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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Putin arrives in North Korea as Ukraine war redefines ties with Kim



Rescue workers sift through the rubble of a building destroyed by a Russian missile in Kyiv, Ukraine on March 25, 2024. President Vladimir V. Putin’s military needs have prompted the Kremlin to strengthen ties with the authoritarian government of Kim Jong Un, which is well stocked in munitions. (Brendan Hoffman/The New York Times)

By Paul Sonne


President Vladimir Putin of Russia has arrived in North Korea, according to Russian state media, visiting for the first time in 24 years after vowing to bring ties with Pyongyang to new heights and jointly rebuff what he called the “global neocolonial dictatorship” of the United States.


The North’s leader, Kim Jong Un, met the Russian president on the airport tarmac early Wednesday local time, Russian state news agencies reported.


The war against Ukraine has driven Putin closer to Kim, who has won new status with the Kremlin by opening his vast munitions stores to Moscow.


Nine months ago, after Kim arrived by armored train in the Russian Far East, the two men met at a Russian cosmodrome and toasted their “sacred struggle” against the West. The North Korean leader, in between visiting sensitive Russian rocket and fighter jet facilities, invited Putin to make a reciprocal visit.


Now, the Russian president has taken him up on the offer. And the deepening relationship between the two authoritarian leaders poses a particular challenge for Washington. The United States once relied on Moscow’s cooperation in its attempts to curb North Korea’s nuclear and missile program. Now, it faces a Kremlin intent on playing spoiler to American geopolitical interests around the world.


Russian state media released footage showing large Russian flags and portraits of a smiling Putin lining the streets of Pyongyang as North Korea prepared to welcome the Russian leader.

What does Russia want?


Before the trip, Putin issued an order authorizing the conclusion of a new “comprehensive strategic partnership” agreement with North Korea.


He also published an article in Rodong, the North’s main newspaper, praising Kim for resisting “economic pressure, provocations, blackmail and military threats from the United States” and thanking Pyongyang for its strong support of Russia’s operations in Ukraine.


Victory over Ukraine has been the guiding principle of Russian foreign policy for more than two years, and Putin’s top priority on the trip will be to ensure North Korea’s continued cooperation in helping him achieve his aims on the battlefield.


North Korea is one of the world’s most impoverished and isolated countries, but it has one of the biggest militaries.


The exact scope of the North’s military aid for Moscow’s war is unclear. Many analysts say the contribution has been meaningful, because the Russian military requires evermore ammunition in its war of attrition against Ukraine. Russian forces have recently been making territorial gains against Ukraine in part because they are able to expend more ammunition.


In an interview with Bloomberg last week, the South Korean defense minister, Shin Won-sik, said Seoul had tracked at least 10,000 shipping containers that could hold as many as 4.8 million artillery shells being ferried from North Korea to Russia. The minister predicted that Putin would ask for more during his trip.


Before Kim’s visit to Russia last year, U.S. intelligence reported that Moscow had purchased millions of artillery shells from North Korea. The United States has since accused Russia at the United Nations of firing multiple North Korean ballistic missiles into Ukraine.


But questions about the quality of the North’s supplies have arisen. Officials in Ukraine have said that Russia fired roughly 50 North Korean ballistic missiles at Ukrainian territory last winter and that the fail rate of the weapons was high.


The burgeoning relationship with Moscow has already yielded dividends for Pyongyang. In March, Russia vetoed the annual renewal of the U.N. panel of experts that had been scrutinizing North Korean sanctions violations for 15 years. The move highlighted the drastic shift in Moscow’s stance toward Pyongyang after years of playing a role in U.N. disarmament efforts there.


Before their mandate expired, U.N. monitors verified that debris from a January attack on the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv had come from a North Korean missile and said the weapons transfer had violated the U.N. arms embargo on Pyongyang, according to Reuters. The embargo prohibits the export and import of weapons.


Putin is unlikely to acknowledge any ammunition or weapons deliveries during the trip. Russia has denied any military transfers that violate the U.N. embargo.


The Kremlin foreign policy aide, Yuri V. Ushakov, told journalists at a briefing on Monday that the two leaders would discuss energy, transport, agriculture, economic and security issues during the trip.


What does North Korea want?


Kim, whose grandfather came to power with Moscow’s backing in 1948 and founded North Korea, has been steadily expanding his arsenal of high-end weapons and looking increasingly for the Kremlin’s help.


The warming of relations between Moscow and Pyongyang has led to a breakdown of international efforts aimed at containing North Korea’s nuclear and missile ambitions and has raised questions about future sanctions enforcement.


Since the two leaders met last year, questions have persisted about what Kim has received in return for supplying Moscow with ballistic missiles and much-needed artillery shells.


Among other things, the conflict has given Pyongyang the rare opportunity to evaluate the performance of its missiles in live combat and potentially perfect their design.


Isolated from the rest of the world owing to international sanctions, North Korea has a range of needs outside the military sector that Moscow could also help meet. South Korean officials have said that Russia, the world’s biggest wheat exporter, is supplying food and raw materials, as well as parts for weapons manufacturing.

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