuclearisation, a goal to which the Kremlin is, in theory, still committed. But Putin may well decide that this is the least of his problems at this time.
The second consideration is potentially more important. By overdoing North Korea, the Kremlin risks undermining its relationship with South Korea. Granted, the war in Ukraine has taken a toll on this relationship already, as Seoul joined western sanctions against Russia. South Korea’s exports to Russia plummeted by 37% in 2022 (imports decreased by 15%). But Seoul joined these sanctions only reluctantly, and many South Korean companies continue operating in Russia. South Korea is something of a weak link in the western sanctions front, a situation the Kremlin could exploit to its advantage if it had the tactical acumen to do so.
Putin may conclude, however, that by forging a new relationship with Pyongyang he could increase his leverage with South Korea. He may believe that the closer the relationship becomes between himself and Kim, the more eager South Korean policymakers will be to maintain dialogue with Russia. It was this logic that in the late 1980s led the South Korean president, Roh Tae-woo, to launch the policy of nordpolitik – reaching out to Moscow to put pressure on Pyongyang. In fact, Putin’s courting of North Korea early in his own presidency followed exactly this logic.
The third consideration that may weigh on Putin’s mind is whether North Korea is a trustworthy partner. In fact, it most certainly is not. Pyongyang spent the cold war exploiting disagreements among its allies and playing them off against one another. It proved notoriously wilful and unpredictable and, on more than one occasion (for instance, during its 1968 capture of the USS Pueblo and its 1969 downing of a US EC-121 surveillance plane), pulled tricks that could have dragged Moscow into an unwanted confrontation with the US. North Korea is also well known for becoming an economic burden on its reluctant friends and partners. What bargain Kim will attempt to drive with Russia is still unknown, but he is unlikely to sell himself cheaply.
Despite these considerations, Putin may well have already made the strategic choice to draw closer to North Korea. This is in part the consequence of the new situation Russia finds itself in. The demise of the post-cold war world and the return of bloc mentality tend to encourage these kinds of realignments. The elephant in the room is Pyongyang’s longtime sponsor China, which has also been drawing closer to Russia by the logic of its own deepening conflict with the US. The last time these three countries were on the same wavelength was in the late 1940s to early 1950s, which cannot be described as a happy time for north-east Asia. It is as yet unclear whether Kim will meet Putin, but the relationship between their countries is clearly shifting. And not because North Korea is changing, but because Russia is. It is beginning to look more and more like North Korea. Whether or not North Korean armaments find their way to the frontlines in Ukraine, Russia’s descent into the depths of tyranny will put a smile of satisfaction on Kim’s face.
The Guardian