September 12, 2023
SEOUL – A potential meeting between the leaders of Russia and North Korea has raised the possibility of an arms deal, with speculations swirling over Moscow providing cutting-edge technology for satellites and nuclear-powered submarines to Pyongyang in exchange for weapons against Ukraine in the ongoing war.
US officials have revealed the possibility of this meeting taking place during the Eastern Economic Forum, scheduled to run from Sept. 10 to 13 in the far-eastern Russian port city of Vladivostok. In early 2020, as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, North Korea closed its borders, which had the effect of bringing North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s in-person diplomatic initiatives to a standstill, with his last overseas foray being a meeting with President Vladimir Putin in Vladivostok in April 2019.
If this materializes, it will mark Kim’s first foreign trip in nearly 4 1/2 years.
How close, then and now?
North Korea, which was established in 1948 with support from the Soviet Union during the Cold War, has traditionally maintained friendly relations with Russia. Nevertheless, their relationship has seen its share of ups and downs on certain occasions such as the establishment of diplomatic relations between South Korea and Russia in 1990.
However, in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, strategic cooperation between Russia and North Korea has become even more evident. Both countries have openly declared their support for each other’s actions, which contravene international law and established orders, amid deepening isolation from the international community.
North Korean state media has openly criticized the US for supplying military aid to Ukraine and engaging in what it perceives as a proxy war, all the while endorsing Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine. Additionally, North Korea has officially acknowledged the independence of two pro-Russian separatists “people’s republics” in eastern Ukraine.
In response, Russia, exercising its veto power as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, has voiced its objection to the US’ call for coordinated action within the UNSC to hold North Korea accountable for its persistent ballistic missile launches, which openly defy multiple UNSC resolutions. North Korea has been exempted from punitive measures by the UNSC as a result.
Previous signs of military cooperation, weapons transfers?
North Korea consistently denied any involvement in weapons transfers to Russia in September 2022, when the US initially indicated that Russia had approached North Korea to request the supply of weapons for resupplying its forces in Ukraine.
But in July, North Korea and Russia openly showcased their dedication to strengthening military cooperation and proceeding with weapons transfers, disregarding repeated warnings from the US and the international community.
The visit of Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to Pyongyang to take part in highly choreographed events commemorating July 27 marked a significant turning point. July 27 is officially recognized as the day of signing the Korean Armistice, but North Korea refers to it as the “Day of Victory in the Great Fatherland Liberation War.”
The US’ national security advisor Jake Sullivan said during a press briefing on Tuesday that the aim of Sergei Shoigu’s visit to Pyongyang was “in essence to ask for weapons.”
Kim Jong-un personally presented North Korea-produced weapons, including the Hwasong-17 and Hwasong-18 intercontinental ballistic missiles, along with newly developed uncrewed aerial vehicles resembling the US Global Hawk and the US Reaper, to Shoigu at a defense exhibition in Pyongyang.
Kim and Shoigu also “sincerely discussed some issues arising in further developing the strategic and tactical collaboration and cooperation between the two countries in the field of defense and security” during their in-person bilateral talks, North Korean state media reported in July.
“There is a strong possibility of a covert agreement between North Korea and Russia, which may include the transfer of advanced missile technology to North Korea and North Korea’s provision of its weapons to Russia,” said Sung Ki-young, an analyst at the Institute for National Security Strategy, a think tank affiliated with South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, in his analysis of the report released in last month.
Key reasons behind potential Putin-Kim meeting
US officials have said that the primary objective of the meeting is to address the transfer of arms from Russia to North Korea amid the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.
Sullivan said on Tuesday that the current assessment by the US suggests that discussions between North Korea and Russia regarding the North providing military support to Russia to support its war in Ukraine are “actively advancing.”
“We also have information, as we have indicated publicly, that North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un has some expectation that those discussions will continue as we go forward — including leader-level discussions, perhaps even in-person leader-level discussions,” he said.
On the Russian side, the supply of weapons from North Korea is deemed crucial, especially given the protracted nature of the war in Ukraine since Russia’s armed invasion in February 2022.
Sydney Seiler, a former national intelligence officer on North Korea at the US’ National Intelligence Council, said that Russia’s primary goal in strengthening cooperation with North Korea would likely be centered on pursuing “immediate transactional benefits,” particularly related to its involvement in Ukraine. This could encompass obtaining munitions from North Korea as part of their collaboration.
“There’s a transactional dimension that benefits Russia, and it’s relatively low cost.”
However, for North Korea, arms exports are also of paramount importance — particularly in light of the persistent economic challenges it faces. In August, North Korean state media introduced the term “national defense economic projects” while reporting on a series of unusual visits by Kim Jong-un to the country’s arms factories.
Cheong Seong-chang, the director of the Department of Reunification Strategic Studies at the Sejong Institute, observed that the use of the term “national defense economic projects” indicates that the defense industry is not only catering to domestic demands, but also contributing to North Korea’s foreign currency acquisition and economic revitalization through the export of weapons.
Failed ‘satellite’ launch
Another primary focus of the meeting, as revealed by US officials to The New York Times, could revolve around the exchange of advanced weapons technology, particularly related to satellites and nuclear-powered submarines. This technology transfer is crucial for the Kim Jong-un regime to realize the objectives outlined in the five-year national defense development plan, a proposal made by Kim himself during the Eighth Party Congress in January 2021.
Among the weapons listed for development by Kim are military reconnaissance satellites and nuclear submarines. This emphasis on military advancements is particularly vital given North Korea’s struggle to achieve economic growth due to yearslong draconian border lockdowns and economic sanctions.
Both the provision of weapons by North Korea and the transfer of technology related to nuclear and ballistic missile programs by Russia to North Korea are in violation of UNSC resolutions.
US Ambassador to South Korea Philip Goldberg on Tuesday also pointed out that Russia seems to be pursuing stronger military cooperation with North Korea due to its growing isolation from the international community, and its challenges in acquiring resources because of global economic sanctions. The same appears to be true for North Korea, reciprocating this effort.
“They’re both isolated states, without the ability to really access anything in the world due to sanctions and their own activities.”
Security implications for peninsula and region
The potential Putin-Kim meeting carries a substantial implication, going beyond mere weapons transfers, said Alexandre Mansourov, a professor of security studies at Georgetown University.
Mansourov suggested that the meeting might mark the beginning of an enhanced phase of security and military cooperation between the two nations.
“But what could happen is the initiation of military education and training. The two countries (could) exchange some ‘scientific knowledge’ about the lessons learned from what’s going on in Ukraine and other military conflicts around the world,” Mansourov said at an event hosted by the Washington Times Foundation.
“And we could see some joint exercises, military exercises, not necessarily naval drills, but possibly search and rescue (exercises) at sea or counter-piracy type of exercises as the first step.”
South Korea’s spy agency on Monday disclosed that Russia has formally suggested conducting combined naval exercises that would involve North Korea, China and Russia during Shoigu’s visit to Pyongyang. Shoigu also told Russian media on Monday that Moscow is in discussions regarding combined military exercises with North Korea.
Seiler raised concerns over the possible long-term consequences and risks that Russia might encounter due to its expanding military cooperation with North Korea.
“But what would be the longer-term implications of that type of relationship? Particularly if at some point in time, you have the issue of entanglement, in which Kim Jong-un wants to take tensions on the peninsula to the next level, seeks Putin’s approval either before or after the fact for a more aggressive convention — or heaven forbid, nuclear action,” Seiler said.
“What would the risk to Russia’s reputation be? And I think the same goes, of course, for China.”