The Korea Herald


Putin’s Pyongyang trip highlights need for bond in isolation

From 2000 detente to 2024 alienation, drastic shift in climate surrounds impending North Korea-Russia summit

By Kim Arin

Published : June 16, 2024 - 18:26

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Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (The Korea Herald database) Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (The Korea Herald database)

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s impending trip to North Korea, which Seoul authorities say could happen any moment, reflects a mutual interest in building a closer bond for the two countries facing self-inflicted isolation from the West, experts say.

The last time Putin was in Pyongyang in 2000, he was stopping by on his way to the summit of the Group of Eight or G8 in Japan, long before Russia was suspended indefinitely from the group of leading industrialized countries over the annexation of Crimea.

It was also in 2000 that North Korea’s Kim Jong-il reciprocated South Korea’s liberal President Kim Dae-jung’s “sunshine” policy of detente with a historic summit in Pyongyang and a joint inter-Korean declaration.

Twenty-four years later, North Korea and Russia find themselves more alienated and disengaged in the international landscape amid sanctions and severed ties with Western powers and other countries around the world.

Sydney Seiler, who was a senior defense analyst at US Forces Korea in 2016-20, said at a forum in Seoul on Thursday that North Korea’s attitudes in recent years have been “marked by a lack of interest in diplomacy, a lack of interest in sanctions relief, a lack of interest in foreign aid or assistance.”

He called this period “an inward policy of isolation and austerity” by North Korea, which he said began in the second year of the Moon Jae-in administration in late 2018. The expert on Korean Peninsula security issues added that South Korea and the US were now dealing with a North Korea “that refuses to sit down and talk with us.”

While North Korea and Russia may bond over the shared plight of isolation for now, the war in Ukraine is a defining factor that would determine how long their partnership could last, according to Park Won-gon, professor of North Korean Studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.

“Putin would have no reason to entertain Kim Jong-un to such a degree if it weren’t for the Ukraine war,” he told The Korea Herald on Sunday.

In a meeting with the press earlier this month, the Russian president had said he appreciated South Korea for not directly supplying weapons to Ukraine. In the remarks Putin appears to have revealed his wish to stabilize ties with South Korea while continuing to depend on North Korea for weapons, according to Park.

“In this context, Putin meeting with Kim can be seen as a largely reciprocal gesture in response to what North Korea has done to support Russia’s war against Ukraine,” he said.

“The kind of close cooperation between North Korea and Russia that we are witnessing right now will not last once the war subsides.”

Park said the South Korean government commenting on the possible dates of Putin’s visit earlier this week in a rare move was “an instance of strategic communication, a message to Russia that we are paying close attention.”

But there is a chance North Korea and Russia may seek to cement their ties on written terms over this visit, according to a report by the National Intelligence Service-affiliated Institute for National Security Strategy.

The INSS noted in the report issued Friday that North Korea and Russia have earlier stated their intention to reestablish their relations on a “new legal basis.”

As the September summit between Kim and Putin “stopped at being symbolic, without a joint declaration or a press conference,” it was possible their meeting this time could lead to “an official document of some sort outlining the direction and vision of the relations of the two countries,” the INSS said.

The interest in North Korea for deepening ties with Russia would be to “get help building its weapons and space programs while showing off its success in diplomacy,” according to Yang Uk, a research fellow at the Asan Institute of Policy Studies.

The defense and intelligence authorities in Seoul have similarly noted that North Korea likely received assistance in exchange for the weapons it provided to Russia.

Following the July 2022 visit of then-Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to Pyongyang, North Korea appears to have shipped artillery shells, anti-tank weapons, portable anti-aircraft missiles and other weapons via Russian ships and planes, according to an NIS assessment issued in January.

The NIS said that Russia is believed to have offered “basic advice” to North Korea in launching a military reconnaissance satellite that successfully made it into orbit in November 2023.