On September 13, North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un met and held talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a visit to the Vostochny Cosmodrome – a spaceport located in the Amur Oblast in Russia’s Far East region. They held a marathon meeting that lasted over five hours and was followed by a dinner of crab dumplings and sturgeon. It was their second meeting, with the first taking place in April 2019 in Vladivostok; the visit also represented Kim Jong Un’s first trip abroad since 2019.
Here are three take-aways from the Putin-Kim summit.
The War in Ukraine Brings Closer Ties
The two nations have drawn closer and closer together since Russian’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
“Russia has risen to a sacred fight to protect its sovereignty and security… against the hegemonic forces,” Kim told Putin at the summit. “We will always support the decisions of President Putin and the Russian leadership… and we will be together in the fight against imperialism,” which apparently refers to the United States.
Eager to strengthen its ties with Moscow, Pyongyang has opposed any U.N. resolutions condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In July 2022, it officially recognized the independence of the “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk of eastern Ukraine (the Donbas), which Russia first invaded in 2014. In response, Ukraine immediately severed diplomatic ties with North Korea.
In return, Pyongyang has been rewarded by Moscow.
The food crisis in North Korea is worsening, and people are starving to death even in the capital Pyongyang, according to news reports. In such a severe situation, in July 2023, Russia’s Federal Service for Veterinary and Phytosanitary Supervision announced that since the beginning of 2023, Russia had exported 3,833 tons of wheat flour to North Korea from the Kuzbass region of Siberia.
This followed a similar press release from April 2023 where the federal service announced that since the beginning of 2023, Russia had sent more than 2,800 tons of corn to North Korea from the Amur Oblast of the Russian Far East region.
Pyongyang has also become more dependent on Moscow for energy. Russia increased its oil supply to North Korea in July by about five times compared to the previous month, with oil exports totaling 10,933 barrels, according to a report posted on the United Nations Security Council Sanctions Committee on North Korea on its website on September 11.
Growing Military Cooperation
Militarily, North Korea is now desperately trying to obtain technology for military reconnaissance satellites and nuclear submarines from Russia. Kim Jong Un ordered his military to achieve nine goals at the 8th Korean Workers’ Party Congress held in January 2021, including solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and hypersonic missiles. According to South Korea’s JoongAng Ilbo, at least seven fields are on the verge of mass production and deployment; the two goals where North Korea is lagging behind are , reconnaissance satellites and nuclear submarines.
This is the main reason Kim visited the Vostochny Cosmodrome and the Far Eastern city of Vladivostok to view the Pacific Fleet of the Russian navy. His delegation included Pak Thae Song, chairman of North Korea’s space science and technology committee, which develops artificial satellites, and Navy Commander Kim Myeong Sik, who is in charge of developing submarines.
Kim also brought along Jo Chun Ryong, the general manager of North Korea’s military industry, including artillery and gunpowder production. Jo’s inclusion would be essential for negotiations regarding the supply of ammunition, which Russia is said to be desperately seeking.
Pyongyang is believed to have already supplied Moscow with weapons and ammunition to support its war in Ukraine. On January 20, 2023 the White House stated in a press briefing that North Korea was supplying Russia’s private military company – the Wagner Group – with arms and ammunition to aid its war effort in Ukraine. Local sources within North Korea have also confirmed growing ammunition sales to Russia, according to Daily NK.
On September 13, the New York Times reported Russia is expanding its weapons production to avoid sanctions imposed by Western countries. The country’s production capacity for artillery shells is estimated to be seven times that of Western countries.
Meanwhile, Reuters, citing Western officials, reported on September 9 that it is estimated Russia had consumed 10 million to 11 million rounds of ammunition during 2022. It pointed out that although Russia’s ammunition production could increase to 2 million rounds a year in the next few years, this would not solve the shortage.
Will China Join the Russia-North Korea Bloc?
When Kim Jong Un visited Russia, it was his first trip abroad in four years, since the COVID-19 pandemic started in late 2019. Notably, Kim’s last trip off the Korean Peninsula was also a trip to Russia in April 2019.
China, which assumes the role of guardian of North Korea, has to be nervous about the rapid development of ties between Russia and North Korea.
Putin met with Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Guoqing on September 12 on the sidelines of the 8th Eastern Economic Forum (EEF) in Vladivostok and said that “the bilateral relationship between Russia and China has entered its best period in history.”
But with Chinese spokespeople avoiding specific comment about the Putin-Kim summit, Beijing appears to be concerned about the spread of perceptions that China, Russia, and North Korea are one bloc. Lumping Beijing together with Pyongyang as part of a new “axis of evil” would exert a bad influence on China’s global strategy, including toward the United States.
China prefers to keep its ties with Pyongyang quiet and distant from its main foreign policy ambitions. Beijing has not even included North Korea in its signature Belt and Road Initiative, which covers over three-fourths of the world’s countries.
Looking at the West, the United States is strengthening cooperation with Japan and South Korea in an effort to counter the rise of China, but this could lead to strategic closer ties between China, Russia, and North Korea. The more Japan, the United States, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines, and Vietnam strengthen their ties, the more they will bring China closer to the camp of Russia and North Korea. This is a security dilemma, the law of action and reaction.
Some American international politics scholars, including John Mearsheimer, have argued that the United States erred in expanding NATO too much to the east, thus pushing Russia too far and leading to the invasion of Ukraine. In East Asia, if Japan, the United States, and South Korea corner China too much, a similar situation could occur in Taiwan.
With that in mind, it would be desirable for Japan and South Korea to continue dialogue with China, taking into account the geopolitical risks of sharing a border with China.