Kim’s Russia jaunt offers an uncertain mix of substance, theater
SEOUL, South Korea — How many 152mm artillery shells could be bartered for a SU-57 stealth fighter bomber? How many days’ work by a company of North Korean laborers will get you an aid package of food and fuel? How many 122mm tactical rockets buy a satellite launch?
These may be some of the calculations underway on North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un‘s armored train as he and his delegation returned home from a closely-watched, unexpectedly expansive six-day traipse around Russia‘s Far East Monday.
It is unknown what deals, if any, were approved between Moscow and Pyongyang during Mr. Kim‘s trip, but Russian host President Vladimir Putin showed up for one-on-one talks and allowed Mr. Kim a peek at a vast array of military technologies at multiple sensitive sites.
Pyongyang painted it as a relationship reset — “an opportunity to further solidify the traditional bond of good-neighborhood cooperation between the two countries, which are rooted in comradely friendship and military unity, and to open a new chapter in the development of relations,” according to North Korea‘s state media.
The USSR helped establish the North Korean state in 1948 and aided it during the Korean War and afterward. But after the Soviet Union’s implosion, China took on North Korea‘s life support, supplying the isolated, sanctioned Kim regime with essential food and fuel.
Now, Mr. Putin, looking for friends and suppliers as his war in Ukraine drags on inconclusively, could offer Mr. Kim advanced weaponry and technology that could reset the peninsula’s military balance, and complete North Korea‘s “nuclear triad” deterrent. The opening to the Kremlin could also slash Mr. Kim‘s uncomfortable food and fuel reliance on Beijing.
For his part, Mr. Putin could gain masses of North Korea tactical ammunition and cheap, disciplined labor to work on reconstruction in occupied territories.
For outsiders, it remains unclear if the visit represents a dangerously rejuvenated relationship or simply political theater. Regardless, the early reviews from Seoul and Washington are downbeat, at best.
A fawning Russian state media showed the visitor — dubbed “Comrade Kim” — hobnobbing with Mr. Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. Mr. Kim was seen avidly touring the Vostochny satellite launch complex and a factory producing SU-35 and SU-57 warplanes. He also visited an airfield where nuclear-capable Tu-160, Tu-95 and Tu-22M3 bombers are stationed, and was shown a Russian MiG-31, a supersonic interceptor that can carry hypersonic missiles.
In Vladivostok, he boarded a frigate of the Pacific Fleet and was shown missile launch controls. He visited a food factory, met North Korean technical students and even found time to watch a ballet and visit an aquarium.
Russian news outlets reported that he left the country with new drones, next-generation military uniforms — reportedly invisible to thermal imaging — and possibly even a new Russian limo. Mr. Putin and Mr. Kim exchanges matching gifts — a pair of rifles.
Even a scene of Mr. Kim‘s bodyguards carefully sanitizing his seat before his sit-down with Mr. Putin was followed with fascination. State TV talk shows, translated by YouTube channel Russian Media Monitor, had discussants gleefully toting up the headaches for the Biden administration coming out of the summit.
North Korea has “a colossal arsenal and we very much need those shells at the front, even despite our own production,” said one panelist, Gevorg Miryazan, a research fellow at Russia‘s Canadian and US Institute. “Of course, some are expired, but it does not mean it could not be launched.”
Mr. Putin’s hints that he might offer Mr. Kim space technologies were dubbed by Mr. Miryazan “Level-80 trolling.” But others said tech transfers were feasible in the near future.
The North Koreans “are quite successful building their submarines, they just need to make them nuclear-powered,” said political scientist Sergey Mikheyev on one of the most popular Russian TV talk shows. “Theoretically, we can help them with this.”
Mr. Mikheyev applauded Pyongyang‘s resistance to pressure from the U.S. and its allies.
“A low living standard is North Korea‘s weakness, but also its strength,” he continued. The U.S. “can’t do anything to these people.”
But some overseas analysts questioned the likely extent of the arms trades, given both nations’ domestic security demands.
“North Korea is going to help Russia, but has to maintain its own security concerns on the peninsula,” said Alex Neill, a security expert at Pacific Forum. “Can North Korea really put that on the table? Or is this just international theater designed to appeal to anti-U.S. sentiments?”
Chun In-bum, a retired South Korean general, warned that Pyongyang‘s arms complex should not be underestimated.
“They have 2 million workers hard at work making munitions and all that good stuff,” he said.
If, as Mr. Kim‘s itinerary and some Seoul pundits suggest, Moscow offers advanced aircraft, Pyongyang could compete its “nuclear triad” — launch systems on land, in the sea and in the air — to frustrate any effort to disable the North’s nuclear arsenal in a conflict.
Not everyone agrees. “I don’t think North Korea would want the triad: ground-launched and sea-launched are good enough for their purposes,” said Mr. Chun.
“There is a list of things that might fall into the hands of the North Koreans,” he continued. “Those are really advanced technologies that could tip the military balance on the Korean peninsula.”
North Korea and Russia share a land border, making covert transfers easier to pull off. Technical blueprints can be dispatched online; missile components can be moved at a lower visibility compared to finished products.
“There is huge asymmetry in the wish lists, so a lot of people say this is not going to happen or is just a fantasy, but we have to look at the intangibles and abstracts,” said Daniel Pinkston, an international relations expert at Troy University.
Some cooperative modes would not even be sanctioned.
“They can do stuff like technical training and training pilots,” he said. “Russia could give them jet fuel for that training, which would not be sanctioned as it is inside their country.”
Independent experts have warned for decades that Washington‘s goal — North Korean denuclearization — was unrealistic given the security needs and paranoia of the North Korean leadership. Pyongyang, they said, would never melt its “sacred sword” of atomic weapons.
Meanwhile, following the advent of the Ukraine war, China and Russia have blocked U.S. attempts to add new sanctions in the U.N. Security Council, further eroding that body’s effectiveness. With Russia seeming ready to break through several taboos on dealing with Mr. Kim, U.S. diplomats might have to reconsider the power dynamics in the region.
“This could prompt the most profound rethink of the U.S. approach toward North Korea in decades,” Ankit Panda, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment, wrote in Foreign Policy.