Putin's Embrace of Kim Jong-un Has Its Limits

commentary

Apr 4, 2024

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Amur Oblast of the Far East Region, Russia, September 13, 2023, photo by KCNA via Reuters

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Amur Oblast of the Far East Region, Russia, September 13, 2023

Photo by KCNA via Reuters

This commentary originally appeared on Nikkei Asia on April 4, 2024.

Alexander Matsegora, Russia's ambassador to North Korea, has predicted that this will be a “breakthrough year” for the partnership between the two countries.

He is probably right. Russian President Vladimir Putin is planning to visit Pyongyang in the coming months to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and reciprocate Kim's visit last September to the Russian Far East. If the trip happens, it would mark Putin's first visit to Pyongyang since 2000 when he went to meet Kim Jong-il, the current leader's father.

Last month, the Russian Ministry of Culture sent a senior delegation to North Korea to commemorate the 75th anniversary of bilateral economic and cultural cooperation. This suggests that Putin and Kim will look to elevate their countries' partnership beyond scientific, technological, and military cooperation to include building social and economic links.

Bilateral tourism is already on the rise, with Russians visiting North Korea's Masikryong Ski Resort for the first time since the pandemic. North Korean travel to Russia rose fivefold in 2023 from the previous year.

North Korea's Rason Special Economic Zone, which abuts the border with rail and port links into Russia, is now bustling and poised to flourish further if Kim and Putin reach new trade and investment agreements.

Under an apparent arms-for-food agreement reached last August, the Kremlin is receiving weapons for its war in Ukraine while providing food and other needed commodities to North Korea, which is believed to be fighting off famine. Oil is another key commodity Russia is providing, with its supplies accounting for 20 percent to 50 percent of the imports the North is allowed under U.N. sanctions.

Russia also seems to be providing support for Kim's missile program, in particular reentry vehicle technology that could help North Korea perfect targeted delivery of nuclear warheads.

Russia seems to be providing support for Kim's missile program, in particular reentry vehicle technology that could help North Korea perfect targeted delivery of nuclear warheads.

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In February, scholars from the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington tallied 44 probable deliveries of munitions to Russia by sea and rail since last August based on commercial imagery and ship tracking data. South Korean Defense Minister Shin Won-sik has estimated that the North has sent more than 3 million rounds of munitions to Russia, and the United States has said that some North Korean–made missiles have been fired into Ukraine.

It is difficult to discern exactly how Russia is helping North Korea with its missile program, but future test firings may give hints about their scientific and technological cooperation. For the time being, it can be reasonably assumed at least that Putin has directed Russian scientists to support Kim.

Meanwhile, last week Russia blocked the annual renewal of the mandate of U.N. sanctions monitors, a move that will make it much more difficult to assess the state of North Korea's nuclear program, while Putin's spy chief also paid a visit to Pyongyang.

In direct contravention of the sanctions, Putin is said to have recently sent Kim a Russian-made luxury car. North Korean state media reported that Kim Yo-jong, Kim Jong-un's sister and close confidante, “courteously conveyed” his thanks, referring to this “as a clear demonstration of the special personal relations between the top leaders.”

As transactional as the partnership between Putin and Kim may seem right now, Russia and North Korea are also under clear strategic imperatives to work together.

At the macro level, the two nations seek to create an alternative political, economic, and security bloc to the Western-led, rules-based, liberal international order, in concert with China and Iran. In addition, Russia and North Korea are among the world's most heavily sanctioned nations, creating a further logic to their cooperation.

There is also some undeniable geostrategic utility for North Korea in keeping Washington bogged down in Ukraine while it commands attention by building out its missile and nuclear programs. Similarly, Moscow has an interest in making the United States worry about the Korean Peninsula to keep it from focusing too closely on Ukraine.

The current trajectory of North Korea–Russia relations is certainly unfavorable for the United States and its allies because it essentially gives the two nations greater wiggle room to continue their bad behavior. But all is not necessarily lost.

North Korea and Russia simply do not and cannot have a “no limits” partnership of the kind Putin declared with Chinese President Xi Jinping just before the invasion of Ukraine.

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North Korea and Russia simply do not and cannot have a “no limits” partnership of the kind Putin declared with Chinese President Xi Jinping just before the invasion of Ukraine. Economic cooperation between Pyongyang and Moscow is circumscribed by both nations' limited capacities and the constraints of international sanctions.

Putin also is likely to limit his support for Kim's arms building, especially his nuclear program, out of concern that he could inadvertently irritate Xi who wants peace and stability in Northeast Asia. To date, Xi has hesitated to provide significant military assistance to Russia for Ukraine and has steered clear of supporting Kim's missile and nuclear programs.

For his part, Kim has to ration the munitions he sends to Russia to ensure the military readiness of his own forces to fight South Korea and the United States.

As a result, the strategic partnership between Russia and North Korea is unlikely to be decisive for either side. Yet at this point, any technological advances for North Korea's military program are inevitably of concern.


Derek Grossman is a senior defense analyst at RAND and an adjunct professor in the practice of political science and international relations at the University of Southern California. He formerly served as an intelligence adviser at the Pentagon.