Open this photo in gallery: A screen shows a news report with a file image of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, on Sept. 8.Lee Jin-man/The Associated Press
To the extent that anything the world’s two most dangerous dictators do is predictable, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and Russian President Vladimir Putin are expected to meet in the days ahead, just as both are escalating their confrontations with the West.
Such meetings have happened before. Moscow, after all, has been backing the Kim dynasty ever since Joseph Stalin anointed Mr. Kim’s grandfather to head the Workers’ Party of Korea at the end of the Second World War. Russia and China have kept the angry regime afloat through decades of United Nations sanctions, preferring the unpredictability of three generations of Kims to the alternative of a possibly pro-Western united Korea on their borders.
What’s unique about this trip is that Mr. Kim and his armoured train are expected to arrive in the port of Vladivostok, in Russia’s Far East, with something to offer Moscow besides loyalty. Mr. Putin’s army is on its back foot in Ukraine, 18-plus months after he ordered the full-scale invasion of Russia’s neighbour. Mr. Kim has the artillery shells, anti-tank weapons and Scud missiles that Mr. Putin needs.
It is surely a humiliating moment for Mr. Putin to have to turn to Moscow’s long-time client state for help, and a rare turn for Mr. Kim – whose country needs food aid and hard currency, in addition to military technology – to be heading into negotiations holding some of the trump cards. “What’s different is that both sides want something from the other urgently,” said Keir Giles, a Russia expert at Chatham House, a London-based international affairs research institute. “Russia is desperate for weapons and is casting around among its fellow rogue states.”
Explainer: Kim Jong-un and Putin may meet. What do North Korea and Russia need from each other?
But the Kremlin’s apparent weakness also showcases the chaos it can still cause on the international stage. Russia, which was caught off guard by North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2009 is, like China, a party to UN sanctions that ban any transactions that could aid Pyongyang’s nuclear program. With Moscow now itself under Western sanctions, mangling its usual supply lines and leaving it in need of allies of any kind, it’s not hard to foresee Russia bending on sanctions against North Korea as a key part of any deal to secure supply of weapons.
Where escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula would once have alarmed Mr. Putin, it now suits his ends. With military victory in Ukraine now looking remote, the Kremlin’s strategy has shifted to convincing Washington and its allies that negotiations are the only way to avoid a larger – perhaps global – conflict.
North Korea, which on Friday claimed to have launched its first nuclear-capable attack submarine, is estimated to have hundreds of Scud missiles that could be used to replenish Russia’s dwindling supplies. The United States has already accused Pyongyang of providing Moscow with a “significant” number of artillery shells, and North Korea is one of the few countries in the world that has officially recognized Russia’s 2014 claim to have annexed the Crimea region of Ukraine.
It’s clear now that the West’s policy of using economic sanctions to punish countries that break international law is having the unintended consequence of pushing those rogue states closer together. Russia and Iran, another country with a sanctions-battered economy and nuclear aspirations, have already increased their military co-operation, with Tehran supplying Moscow with an unknown number of explosive Shahed drones, which have been used to terrorize Ukrainian cities.
North Korea and Iran, which George W. Bush famously described as two-thirds of an “axis of evil” – along with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq – back in 2002, now have a far more powerful ally and fellow rogue state in the form of Mr. Putin’s Russia.
The Kremlin has so far refused to confirm or deny the U.S. government’s claim that Mr. Kim intends to travel to Vladivostok and visit the adjacent base of Russia’s Pacific Fleet as early as this weekend. Vladivostok is scheduled to host the annual Eastern Economic Forum from Sept. 10 to 13, with Chinese Vice-Premier Zhang Guoqing among the confirmed guests. Mr. Zhang previously served as the Communist Party secretary of China’s Liaoning region, which borders on North Korea.
“We have good relations with Pyongyang, and we value them. North Korea is our neighbour, and we will develop our ties regardless of what other countries think,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Thursday, the same day that U.S. Vice-President Kamala Harris warned that it would be a “huge mistake” for North Korea to provide Russia with more weaponry.
Mr. Kim is expected to travel in his green-and-yellow armoured train to the Russian Far East, just as he did in 2019, the last time he met face-to-face with Mr. Putin. Kim Kyou-hyun, the head of South Korean’s intelligence service, however, told lawmakers in Seoul this week that “there is a possibility of Kim Jong-un making a surprise move by choosing a different route than what is expected.”
South Korea – like Ukraine – will be watching any Putin-Kim summit anxiously. South Korea’s The Chosun Ilbo newspaper called for Seoul to respond in kind to any deals that result in Pyongyang acquiring new military technologies. “If Putin tries to supply nuclear-powered submarines, reconnaissance satellites and cutting-edge fighter jets to North Korea, South Korea should consider supplying weapons directly to Ukraine. That could have a huge effect on the direction of the war in Ukraine,” the paper wrote in an editorial this week. “Stern measures are called for if Putin takes steps that could have a direct impact on South Korea’s national security.”
In other words, escalations are to be followed by more escalations. In Europe, and in Asia now too.
“One of the unique things about this meeting is that if it comes off and the two sides reach an agreement, that’s bad news for absolutely everybody else,” Mr. Giles said.