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19 June 2024updated 20 Jun 2024 4:25pm

Revenge of the little rocket men

What Vladimir Putin really wants from Pyongyang.

By Katie Stallard

Vladimir Putin arrived in Pyongyang in the early hours of 19 June to find the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, waiting to greet him as he stepped off his plane. The two men embraced and shook hands on the tarmac as though they were old friends before climbing into the back of a waiting car and setting off into the darkness through streets lined with Russian flags and giant portraits of Putin’s smiling face. As the motorcade glided beneath ceremonial archways proclaiming the eternal friendship of Russia and North Korea, it was evidence of both how far the Russian leader has fallen since his 2022 invasion of Ukraine – that he is reduced to touring this pariah state – and the resilience of the emerging axis of autocracies, that also includes China and Iran, now lining up against the West. 

Putin last visited North Korea in July 2000, two months after being sworn in for his first term as Russian president, when he met Kim Jong Un’s father, Kim Jong Il. Back then, Putin was the young, relatively unknown leader of a Russia still reeling from the demise of the Soviet Union nine years earlier and the ensuing decade of chaos and financial collapse.  

Likewise, North Korea under the late Kim, who was pilloried in the West as a cartoonish, Bond villain-style leader, was then still emerging from the terrible famine of the 1990s, precipitated by the Soviet disintegration. It was still years away from conducting its first nuclear test, which took place in 2006. Few would have predicted that Putin, the former Russian spy chief with his sallow complexion and ill-fitting suits, would still be in power almost a quarter-century later. Much less that North Korea would come to play such a crucial role in sustaining the largest land war in Europe since the Second World War.  

Ahead of this visit Putin praised the “heroic Korean people” and the current leader, Kim Jong Un, thanking his “comrade” for his unwavering support in the assault on Ukraine and vowing to “jointly resist” international sanctions. Kim, for his part, positioned himself as an “invincible comrade-in-arms” and invoked their “century-old strategic relationship”, vowing to stand together in “suppressing and crushing all the challenges… and pressures of hostile forces”. This is a characteristically overblown way of saying that they have rediscovered their usefulness to one another, having arrived at what economists call a “coincidence of wants”. 

Simply put, Putin needs munitions – specifically artillery shells, surface-to-air missiles, and anti-tank weapons – to continue bombarding Ukraine, while Kim needs cash, fuel, and food aid, along with help developing his own advanced weapons systems and sending military satellites into space. It is not a coincidence that the North Korean leader, once derided by Donald Trump as “Little Rocket Man”, has toured weapons factories ahead of this summit, crudely advertising his wares. Nor that the Russian delegation includes the new defence minister, Andrei Belousov, and the head of the Russian space agency, Yury Borisov. Previewing what might be on offer during Kim’s own visit to the Russian Far East last September, Putin accompanied him on a guided tour around the Vostochnny Cosmodrome, Russia’s newest space port, although in practice he is unlikely to part with the most sophisticated technology.  

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US and South Korean officials say the exchanges are already well underway, with North Korea accused of sending at least 10,000 shipping containers filled with weaponry to Russia so far, and North Korean short-range missiles reportedly already being fired at Ukraine. This offers the added benefit to North Korea of battlefield testing, providing valuable feedback on the performance of its weapons systems, which have so far proved to be wildly inaccurate but still capable of inflicting serious harm. (Moscow and Pyongyang have both denied these accusations.) 

This symbiosis extends beyond the front lines with Russia now in dire need of manpower to keep its economy functioning, and Kim all too happy to send teams of migrant workers to labour across the border in miserable conditions in exchange for hard currency for his regime. 

Crucially for both leaders and their fellow autocrats in Beijing and Tehran, the deepening relationship between Russia and North Korea demonstrates the limits of American power and the post-1945 international order. The United Nations Security Council, conceived in response to the devastating world wars of the 20th century, has proved unable to halt Pyongyang’s nuclear proliferation – the only power to test nuclear weapons so far this century – now that its permanent members are irreconcilably divided, with Russia and China frequently lining up against the Western powers. In March, Moscow used its veto to end the previously agreed international monitoring of North Korea’s nuclear programme, providing Kim with diplomatic cover to press ahead.

Watching the current festivities from neighbouring China, Xi Jinping is undoubtedly wary of the rekindled affections between Putin and Pyongyang. While he might welcome the emergence of a new foreign policy crisis to distract the US, he understands that Russia is undermining the leverage Beijing still holds over North Korea, which relies on China for 90 per cent of its trade. There is also the risk that Kim will be emboldened at a time when tensions on the Korean Pensinsula are already rising. The North Korean leader’s recent misbehaviour includes conducting repeated weapons tests and sending thousands of balloons laden with rubbish and faeces into South Korea. South Korean troops have fired warning shots twice in the last month after North Korean soldiers briefly crossed the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Xi does not want to see the long dormant conflict reignited on the Korean Peninsula, nor for Kim’s actions to spark a regional arms race and perhaps the pursuit of nuclear weapons by South Korea and Japan, which he would view as a serious threat to China’s national security.

Putin is not done yet. He plans to travel on this week from North Korea to Vietnam, despite Washington’s entreaties to Hanoi not to receive the Russian president. “No country should give Putin a platform to promote his war of aggression and otherwise allow him to normalise his atrocities,” said an American embassy official in Hanoi ahead of the visit. And yet they are. After his disastrous early strategic blunders in Ukraine, Putin is shifting onto the offensive – sending his naval ships to Cuba, 90 miles off the US coast last week, escalating hybrid attacks against Nato allies in Europe, and now courting Kim in Pyongyang. Speaking in Washington as the Russian leader embarked on his tour, Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg warned that Putin’s visit affirmed the “very close alignment” between Russia and its authoritarian enablers in North Korea, China, and Iran.

“Our security is not regional, it’s global,” Stoltenberg said. On this last point, at least, all the major players in this new great power contest now agree.

[See also: What Kim Jong Un really wants]

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