A flagging economy, heavy casualties, failed military objectives, lack of equipment, and ammunition depletion, combined with increasing isolation from the larger international community, have driven Russian leader Vladimir Putin to reach out to North Korea for help.
Mr. Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un met at the Vostochny Cosmodrome spaceport in Amur Oblast, Russia’s Far East. The location was chosen because it is easy for Mr. Kim to reach in his heavily armored train and because he desires to obtain advanced satellite technology from Russia.
“Russia will emerge victorious in the fight to punish the evil forces,” Mr. Kim told Mr. Putin on Sept. 13, at the start of their highly controversial meeting.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu was also on hand for the discussions. He visited Pyongyang in July to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the armistice, which ended fighting in the Korean War. At that time, Mr. Kim showed off his Hwasong intercontinental ballistic missiles in a large-scale military demonstration. Although such displays are the norm for state visits to North Korea, it is also believed that Mr. Shoigu was window-shopping and planning to purchase North Korean arms. This would not be the first time North Korea had provided materiel to Russia’s war in Ukraine. Last year, North Korea supplied weapons to the Wagner Group, a private mercenary company that acts at the Kremlin’s discretion.
Isolated from the world, Russia is reaching out to the few countries where it has influence, namely North Korea, Cuba, and China. The Cuban government recently broke up a human trafficking ring that was trying to recruit soldiers from Cuba to fight in Ukraine. Although it is a former client state of the Soviet Union and one of Russia’s closest allies, Havana is hedging its support for Russia. Similarly, although it is believed that China has skirted or even bypassed sanctions, sending dual-use or restricted technology and equipment to Russia, for the most part, Beijing’s support of Mr. Putin’s war in Ukraine has been measured.
Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu was conspicuously absent from the 70th anniversary meeting in Pyongyang, although China was represented by Li Hongzhong, the first-ranking vice chairperson of the Standing Committee of China's rubber-stamp legislature, the National People’s Congress. The defense minister’s absence underscores China's complicated relationship with North Korea and Russia. On the one hand, China wants to do business with and profit from the Western-led international order. On the other hand, Beijing supports the anti-Western-hegemonic policies of Pyongyang and Moscow. However, China must carefully balance this support, not wanting to incur economic sanctions or be further ostracized from the rules-based, international order of the United States, the European Union, and the Group of Seven.
The importance of Mr. Kim’s trip to Russia is evidenced by the fact that he rarely leaves North Korea. Since coming to power in 2012, he has only traveled nine times outside the country. And this meeting marks the first time Mr. Kim has left his country since the COVID-19 pandemic.
Given that China and Cuba are proving less-than-unconditional allies, Russia and North Korea are growing closer. Both countries are under sanctions and are increasingly isolated from the West. The two portray their relationship as extremely close. “I will always be standing with Russia,” Mr. Kim said, supporting Russia’s “military operation,” praising Moscow for “defending its sovereignty,” and standing up against “hegemonic forces.” This implies that Mr. Kim recognizes Ukraine as part of Russia and sees the war as an internal affair. It also makes veiled reference to the United States and the West, which are trying to dictate and control Russia’s actions.
Russian trade with North Korea has increased because of the West’s sanctions on the two countries. Going into the meeting, Russia needed artillery shells and ammunition, which Pyongyang had in abundance. North Korea operates on a wartime economy day and night, maintaining a powerful military at the expense of nearly everything else for the general populace, including food. In exchange, Mr. Kim needs the diplomatic boost that closer relations with a world power will give him. Materially, North Korea also needs hard cash, food, oil, satellite technology, and nuclear submarines.
After the meeting, Mr. Putin said military cooperation between the two countries was likely. However, providing advanced weapons technology to North Korea would violate international sanctions designed to prevent the North from developing or improving its nuclear weapons. Mr. Putin told reporters that Russia would help North Korea launch a satellite. In addition to triggering sanctions, this could alter the balance of power on the Korean Peninsula and the world.
While Mr. Kim was on his way to Russia, North Korea launched a ballistic missile that landed in the sea, east of the Korean Peninsula. This was the first time North Korea had launched a missile while Mr. Kim was out of the country. The U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff reacted by calling the launch “a significant and provocative act” threatening peace and stability.
Since 2006, the United Nations Security Council has imposed sanctions against North Korea because of its missile program. It is significant that North Korea fired missiles while Mr. Kim was meeting with Russia, a permanent member of the Security Council.
Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
Antonio Graceffo, Ph.D., is a China economic analyst who has spent more than 20 years in Asia. Mr. Graceffo is a graduate of the Shanghai University of Sport, holds a China-MBA from Shanghai Jiaotong University, and currently studies national defense at American Military University. He is the author of “Beyond the Belt and Road: China’s Global Economic Expansion” (2019).