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An Un-eventful visit: North Korean leader's hyped-up meeting with Putin falls flat

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Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un met in Vladivostok in the Russian Far East on September 13, four years after their previous meeting in 2019. The summit had been prepared in full confidentiality, strictly between Moscow and Pyongyang, but the U.S. intelligence caught wind of it anyway. According to the Americans, the summit was supposed to focus on the war in Ukraine; Washington assumes the DPRK could be persuaded to provide shells and tank parts to Russia in exchange for food and technology assistance.

Moscow – Pyongyang: A historical controversy

Traditionally, the relations between Moscow and Pyongyang are marked by a stark contrast between the rhetoric and the status quo. It goes as far back as Khrushchev’s era, the late 1950s, when North Korea extricated itself from the Kremlin's control, and Moscow’s relations with China began to rapidly sour. To prevent North Korea from siding with Mao Zedong, the Soviets plowed on about the “unassailable friendship” between the USSR and the DPRK, turning a blind eye to the oppressive North Korean regime and the blatantly anti-Soviet revision of WWII history, coupled with the demolition of Soviet war memorials, which was frequently reported by the Soviet embassy. To keep North Korea from sliding into China's orbit, the Soviet Union even offered it significant economic assistance.

To prevent North Korea from siding with Mao Zedong, the Soviets turned a blind eye to its blatantly anti-Soviet revision of WWII history

The year 1990 marked a new phase in the Moscow – Pyongyang relations – one that continues to date. The Soviet Union recognized South Korea, infuriating the government in Pyongyang, and curbed assistance to its northern neighbor. Ever since, Russia has been calling for trilateral cooperation between Moscow, Pyongyang, and Seoul (to no avail) and has sided with Beijing on all principal North Korean issues, thus acknowledging North Korea as part of China's sphere of influence.

Meanwhile, Moscow soon became aware of its long-standing image as a power player on the Korean peninsula and focused its diplomatic efforts on maintaining this illusion. This line won approval from North Korea: once tensions subsided after surging in the early 1990s, Pyongyang began to harbor hopes for resumed supplies from Moscow, encouraged by the seeming “special nature” of their relations.

Up until now, North Korea's efforts have ended in nothing. By independent South Korean estimates, the two countries’ trade balance amounted to zero in 2022. That is, Moscow and Pyongyang have had no commercial relations whatsoever, as though the countries had introduced an embargo.

North Korea and the war in Ukraine

Even the beginning of a full-fledged Russo-Ukrainian war in 2022 did not activate the economic ties between Russia and North Korea. Despite persistent rumors, there is no compelling evidence of North Korean weapons or munitions supplies to the Russian army, even though the Wagner PMC did appear to have obtained a limited shipment of North Korean shells prior to Prigozhin's mutiny. Grey Zone, a Telegram channel affiliated with Wagnerites, certainly points that way. Nevertheless, a relatively high degree of Wagner's autonomy from the government could mean that the shipment was arranged independently from the Kremlin.

The reality may well confuse the reader, considering the numerous messages about North Korea standing in full support of Putin’s every step, be it attacking Ukraine or annexing most of the territories he occupied in 2022.

This calls for an important remark on the DPRK's information policy. North Korea has three types of mass media: strictly for domestic consumption, for mixed audiences, and for external use only. Pyongyang is adept at handling each specific group. Voicing support for the Kremlin is only appropriate in outlets for foreign audiences, such as the Korean Central News Agency, the Uriminzokkiri portal, and diplomatic statements. Mass media with both internal and external readers, like North Korea’s main newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, doesn't mention the war at all – as though nothing extraordinary is happening between Russia and Ukraine.

North Korea voices support for the Kremlin only in outlets for foreign audiences

This brings us to the conclusion that North Korea’s support of the invasion and the Kremlin's other steps is nothing but lip service. It’s not that Kim Jong Un appreciates what Putin does; it's about the North Korean Foreign Ministry hoping to convert Putin's talk of friendship into tangible economic benefits.

Moscow – Pyongyang today: A chasm between word and deed

Overall, the relations between Russia and North Korea are rife with insincerity.

  • Pyongyang claims to stand in full support of Russia's war against Ukraine. Meanwhile, the North Korean government is keeping its citizens completely in the dark about this war.
  • Russia pretends to pursue a wholly independent North Korea policy. Meanwhile, the fluctuations of its policy in the last few years have consistently matched the guidelines of the International Department of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party.
  • The two parties are advertising their friendship. Meanwhile, they’ve curtailed all mutual trade.

One has to keep these contradictions in mind when analyzing the latest summit to clearly distinguish between Moscow’s and Pyongyang's words and deeds. The rhetoric surprised no one: mutual reassurances of friendship, Putin pleasing North Koreans by supporting the myth invented by their propaganda about “Korean soldiers” who purportedly slain the Japanese in 1945, and Rodong Sinmun calling Putin a “comrade” with special respectful affixes normally used in reference to members of the ruling dynasty and, on exceptional occasions, foreign heads of state who made Pyongyang particularly happy.

Apparently, these loud expressions of solidarity were mostly meant to impress Seoul – as all intensive contacts between Moscow and Pyongyang began after South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol visited Kyiv and started considering arms supplies to Ukraine. It was then that Russia’s former president Dmitry Medvedev hinted at the possibility of approaching North Korea.

All intensive contact between Moscow and Pyongyang began after South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol visited Kyiv

As for the summit’s tangible outcomes, there could be several scenarios with varying degrees of probability.

The summit was purely perfunctory

The logic of earlier Russian-North Korean relations points to this conclusion. Neither geopolitical turbulence, like the annexation of Crimea or the war, nor the change of Russian presidents or the death of North Korean leaders effectuated a shift in the two countries’ paradigm of relations that has been in place since the late Gorbachev era. The first Kim–Putin summit in 2019 was purely perfunctory indeed; the second may well repeat its fate.

Counter-arguments include the concerns voiced by the U.S. and the changes in the potential supply and demand in the trade between Russia and North Korea. Russia is making ample use of artillery in its warfare, while North Korea’s well-developed military complex produces large amounts of artillery shells. In turn, North Korea’s isolation during the pandemic and conservative approach to reform have put its already frail economy under further strain, creating a severe need for food and oil – which Russia can provide.

The summit has resulted in substantial decisions with China’s knowledge and approval

If Russia and North Korea strike a military cooperation deal following the summit, it will almost certainly happen with China's approval. This would mean China does not object to losing its monopoly in the North Korean trade balance or the strengthening of Putin's military capabilities. In this scenario, Moscow and Pyongyang's cooperation will be motivated by cynical self-interest and not ideological affinity, and each party will look to negotiate the best deal for itself. The DPRK is an infamously unreliable trade partner, so Pyongyang may attempt to rip Moscow off, giving as little as it can for as much as Moscow is willing to pay.

The summit has resulted in substantial decisions without China's knowledge or approval

Finally, the least possible scenario is Putin and Kim both ignoring China’s stance and cooperating against its will. For North Korea, it’s the perfect opportunity to return to the Soviet-Chinese schism, which Pyongyang could exploit to its benefit. Putin, on the contrary, has nothing to gain from this scenario, seeing as how China is an immeasurably more valuable partner for Russia than North Korea could ever be. Therefore, while the first and second scenarios are likely, the third has to be acknowledged as the least probable.

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