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13 September 2023

The end of the pariah state

What Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin’s deepening relationship reveals about the emerging international order.

By Katie Stallard

When Kim Jong Un pulled into Vladivostok on his armoured train to meet Vladimir Putin in April 2019, he was greeted with a literal fanfare. A Russian military band serenaded his arrival at the station and the Russian president toasted him at a gala dinner. For the North Korean leader, whose diplomatic outreach to the US had stalled two months earlier and whose economy was struggling under the weight of international sanctions, the lavish welcome allowed him to show that his oppressive regime was not completely isolated. But it was harder to see what was in it for Putin.

Trade between Russia and North Korea was minimal, and Russia had voted for tough sanctions on North Korea at the UN Security Council in 2017 after the Asian country’s sixth nuclear test. Beyond demonstrating that Moscow still held some sway in Pyongyang and Putin was a serious diplomatic player, Kim had nothing that the Russian leader really wanted.

But four years later, as Kim returns to the Russian far east, the world has changed. After a pandemic that prompted North Korea to seal its borders, causing devastating food shortages in the already impoverished country, and with Russia seeking military supplies to sustain its war on Ukraine, Putin and Kim now find themselves with plenty to offer each other. Moscow needs weaponry, specifically artillery shells and anti-tank missiles to replenish its dwindling arsenal. Pyongyang needs food aid, a partner to block further sanctions at the UN Security Council, and technical assistance in developing advanced weapons systems, such as nuclear-capable submarines and military satellites.

US officials warned on 4 September that the two leaders were preparing to meet to discuss a weapons deal, with talks on military cooperation between the two powers said to be “actively advancing”. The Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu travelled to Pyongyang in July – the first such visit since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 – where he toured a weapons exhibition with Kim and praised the country’s military as the “most powerful” in the world, according to North Korean state media.

A weapons deal between the two states would breach the UN sanctions agreed by Russia on North Korea, and Jake Sullivan, the US national security adviser, warned on 5 September that Pyongyang would “pay a price” if it aids Putin’s war on Ukraine. But it is difficult to imagine how Kim could be persuaded not to proceed. Particularly if he is confident that Russia – and likely China – would block any further action against him at the UN Security Council.

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[See also: What Putin learned from Hitler]

North Korea is one of the world’s most heavily sanctioned countries and the young dictator has spent much of his first decade in power as an international pariah. Yet the lesson he has undoubtedly learned is that bad behaviour pays. The pain of the international sanctions imposed so far has primarily been felt by his citizens, while Kim and the regime elite still enjoy their luxurious lifestyles.

Plus, he has discovered that even pariah status comes and goes. Donald Trump might have threatened Kim with “fire and fury” as president in 2017, but by the following year they were shaking hands in Singapore. All the while, North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes were steadily advancing, delivering the kind of regime security that had eluded Kim’s father and grandfather, the state’s first two leaders.

In a study of North Korea’s nuclear development published earlier this year, the Oxford scholar Edward Howell labelled the regime’s behaviour “strategic delinquency”. He concluded that while Pyongyang’s repeated breach of international norms had also incurred costs, “through deploying a diverse range of delinquent behaviour in a strategic fashion, for over 30 years, North Korea has been able to reap beneficial outcomes”.

Strengthening relations with Putin will only accelerate this process for Kim. As well as potentially securing desperately needed economic aid and assistance with his long-term military goals, a closer relationship with Moscow would also lessen his dependence on China, North Korea’s only formal ally and the source of more than 90 per cent of its foreign trade.

Despite repeated assertions that Beijing and Pyongyang are as “close as lips and teeth”, in truth the relationship between the two states has often been strained. China joined Russia in voting for sanctions against North Korea in 2017 and Xi Jinping did not meet Kim during his first five years in office. He did so only in March 2018 after Trump announced that he was meeting the North Korean leader. It will not have escaped Xi’s notice that Kim is choosing to make his first overseas visit since the start of the pandemic to Russia, not China, and he will not want to cede his influence on Pyongyang to Putin.

Beijing sent high-level officials to attend celebrations for the 75th anniversary of North Korea’s founding earlier this month, and we should expect more displays of solidarity as ties between Kim and Putin improve. This warming trend will be further hastened by the intensifying rivalry between Beijing and Washington, and the region’s shifting geopolitics. US allies Japan and South Korea agreed at a summit at Camp David in August to set aside their historical grievances and work together to confront the perceived threat from China. Earlier in September, South Korea’s intelligence agency reported that Moscow had proposed trilateral naval exercises between Russia, China and North Korea.

Kim Jong Un came to power more than a decade ago promising to develop both North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and its economy. For most of the intervening years, the former has taken priority. But with the international community divided and Russia weakened, the North Korean leader may now see the opportunity to achieve both.

[See also: The unreality of American realism]

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This article appears in the 13 Sep 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Revenge of the Trussites

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
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