On Sept. 13, North Korean leader Chairman Kim Jong-un embarked on his first foreign visit, following the global public health crisis. His arrival was marked by disembarkation from his bullet-proof train at the Vostochny Cosmodrome spaceport, located in the Amur Oblast in the Russian Far East. Kim met Russian leader Vladimir Putin at the launch vehicle assembly building and toured the spaceport facilities before engaging in an hours-long meeting in Kim’s Limousine, transported from Pyongyang. Mr. Putin spoke of the Soviet Union’s wartime support for North Korea and also covered economic cooperation, humanitarian concerns, and regional dynamics. Kim, reciprocally, pledged “full and unconditional support” for Moscow, making an apparent reference to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. Kim’s itinerary across Russia included visits to aviation factories in Komsomolsk-on-Amur, a marine biology laboratory in Vladivostok, and the Russian Pacific Fleet. No doubt, the summit is seen as a sign of the “strategic importance” of bilateral relationships that have an anti-US, anti-Western alignment, thereby strengthening their alliances.
The visit came at a time when the backdrop of a diplomatic standstill in North Korea’s relations with the US and South Korea, followed an unsuccessful summit between Chairman Kim and President Donald Trump in Hanoi, Vietnam, in February 2019. Consequently, Kim’s meeting with Putin was a strategic maneuver to reemerge North Korea on the world stage through successful diplomacy. Moscow and Pyongyang have historical relations, when Stalin supported Kim’s grandfather at the start of the Korean War in 1950. North Korea was one of the five countries that opposed the UN resolution in early March 2022, condemning the Russian invasion, and was also one of the first three countries to recognize the independence of the two Russian-occupied states – Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic in Eastern Ukraine.
North Korea possibly has tens of millions of artillery shells and rockets based on Soviet designs that could potentially give a considerable boost to the Russian army. In exchange, Kim seeks badly needed energy, food, and advanced weapon technology, including those related to intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear-capable ballistic missiles, and a military reconnaissance satellite. This exchange can complicate President Biden’s security consideration within the European and Asian theater.
During Kim’s visit, he praised “comrade Putin” and depicted Russia’s actions in Ukraine as a “sacred fight to protect its sovereignty and security”. He also added that the two countries would always be together in the fight against imperialism. The meeting at the Cosmodrome is symbolic, especially as Pyongyang failed twice recently in its bid to put a military spy satellite into orbit. The weaponry of Soviet vintage, akin to those used in the Ukraine conflict, emerged as the most salient items North Korea can provide to Moscow. According to a senior research fellow from the Royal United Services Institute in Britain, Russia has exhausted up to 11 million shells in Ukraine last year and is set to fire 7 million more this year. Russia’s defense industries have been ramping up shell production this year, but it has not been able to keep up with demand stemming from the war. North Korea is believed to possess a substantial reserve of Soviet-designed artillery shells and rockets, which are used against Ukraine. Kim was also accompanied by Jo Chun Ryong, a ruling party official overseeing munitions policies.
The most appealing ammunition to Russia is the BM-21 Grad, a 122 mm multiple rocket launcher system that is similar to the ones it uses. Russia is also interested in the Soviet-made 152 mm M- 1955 (D-20) towed gun-howitzers and 122 mm (D-30) howitzers used by North Korea. North Korea is also one of the few countries with ample stocks of Soviet-era tanks similar to those deployed by Russia in Ukraine, such as the T-54 and T-62, and it could supply spare parts. Former US National Security Advisor, John Bolton told CNN “From North Korea’s point of view, this gets them back into really significant contact with Russia for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union”.
The economic relations between North Korea and Russia have soared to new heights. Pyongyang will consider a Russian proposal to build a gas pipeline and power line running from North Korea to South Korea. Russia has already started a pilot project using and North Korean cargo terminal to Ship Russian coal to South Korea. Moscow has an ambition to connect its Trans-Siberian railway to the Trans-Korean railway linking Russia and the Korean Peninsula. North Korea has also hinted at an interest in sending construction workers to assist in the reconstruction of Russian-occupied areas. Russia also has an economic interest in North Korea, especially in the fields of energy, transportation, and trade. Moscow hopes to expand its trade with North Korea, which has been severely restricted by the United Nations Security Council sanctions.
The significance of Kim’s visit to Russia lies in its symbolic and strategic value rather than its substantive results. The summit exemplified Kim’s diplomatic prowess amidst international pressure and isolation. For Putin, it reinforces his role and influence in regional and global affairs, especially within the context of escalating tensions with the US and its allies over issues, such as Ukraine, Syria, Venezuela, and West Africa. China would be more cautious regarding the development of these alliances. Kim’s visit offers China some respite to support Putin and diverts attention from the US’s intensified focus on Taiwan. The cooperation between these parties would complicate the threat assessments for Mr. Biden, spanning homeland, Europe, and Asia.
Kim Jong-un’s visit to Russia was a significant event that reflected the intricate and dynamic landscape on the Korean Peninsula and beyond. The summit highlights the potential and limitations of bilateral relations between North Korea and Russia, as well as their implications for regional and global security. The visit conveys a clear message to NATO and the US as efforts to boost the visibility of his partnership with traditional allies by breaking out of isolation and part of a united front against Washington.
[Photo by Kremlin.ru, via Wikimedia Commons]
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
The author is a political and defence analyst based in Bangladesh.