North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may travel to Russia for a summit with President Vladimir Putin, a US official has said. The possible trip would underscore deepening cooperation as the two isolated leaders are locked in separate confrontations with Washington.
US officials also said that Russia is seeking to buy ammunition from North Korea to refill reserves drained by its war in Ukraine. In return, experts said, North Korea will likely want food and energy shipments and transfers of sophisticated weapons technologies.
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A meeting with Putin would be Kim’s first summit with a foreign leader since North Korea closed its borders in January 2020. They met for the first time in April 2019, two months after Kim’s high-stakes nuclear diplomacy with then-US President Donald Trump collapsed.
Here is a look at what Kim’s possible meeting with Putin would mean:
What does Russia want from North Korea?
Since last year, US officials have suspected that North Korea is providing Russia with artillery shells, rockets and other ammunition, many of which are likely copies of Soviet-era munitions.
Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu travelled to Pyongyang in July and asked Kim to send more ammunition to Russia, according to US officials.
“Russia is in urgent need of [war supplies]. If not, how could the defence minister of a powerful country at war come to a small country like North Korea?” Kim Taewoo, former head of Seoul’s Korea Institute for National Unification, said.
He said Shoigu was the first Russian defence minister to visit North Korea since the 1991 disintegration of the Soviet Union.
Pavel Felgenhauer, a defence and military analyst, told Al Jazeera is in an ideal position to provide Russia with weapons.
“North Korea did not leave the Cold War; it still has that production, and it has ordinance of the same Soviet/Russian calibres copycats, so that can actually provide Russia with things that the Russian military needs on the front line,” Felgenhauer said.
Buying munitions from North Korea would be a violation of UN resolutions, which were supported by Russia, that ban all arms trading with the isolated country. But now that it faces international sanctions and export controls over its war in Ukraine, Russia has been seeking weapons from other sanctioned countries, such as North Korea and Iran.
North Korea has vast stores of munitions, but Cha Du Hyeogn, an analyst at Seoul’s Asan Institute for Policy Studies, doubted whether it could swiftly send significant amounts to Russia because the narrow land link between the countries can handle only a limited amount of rail traffic.
What does Kim want in return?
Kim’s priorities would be aid shipments, prestige and military technology, experts said.
“It would be a ‘win-win’ deal for both, as Putin is cornered over his exhausted weapons inventory while Kim faces pressure from the South Korea-US-Japan trilateral cooperation,” Nam Sung-wook, a former director of the Institute for National Security Strategy, a think tank run by South Korea’s spy agency, said. “Their needs are matched perfectly now.”
Pandemic-era border closures have left North Korea with severe economic difficulties, and Kim is likely to seek supplies of food and energy to address shortfalls.
Bong Youngshik, a research fellow at Yonsei University Institute for North Korean Studies, said a weapons-for-food aid deal was likely if the meeting went ahead.
“The very fact that the summit meeting is required for these countries to finalise the weapons exchange and trade means that there are a lot of details to be ironed out and agreed at the highest levels of government,” Youngshik told Al Jazeera.
“It has been a very difficult negotiation for both sides to strike the deal so the most likely scenario would be Russia to providing food aid and North Korea continuing to be aggressive in contemplating a weapons deal with Russia,” he said.
Kim will likely also trumpet expanding relations with Moscow as a sign that the country is overcoming its years of isolation. North Korean leaders have long valued face-to-face meetings with world leaders as signs of international importance and for domestic propaganda purposes.
Kim is likely also seeking Russian technology to support his plans to build high-tech weapons systems such as powerful long-range missiles, hypersonic ballistic weapons, nuclear-powered submarines and spy satellites, said Hong Min, an analyst at Seoul’s Korea Institute for National Unification.
It’s unclear whether Russia would be willing to provide North Korea with advanced technologies related to nuclear weapons and ICBMs, Cha said. Russia has always tightly guarded its most important weapons technologies, even from key partners like China, he said.
How close could the two countries get?
It’s also unclear how far Kim and Putin’s military cooperation could go, but any sign of warming relations will worry rivals like the US and South Korea.
Russia seeks to quash a Ukrainian counteroffensive and prolong the war, while North Korea is extending a record pace of missile tests to protest US moves to reinforce its military alliances with South Korea and Japan.
Shoigu told reporters Monday that Russia and North Korea were pondering the possibility of bilateral military exercise. Earlier, South Korea’s spy agency told lawmakers that Shoigu appeared to have proposed a trilateral training exercise involving China.
Either way, it would be the North’s first joint military drills with a foreign country since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War. The country has avoided training with a foreign military in line with its official “juche”, or “self-reliance”, philosophy.
Felgenhauer, the defence and military analyst, said that it was “possible” that Putin would visit Vladivostok next week for an economic forum and meet the North Korean leader on the sidelines.
“Right now, it seems the relationships between Moscow and Pyongyang are blooming, both sides have things to offer each other, and both sides are under Western pressure and sanctions, so they seem to be natural allies,” he said.
Kim Taewoo, the former institute director, said expanding South Korea-US-Japan security cooperation could prompt Kim Jong Un to break that taboo and hold drills with Russia and China for the first time.
But Nam, who is now a professor at Korea University, said North Korea would not likely accept the offer, as it could leave North Korea even more dependent on China and Russia.
Park Won Gon, a professor at Seoul’s Ewha Womans University, said it was too early to predict what Kim’s diplomacy could yield beyond making a show of defiance towards the United States.
“In any case, North Korea and Russia need to show that they’re working together, that they’re stepping up this cooperation,” Park said. “There clearly are practical areas of cooperation, and also some symbolic aspects they want to show to the United States.”