Tokyo, Düsseldorf, Washington North Korean leader Kim Jong Un rarely leaves his country and when he does, these trips are shrouded in secrecy. Same this time too.
On Tuesday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov at least confirmed that Kim had arrived in Russia with his armored train. A planned meeting with President Vladimir Putin will take place in the Russian Far East.
But exactly where and when this will happen remains uncertain. There was speculation in online forums that the meeting might take place on Tuesday or Wednesday in the city of Vladivostok, which Kim had already visited in April 2019. It is Kim’s first trip to Russia in more than four years. And it is the first time since the beginning of the corona pandemic that he has left his strictly isolated area of control.
It is likely that the meeting will take place on the sidelines of the Russian international Eastern Economic Forum and will revolve around weapons. After more than a year and a half of war against Ukraine, Russia is threatening to run out of ammunition. And because of its old alliance with the Soviet Union, bitterly poor North Korea still has a large arsenal of old weapons and ammunition that are compatible with Russian stocks.
The USA reacted immediately and warned North Korea against supplying arms. Washington said they would then respond with further sanctions. An arms deal with North Korea would “directly violate a number of UN Security Council resolutions,” emphasized White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre.
John Kirby, spokesman for the National Security Council in the White House, added: “No nation in the world should support Putin in his illegal war and his crimes against humanity.” The US government is monitoring the situation with increased attention.
Kim and Putin: community of convenience instead of love marriage
It is still unclear whether there will be a brotherhood of arms between Kim and Putin. But the warnings from Washington are likely to rub off on the two sanctions-plagued governments if they want a deal. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov made this clear on Tuesday.
“When implementing our relations with our neighbors, including North Korea, what is important to us is the interests of our two countries, and not the warnings from Washington,” Russian news agency Sputnik quoted Putin’s mouthpiece as saying.
For Sidney Seiler, who previously observed North Korea as a US National Intelligence Officer, such an alliance would be purely a partnership of convenience. On the Russian side there is no friendly bond with North Korea, he said in an online discussion. The real reason for Seiler is: “Vladimir Putin is desperate” – because of the difficult situation in Ukraine. And North Korea could take advantage of this situation.
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North Korea expert Eric Ballbach from the Science and Politics Foundation assesses the rapprochement between North Korea and Russia in a similar way. It is a “kind of win-win situation” for both states in order to at least partially undermine the West’s sanctions against Russia’s war and North Korea’s nuclear and missile program.
Russian President Putin needs North Korea’s artillery and anti-tank weapons for his campaign against Ukraine. In return, the Kremlin could alleviate North Korea’s shortage economy by supplying energy, food and foreign currency, says Ballbach. It would be particularly worrying “if Russia were to grant North Korea access to high technology.”
This refers to components for Kim’s satellite programs and launch vehicles – or for the nuclear-powered submarine, the development of which is on Kim’s to-do list. Just last week, Kim launched his first submarine that, according to North Korean information, can fire nuclear missiles. However, experts doubt that it is already fully operational.
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According to Western observers, a close North Korean-Russian alliance would not only put Ukraine more on the defensive, but would also exacerbate the already explosive situation in the economically highly relevant world region of East Asia. US expert Seiler warns that economic and military assistance from Russia to North Korea increases the risk of escalation. Kim may feel emboldened to further escalate his military provocations.
Is Russia supplying Kim with weapons?
Seiler sees the “worst case” in Russian weapons aid. If Putin helps the ally modernize part of its conventional armed forces, the threat from North Korea’s nuclear program would also grow. “Because Kim would feel safer no matter how we react.”
The reactions in South Korea, which feels most directly threatened by North Korea, are correspondingly harsh. South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol called on Putin to “act responsibly” as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. The problem: There are hardly any strong means of pressure to stop Russia or North Korea if they actually want to cooperate militarily.
According to Western experts, China is skeptical about Kim’s Russian advances. Beijing is neither interested in the West taking a tougher stance in the Ukraine war nor in more unrest in its backyard. But the concerns don’t go so far that China would put pressure on its two partners.
On the one hand, China and Russia are used to the fact that North Korea has repeatedly played the two friendly neighbors off against each other for their own advantage in the past. On the other hand, the great power conflict with the USA has become so acute that China has been preventing tougher sanctions against North Korea for some time.
The UN Security Council, which initiated the sanctions, is likely to be paralyzed on this issue for the foreseeable future, predicts German North Korea expert Ballbach. This also applies to the war in Ukraine: If North Korea actually supplies weapons to Russia, the regime in Pyongyang would probably not have to fear new sanctions.
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