The Vladimir Putin-Kim Jong-un summit: five things we learned

Online Desk

15 Sep 2023 15:26 PM

North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un shakes hands with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin during their meeting at the Vostochny cosmodrome in Russia's Amur region. Photograph: KCNA via KNS/AFP/Getty Images

Vladimir Putin’s meeting with Kim Jong-un has been dismissed by the US as an act of desperation by the Russian leader. Although few details have emerged about the leaders’ discussions, the summit in the Russian Far East could preface new and worrying developments in the war in Ukraine and for Kim’s military ambitions. As the North Korean leader continues his tour of military facilities in Russia, here are five takeaways from the summit, reports The Guardian.

North Korea has designs on the final frontier

Kim Jong-un reportedly travelled to Russia hoping to sell artillery shells and anti-tank missiles to the Kremlin, but his role was more than that of arms salesman.

His meeting this week with Vladimir Putin has sent unmistakable signals that the regime in Pyongyang is still interested in establishing a presence in space, despite – or perhaps because of – its recent failure to put military satellites into orbit.

The venue for his meeting with Putin, Vostochny cosmodrome, is significant. Before their talks, the leaders toured assembly and launch facilities at the cosmodrome, where Kim was briefed on technical details about Russian space vehicles.

There are doubts over Russia’s willingness to share sensitive information about weapons technologies with North Korea in exchange for what may end up being limited supplies of munitions, potentially to replace stocks used up during more than 18 months of fighting in Ukraine.

But Putin did not rule out helping the regime launch its own satellites and rockets. “That’s exactly why we came here,” he told reporters. “The leader of North Korea shows great interest in space, in rocketry, and they are trying to develop space. We’ll show our new objects.”

Russia’s war in Ukraine is pushing rogue states into each other’s arms

The summit was an opportunity for both leaders to demonstrate that despite war, sanctions and widespread international condemnation, they are not without allies.

Kim’s choice of language in Russia is potentially the rejection of a return to diplomacy with the US over his development of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons, as he referred to the Kremlin’s “sacred fight” against the “hegemonic forces” that oppose it.

Four years after his second, ill-fated summit with Donald Trump in Hanoi in 2019, the North Korean leader has allied himself to Washington’s nemesis in Moscow – a shift hastened by the course of the war in Ukraine. “Now we want to further develop the relationship,” Kim said, according to footage broadcast on Russian TV.

The Kim-Putin summit was not just a meeting of minds – or an opportunity to exchange gifts of small arms – but a demonstration that the two pariah states need each other more than ever.

Years of sanctions, the near-total isolation forced by the Covid-19 pandemic, and a population battered by economic mismanagement and malnutrition have forced Kim’s hand in reaching out to Moscow. But he went carrying a bargaining chip: Putin’s reported interest – denied by the Kremlin and Pyongyang – in North Korean stockpiles of ageing ammunition and rockets that are compatible with Russian weapons systems.

The west is worried

Whatever the outcome of the talks, the alignment of Kim and Putin’s interests – to the extent that Kim said relations with Moscow were now his foreign policy priority – is being taken seriously by the west.

Despite dismissing the summit as an act of desperation on Putin’s part, the US warned that his regime would “pay a price” for supplying munitions for the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine.

“No nation on the planet, nobody, should be helping Mr Putin kill innocent Ukrainians,” White House national security council spokesperson John Kirby said this week. If the countries decide to move forward with an arms deal, the US “deal with it appropriately”, he added.

Japan, which has grown accustomed to North Korean missile flyovers in recent years, joined the chorus of condemnation, with the new foreign minister, Yoko Kamikawa, warning that a deal would violate UN sanctions against the North. Japan, she added, had watched this week’s events in Russia unfold “with concern”.

South Korea voiced “concern and regret” over the Putin-Kim meeting, although it is not clear whether they reached an agreement on arms supplies. No summit statement was issued – these are, after all, the heads of two secretive paranoid states – and there was never any chance that either would expose themselves to media scrutiny by holding a press conference.

“Any science and technology cooperation that contributes to nuclear weapons and missile development, including satellite systems that involve ballistic missile technologies, runs against UN security council resolutions,” South Korea’s foreign ministry spokesperson, Lim Soo-suk, told reporters.

In response, Russia accused Washington – which is supplying weapons to Ukraine – of hypocrisy. “The United States has no right to lecture us on how to live,” Russia’s ambassador to the US, Anatoly Antonov, said in a statement.

Kim’s sister is still his closest confidante

While North Korea watchers scoured the passenger list on Kim’s train for clues about the purpose of his visit to Russia, one prominent member of his entourage slipped into the country almost unnoticed.

Kim’s delegation included officials closely connected to the North’s weapons inventory and military ambitions, but official photos of Kim Yo-jong – the leader’s younger sister – were a reminder that she remains his closest confidante, in addition to her role as Pyongyang’s propagandist-in-chief.

Persistent rumours about the health of her overweight, chain-smoking brother – whose became leader after the sudden death, from a heart attack, of his father Kim Jong-il – have given added urgency to the succession question swirling around the world’s only communist dynasty.

The presence of Kim’s daughter, Ju Ae, at recent missile launches has fuelled speculation that he is grooming her as his heir. Ju Ae, who is thought to be aged 12 or 13, has been seen several times in public since being pictured, hand in hand, with her father for the first time in during the launch of the country’s largest ballistic missile in November last year.

Whatever he has planned for the fourth generation of the Kim dynasty, the focus is again on military and space hardware rather than a distant transfer of power to one of his children.

The Russian trip was a reminder Kim Yo-Jong is the person to whom he turns first for advice or, perhaps, to furnish him with an ashtray during cigarette breaks.

This could be a long and dangerous alliance

As Kim prepared to board his heavily armoured train last weekend, international media speculated that he would meet Putin in Vladivostok before turning around to make the 20-hour journey back to Pyongyang.

But two days after their summit, Kim is still in Russia, on Friday visiting an aerospace facility that offered further clues about the purpose of his visit – only the seventh time he has left North Korea since becoming leader in late 2011. Russian state TV said Kim was also due to go to Vladivostok to oversee a display of Russian warships and visit a university and other facilities.

Kim has now made two trips to Russia in a little over four years, and his next meeting with Putin is expected to be in Pyongyang after the Russian leader “gratefully accepted” an invitation to make a reciprocal visit – which would be hist first to the North since 2000 - at a time yet to be decided.

With no sign of an end to the war in Ukraine or to North Korea’s pursuit of a functioning nuclear deterrent amid a breakdown in negotiations with the US, this is turning into a relationship with longevity.

As Kim told Putin, their meeting had brought bilateral ties to a “new level”, adding that he hoped their countries’ relationship would continue to flourish “for the next 100 years”.


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