Summit between Kim Jong-un and Vladimir Putin
On September 13, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s train arrived at the Vostochny Cosmodrome spaceport located in the Amur Oblast in the Russian Far East. Kim met Russian leader Vladimir Putin at the launch vehicle assembly building and toured the spaceport before they held a meeting that spanned hours. During opening remarks, Kim reiterated North Korea’s “full and unconditional support” for Russia. For the next few days, Kim’s tour of Russia includes visiting aviation factories in Komsomolsk-on-Amur, a marine biology laboratory in Vladivostok, and the Russian Pacific Fleet.
Q1: Why is this summit happening now?
A1: First, North Korea always sees an opportunity to tighten relations with Russia when U.S.-Russia relations are bad. Pyongyang signaled this early on in the Ukraine war. North Korea was one of the five countries that opposed the UN resolution in early March 2022 against the Russia invasion. North Korea was also one of the first three countries to recognize the independence of the two Russian-occupied states—Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic—in eastern Ukraine.
Second, North Korea seeks food, fuel, and medicine as supplies have been completely stocked out as a result of the three-year Covid-19 lockdown. The sale of artillery shells, munition, and rockets to Russia allows North Korea a ready source of supplies. CSIS satellite imagery analysis found that shortly after the first North Korean arms transfer to Russia in November 2022, there was a significant uptick in the number of iron ore and petroleum railcars at the Tumangang-Khasan railroad crossing.
Third, Kim Jong-un probably sees summit diplomacy with Putin not just as a way to counter Biden’s successful diplomacy in building bilateral, trilateral, and quadrilateral relations among allies in the region, but also as a face-saving way to reemerge on the world stage after the embarrassment and humiliation of the 2019 Hanoi summit with Donald Trump. Kim Jong-un traveled by train for 60 hours in hopes of a deal with the United States only to see Trump cut the meetings short. For a North Korean leader who lives on mythmaking for a domestic audience, the only way to weather the embarrassment was to return to his reclusive state as the pandemic lockdown set in. There is no one in the North Korean system who would dare suggest that Kim try summits again with the United States. The meeting with Putin provides Kim a way to demonstrate some successful diplomacy and global standing in his eyes.
Fourth, Kim and Putin probably take pleasure in knowing that their cooperation on arms and possibly more strategic weapons technology can complicate Biden’s security picture by linking the European and Asian theaters. Kim can make life difficult for the United States not just in Korea, but also in Ukraine by supplying munitions to Russia and prolonging the war. Likewise, Putin can also complicate U.S. efforts at shoring up extended deterrence on the Korean peninsula with South Korea by helping North Korea to build more capable and survivable intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).
Q2: What is the significance of meeting at the spaceport?
A2: The venues for these meetings are not randomly chosen but are selected to deliver a message both substantively and symbolically. Putin made clear in his statements that Russia is willing to help North Korea with satellite technology, and possibly technology for space-launched vehicles, which could include ICBM technology.
Q3: Is this just about arms for food?
A3: Arms for food and energy is the most obvious transactional part of the summit cooperation, but there are concerns that Kim is motivated not just by refilling out-of-stock supplies from Covid-19, but also by obtaining key weapons technologies to complete his drive for a survivable nuclear and ICBM capability to threaten the U.S. homeland. This might include the following:
- Russian technology for military satellites (North Korea’s last two launches on May 31 and August 24, 2023, have failed);
- technology for nuclear-powered submarines (North Korea this weekend launched a new diesel-powered ballistic missile submarine—see the new Beyond Parallel satellite imagery analysis report here); and
- ICBM technology involving solid propellant and countermeasure capability poses a greater threat to the United States (a recent CSIS Beyond Parallel report raised concerns about potential Russian cooperation behind recent ICBM successes by North Korea).
Expanded cooperation along these lines would further complicate U.S. efforts to shore up extended deterrence on the peninsula in the aftermath of the state visit by South Korean president Yoon Suk Yeol in April 2023.
Q4: How will the United States and South Korea react?
A4: The normal route to respond diplomatically would be for Washington and Seoul, as well as Japan and EU countries, to strongly condemn the arms agreement reached by Russia and North Korea as multiple violations of the UN Security Council (UNSC) resolutions approved by Russia (UNSC Resolution 1874, 2270, and 2321). They would normally seek new UNSC resolutions and sanctions against both parties. But China and Russia’s obstructionism in the UNSC has rendered it useless.
A tightening of trilateral relations in response and even more vigorous implementation of the Camp David commitments could be expected, such as multidomain trilateral exercises, enhanced information sharing, and improved cooperation on ballistic missile defense. But what might be new is building a broader action-oriented consensus in bodies like the G7 and NATO. Both leaders’ meetings included South Korea and Japan recently, and given the emasculation of the UNSC, the Biden administration might increasingly see these as the venues for action.
The authors do not agree with the observation that the U.S. efforts to enhance its regional network with allies, such as the Quad and Camp David, were the catalyst for the Kim-Putin summit. This argument suggests that Kim would not pursue closer relations with Putin if the United States was not consolidating and improving its relationships with allies, which is not the case. Kim would be pursuing what it needs from Russia, as would Putin, regardless of U.S. actions.
There may be some voices in South Korea and the globe that will advocate for South Korea to send lethal weapons to Ukraine given North Korea’s arms transfers to Russia. The Yoon government has been shying away from this and focusing on humanitarian assistance, but Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky, as well as some in D.C. and European capitals, want to see Korea do more given the strength of their military, defense industry, and stockpiles of munitions.
Q5: How will China respond to the tightening Russia-North Korea axis?
A5: The renewed axis between Putin and Kim poses a dilemma for China. First, international condemnation of Kim’s actions inevitably puts pressure on President Xi as the world expects China to exercise its influence over North Korea to control its behavior and in this case, avoid escalating the war in Europe. China has been ambivalent about supporting the war and would want to avoid being seen as even tacitly supporting Kim and Putin. Second, improvements in North Korea’s relations with Russia often compels Beijing to seek closer engagement with North Korea to avoid being cut out. To oppose or discourage arms sales might create an even tighter alignment. Third, cooperation between these parties that complicates the security picture for Biden in both Europe and Asia is probably seen favorably by some in the Chinese leadership, as well as takes some of the attention away from the U.S. full-court press on Taiwan. Something like China-North Korea-Russia trilateral naval exercises (allegedly proposed by Russia), would mean that China would have to consider balancing all of these factors, none of which offers a perfect solution that maximizes Beijing’s interests without incurring some costs in terms of its relations with the United States, Japan, and South Korea.
Victor Cha is senior vice president for Asia and holds the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Ellen Kim is deputy director and senior fellow with the Korea Chair at CSIS.