Putin to visit North Korea as US, allies decry military ties

Published June 17, 2024
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un attend a meeting at the Vostochny cosmodrome in the far eastern Amur region, Russia, September 13, 2023 in this image released by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency. — Reuters
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un attend a meeting at the Vostochny cosmodrome in the far eastern Amur region, Russia, September 13, 2023 in this image released by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency. — Reuters

Russian President Vladimir Putin will visit North Korea this week for the first time in 24 years, the two countries said, a rare trip that underscores Moscow’s burgeoning partnership with the nuclear-armed state.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un extended an invitation to Putin during a visit to Russia’s Far East last September. Putin last visited Pyongyang in July 2000.

“At the invitation of the Chairman of State Affairs of the DPRK, Kim Jong Un, Vladimir Putin will pay a friendly state visit to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea on June 18-19,” the Kremlin said.

North Korea’s state news agency KCNA also announced the visit but offered no further details.

Putin will then visit Vietnam on June 19-20, the Kremlin said. Both visits had been expected, although the dates had not previously been announced.

Russia has gone out of its way to publicise the renaissance of its relationship with North Korea since the start of the war in Ukraine, causing alarm among the United States and its allies in Europe and Asia.

Washington says North Korea has supplied weapons to Russia to help it fight in Ukraine, though Pyongyang has repeatedly denied this.

For Putin, who says Russia is locked in an existential battle with the West over Ukraine, courting Kim allows him to needle Washington and its Asian allies.

United Nations monitors concluded that at least one ballistic missile fired from Russia at a city in Ukraine in January was made in North Korea. Ukrainian officials say they have counted about 50 such missiles delivered to Russia by North Korea.

“The list of countries willing to welcome Putin is shorter than ever, but for Kim Jong Un, this visit is a victory,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.

“Not only does the summit upgrade North Korea’s status among countries standing against the US-led international order, it also helps bolster Kim’s domestic legitimacy.”

South Korea’s vice foreign minister, Kim Hong-kyun, discussed Putin’s planned visit to the north in an emergency phone call with US Deputy Secretary of State Kurt Campbell on Friday, Seoul’s foreign ministry said.

The visit should not result in more military cooperation between Pyongyang and Moscow in violation of UN resolutions, the South Korean ministry said.

Russia says it will cooperate with North Korea and develop relations in the manner it chooses and that it will not be told what to do by any country, least of all the United States.

Putin and Kim

The United Nations has imposed a myriad of sanctions since Pyongyang carried out its first nuclear test in 2006, but experts say it has continued the development of nuclear weapons and the production of nuclear fissile materials.

Russia has said that world powers need a new approach to North Korea, accusing the United States and its allies of seeking to “strangle” the reclusive state.

Jenny Town, of the Washington-based 38 North programme, said the Russia’s outreach to North Korea is part of efforts to build an alternative to a US-led world order.

“There is reason to believe that Russia sees value in North Korea as a military partner in that war against the West, which does incentivize them to do more beyond just the arms deals for supplementing Russia’s war fighting efforts in Ukraine,” she said.

For North Korea, its relationship with Russia brings support at the UN Security Council as well as “immediate and tangible results” in terms of economic, military and agricultural cooperation and trade that the countries have not had since the 90s, Town added.

Turning point?

Russia vetoed the annual renewal of a panel of experts monitoring the enforcement of the UN sanctions against North Korea over its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programmes.

The Russian veto is seen as a turning point in the international sanctions regime against North Korea, which was created in 1948 with the backing of the Soviet Union while the Republic of Korea was backed by the United States.

Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea, came to power with Moscow’s backing in competition with the US-backed South.

The chaos of the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, though, put an end to that support. After taking over from Boris Yeltsin in 1999, Putin visited Pyongyang in July 2000 for a meeting with Kim Jong Il, the father of Kim Jong Un.

Relations cooled after the North Korean nuclear tests, though for Kim, Russia is a big power ally that can help balance Pyongyang’s dependence on China.

Kim travelled to Russia by train in 2019 and again last year when Putin and the North Korean leader toasted each other over Russian wine.

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