How Concerning is a Russia-Kim Jong Un Alliance?

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The news of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s planned visit to Russia this month has stirred apprehension among the United States and its allies. According to US officials, the purpose of his meeting with President Vladimir Putin is to explore the possibility of North Korea supplying weapons to support Russia’s involvement in the Ukraine conflict.

On the surface, a weapons deal between North Korea and Russia appears to make pragmatic sense. Moscow is in dire need of weapons, particularly ammunition and artillery shells, for its activities in Ukraine, and Pyongyang possesses an ample supply of these arms.

However, beneath the surface, this arrangement raises concerns about the potential for closer collaboration between Pyongyang and Moscow. While the US has previously issued warnings about the prospect of an arms deal between these two nations, a high-level meeting between Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin elevates this situation to a new level of concern.

While the US’s immediate priority is to prevent North Korean weaponry from reaching the frontlines in Ukraine, the South Korean concern revolves around what North Korea would gain in return for selling arms to Russia.

How Concerning is a Russia-Kim Jong Un Alliance?

With Russia facing a desperate situation, Mr. Kim could extract a steep price for his cooperation. He might demand increased military support from Russia, possibly even proposing joint naval exercises involving Russia, China, and North Korea, similar to those conducted by the US, South Korea, and Japan—activities that Kim Jong Un vehemently opposes.

Moreover, Mr. Kim could seek access to advanced weapons technology or knowledge from Mr. Putin to aid in advancing North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. North Korea continues to struggle with critical strategic weapons, particularly a spy satellite and a nuclear-armed submarine.

However, experts in Seoul believe that such cooperation on this level is unlikely, as it could pose significant strategic risks for Russia. Yang Uk, a research fellow at the Asian Institute for Policy Studies, suggests that even if Russia refrains from selling weapons to North Korea, it could still support its nuclear program by providing oil and food, potentially revitalizing North Korea’s economy and strengthening its weapons system—a situation that could undermine the network of sanctions that has been built up against North Korea over the past 15 years.

As sanctions have intensified, North Korea has become increasingly reliant on China to overlook sanctions violations and provide food aid. Beijing has refrained from imposing sanctions on North Korea for its weapons tests at the UN Security Council, allowing North Korea to develop its nuclear arsenal with relative impunity.

However, North Korea has always been cautious about becoming too dependent on China alone. With Russia seeking new allies, Kim Jong Un may see an opportunity to diversify his support network. Given Russia’s desperation, Kim may believe he can secure more favorable concessions from Moscow than from Beijing. Putin might be more inclined to overlook a North Korean nuclear test, a step that could strain relations with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Dr. Bernard Loo of the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore draws parallels to the Cold War era, when North Korea played off Russia against China, similar to how children manipulate their parents.

Still, there is uncertainty regarding whether the meeting will actually take place. Kim Jong Un rarely leaves North Korea, and he is extremely cautious about his security during international trips. For his previous overseas visits, such as the meetings with Donald Trump in Hanoi in February 2019 and Vladimir Putin in Vladivostok in April 2019, he traveled in an armored train that took two days to traverse China.

The level of privacy intended for this meeting remains unclear, but the US may hope that by publicizing it, they can deter Kim Jong Un and thwart both the meeting and the potential arms deal. Nevertheless, Dr. Loo believes that canceling such events, given reports of three-way military exercises, could prove difficult without causing embarrassment to all parties involved.

Part of the US strategy since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been to release intelligence to discourage such deals. Despite these concerns, both North Korea and Russia have consistently denied any intentions of engaging in arms trade, suggesting that they would prefer to keep such a deal out of the public eye.

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