With Russia Isolated on the World Stage, Putin Turns to Old Friend North Korea for Help

Mikhail Metzel, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un examine a launch pad during their meeting at the Vostochny cosmodrome outside the city of Tsiolkovsky, about 200 kilometers (125 miles) from the city of Blagoveshchensk in the far eastern Amur region, Russia, on Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023.

After the handshakes, the platitudes and the lunch of Kamchatka crab dumplings, the outcome of the talks between Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un stayed hidden.

But the summit’s location — Russia’s Far East spaceport — offered a big clue.

By choosing the Vostochny Cosmodrome, Putin has signaled his readiness to share Russian rocket and space technology with Pyongyang in exchange for access to North Korea’s mammoth arms stockpiles for the war in Ukraine.

The move underscored Russia’s estrangement on the world stage and the shrinking circle of friends that Moscow can rely on, thanks to the 18-month-old invasion. At the same time, it heralds new threats for stability in northeast Asia and beyond.

The nearly five hours of talks Wednesday between Putin and Kim marked a new high point in the ties between the old allies — a relationship that dates back nearly eight decades to Soviet leader Josef Stalin and Kim’s grandfather, North Korean founder Kim Il Sung.

North Korea has relied on Soviet-designed weapons since the 1950-53 Korean War and has some of the world’s largest ammunition stockpiles, estimated at tens of millions of artillery shells and rockets.

Russia is eager to tap that trove after having spent a significant share of its arsenal in fighting Europe’s largest ground conflict since World War II, with thousands of shells fired daily by each side.

Western officials saw the summit with North Korea as an effort by Putin to secure a potential arms bonanza for his military.

“It looks like they’re very focused on the artillery shells (and) the multiple-rocket launchers for battlefield use,” said John Park, director of the Korea Project at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center. “These are things that can be immediately applied in terms of this war of attrition that is playing out in Ukraine.”

U.S. officials have cast it as a sign of desperation by Putin. Russia was “scraping the bottom of the barrel looking for help because it’s having trouble sustaining its military,” said James O’Brien, head of the Office of Sanctions Coordination at the U.S. State Department.

Putin, however, didn’t seem to care about the optics of meeting with Kim, with the West now considering both leaders to be pariahs.

“For Russia, it’s simply that the ends justify the means,” said James Nixey, director of the Russia and Eurasia program at Chatham House, a London-based think-tank. “It’s perfectly comfortable with alliances of any shape form on nature as long as they serve perceived Russian national interests.”

The need for munitions in the Ukraine war is hardly one-sided. In addition to Western supplies of new tanks, missiles and other weapons systems, the U.S. and its allies have drained the stockpiles of Soviet-era arms and munitions in Central and Eastern Europe and beyond to help President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

With both Russia and Ukraine digging in for what could be a long war, the North Korean munitions could offer Moscow a critical lifeline as it tries to boost its domestic arms output. North Korea also could increase its ammunition production at Russia’s behest.

“It’s the immediate benefit of existing stockpiles and also the potential to crank up on the production side if they want to go that direction as well,” Park said.

Yang Uk, a security expert at South Korea’s Asan Institute for Policy Studies, noted that in addition to Soviet-designed armaments, North Korea also could share some of its latest military equipment.

Amid tensions with the South, Pyongyang has heavily relied on artillery and developed long-range systems that could add capabilities that Moscow lacks.

“Beyond merely transferring ammunition, there is also a strong possibility that North Korea would be willing to provide Russia with some of the advanced weapons systems it developed and publicly boasted about to be used for the war in Ukraine,” Yang said.

At Vostochny, Putin and Kim traded mutual praise and assurances of friendship, alluding their historic alliance.

Putin mentioned the Soviet support for Pyongyang in the Korean War, while Kim referred to Russia’s campaign in Ukraine as a “just fight against hegemonic forces to defend its sovereign rights, security and interests.”

Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, noted the summit also served both leaders’ domestic and foreign policy agendas.

“Putin and Kim’s diplomatic display is meant to claim success in challenging the U.S.-led international order, avoiding over-reliance on China, and increasing pressure on rivals in Ukraine and South Korea,” he said. “The summit defiantly linked pariah state behavior in Europe and Asia.”

Asked by reporters at the spaceport whether Russia and North Korea could cooperate in space, Putin responded: “That’s why we came here.” He added that Kim showed a “big interest in rocket technologies.”

While Russia has previously avoided sharing sensitive know-how with Pyongyang, analysts point out that Moscow could now facilitate such transfers as a way of hurting the U.S. and its allies.

“Russia profits from the destabilization of the international system,” Nixey said. “If Russia is giving the Western powers one more problem to worry about other than itself, then it actually aids the overall Russian cause.”

He said the Kremlin’s “principal priority” is success in Ukraine, adding that “it would do pretty much anything in order to achieve that.”

Of course, any arms deal between Moscow and Pyongyang would violate U.N. sanctions against North Korea over its nuclear and missile programs that Russia voted to enact.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres emphasized the need to respect those sanctions, and Washington warned it is ready to impose new restrictions on Russia and North Korea if they violate the Security Council’s resolutions.

Observers warned, however, that the West has limited options in addressing a rapprochement between Moscow and Pyongyang.

“There isn’t really much left in the policy toolbox in terms of addressing the challenges specifically from Russia and North Korea,” Park observed.

Post-summit comments by Putin and his officials indicated that Moscow wasn’t going to openly trample on the sanctions and instead could try to keep an arms deal with Pyongyang secret.

Asked about potential military cooperation with Pyongyang, Putin responded that “there are certain restrictions, and Russia is following all of them.” But he added that “there are things we can talk about, we’re discussing and thinking about them.”

Park noted that the shared border between Russia and North Korea could facilitate any exchanges between the countries.

“When you look at the type of cooperation that they have, this is a large landmass and it’s directly connected,” he said. “It’s not necessarily Russia lifting sanctions. It’s just basically not implementing sanctions.”

A major factor Russia needs to consider while it seeks to expand ties with North Korea is China, Pyongyang’s No. 1 ally that has jealously watched the rapprochement. Beijing’s support is also crucial for Putin, and the Kremlin can be expected to tread carefully to assuage any Chinese concerns.

“Having Putin and Kim meet directly is something that would be at the expense of Chinese interests,” Park said. “So from that calculus, one country that is watching this very, very closely is China.”