Kim Jong Un left for a Russian economic summit this week, but weapons could be on the table.
It’s happening: North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin as part of an economic summit in Vladivostok, Russia, this week, a rare public show of diplomacy that could have consequences for both nations.
On Monday morning US time, South Korean officials reported that the heavily armored train that Kim uses to travel internationally was spotted en route to Russia’s Far East. And Monday, the Kremlin confirmed the meeting, saying in a short statement that Kim would visit “in the coming days.”
As Russia continues its war in Ukraine and North Korea develops it nuclear arsenal, the possibility of the two autocrats meeting — and what that could mean for their respective military projects — has raised consternation and concern among Western observers. Though it’s a possibility that in exchange for the ammunition and artillery Russia needs it might agree to share nuclear weapons technology with Kim, that’s really a worst-case scenario and not necessarily the likeliest one. Experts say that economic and trade deals, as well as low-level military cooperation agreements, are more likely to accompany any potential ammo purchases. Regardless, the meeting could signal the beginning of a renewed, closer relationship between the two.
What will this meeting look like?
The Soviet Union and, later, Russia have had a relationship with North Korea since its founding. In recent decades, however, the relationship has been much more about public niceties than substance — especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Kim traveled to Vladivostok in 2019 for a meeting with Putin, but this year’s affair is likelier to yield more public cooperation, and especially military cooperation, between the two pariah nations.
Officially, this is an economic summit; Russia is hosting a multilateral gathering to strengthen economic ties among nations in its orbit, including Laos. Thus far, other details about the Kim-Putin direct meeting have been scarce.
So one key factor in understanding what comes out of the meeting will be looking at who goes in, said Michael Madden, a non-resident fellow at the Stimson Center. Kim travels with a fairly small entourage when he does leave the country, and there are a few key members of his inner circle in attendance, including his sister Kim Yo Jong who is the de facto head of North Korea’s propaganda department and a key strategic mind in the regime. Kim’s retinue, according to Madden, includes elites like Central Military Commission Vice Chairman Ri Pyong Chol, who essentially oversees North Korea’s defense industry; and Economic Affairs Department Director O Su Yong, who oversees economic affairs including foreign trade and labor contracts.
“[Kim’s] travel party to Russia is very heavy with personnel from the military and defense industry,” Madden said. “The most notable person going to Russia is [Korean People’s Army] Navy Commander Adm. Kim Myong Sik,” who last week attended the launch of a submarine which Kim intends to make nuclear-capable. “If we wanted to assume an ‘instant analysis’ perspective then we can say Admiral Kim’s presence means that North Korea will attempt to acquire deeper knowledge on submarines and submarine launched ballistic missiles,” but it could simply mean a reintroduction of port visits that Russian and North Korean military personnel previously conducted.
Should the US be worried about a Putin-Kim confab?
It’s of course worth paying attention when leaders of two nuclear-armed countries get together in the same room, but this meeting seems to be more of a public acknowledgment of back-channel talks that have been ongoing for some time.
In the past, Russia has treated North Korea as an obviously junior partner — something that was evident at the last meeting between Kim and Putin in 2019, when the Russian government housed the North Korean delegation in a college dorm rather than a luxury hotel, Bruce Bennett, an adjunct international and defense researcher at the Rand Corporation, told Vox in an interview.
But Russia is in a different position now, with extreme international sanctions impacting its economy and its artillery hitting the battlefield faster than domestic production can keep up. To that end, Sergei Shoigu, the Russian defense minister, visited Pyongyang in July to attend a military parade and tour a weapons exhibition. Shoigu’s trip was “the first defense ministerial visit in over 10 years that we know of,” Madden said, and its likeliest outcome will be increased visible cooperation between the two militaries.
Though specific statistics about North Korea’s military stocks are unknown, it’s one of the most heavily militarized nations on Earth. It reportedly has about six months of artillery and anti-tank weapons built up in case of conflict with South Korea, as Bennett told Vox. But the quality of those weapons is questionable at best. That doesn’t mean Moscow doesn’t want to acquire them — just that it’s not clear how effective they would be on the battlefield if does.
Whatever Russia buys, if anything, that information might not become publicly available. Rather, what we might see coming out of the meeting is trade agreements involving dual-use technologies: tech ostensibly created for civilian use that could have military capabilities. “It gives [North Korea] a certain degree of plausible deniability,” Madden said.
For North Korea, on the other hand, there are two competing priorities: what Kim wants, and what the nation desperately needs.
Kim prioritizes the nuclear program as a deterrent and as leverage to get sanctions lifted or at least relaxed, but recent tests have shown that the nuclear program lacks the miniaturization technology to properly weaponize the nuclear technology — unlike US and Russian weapons systems. Though Russia could assist with such technology, Madden said, it’s a bad bet for both sides to share too much information, as nuclear technology is closely guarded even between allies.
Instead, Kim may settle for support that could help address some domestic issues: What North Korean people need is food and energy, not weapons technology. A UN estimate cited in the Economist indicates that 42 percent of the population was malnourished between 2019 and 2021. Poor domestic food production for the past several years is bad enough, but because the regime can’t really export due to sanctions, it doesn’t have the foreign currency to import food and energy stores, either, not to mention the fact that the regime closed the country’s borders during the Covid-19 pandemic, meaning no food could get in.
North Korean elites seem to be fed up with Kim’s obsessive spending on nuclear weapons to the detriment of actual basic necessities (and even their luxuries), Bennett said, which is a real threat to the regime. Russia sharing food, oil or direct financial assistance could be a place Putin could help. The two countries will likely discuss labor contracts for North Korean workers, which may include military contractors as well.
It’s worth America thinking about what these two countries growing closer means. But there are also limits: Though China, Russia, and North Korea cooperate because they’re progressively being shut out of the global economic system, they’re also in competition — Russia and China for global influence and North Korea and China for influence in the region, Bennett said. “You’ve got overlapping imperialist objectives,” Bennett said. “It sounds like their three-sided partnership is a cool thing, but [the] underlying condition is, that might not go so well.”
A meeting between two men with world-destructive ambitions is hardly a good thing, but it may not be as catastrophic as it initially seems. There is likely to be little trustworthy information about the summit that is made publicly available, so the outcome of these meetings will take time to become visible — but the worst-case scenario is far from the only possibility here.