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Putin lands in North Korea looking for support, weapons, validation

by Katie Marie Davies June 19, 2024 12:32 AM 6 min read
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un awaits the arrival of Russian President Vladimir Putin during a welcome ceremony at Pyongyang Airport, early on June 19, 2024. (Gavriil Grigorov/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
by Katie Marie Davies June 19, 2024 12:32 AM 6 min read
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Russian President Vladimir Putin landed in Pyongyang on June 18 for the first time in 24 years.

Greeted by North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un at the runway and passing by a city saturated with Russian flags and giant portraits of the Russian leader, Putin looked happy – he was visiting a country that still considered Russia a vital ally.

This time around, however, Russia needed North Korea as much, if not more, than ever before.

Putin's visit to North Korea, being painted as an opportunity to expand bilateral cooperation in tourism, culture, and education, would no doubt be focused on defense and military cooperation.

"On the part of Putin, the trip means reciprocating North Korea's ongoing support for the war in Ukraine — and more importantly, North Korea's military supplies," says Yong-Chool Ha, director of the Center for Korea Studies at the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington.

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North Korea has reportedly sent some five million artillery shells to the Russian military, Ha says — and Pyongyang will be looking for certain benefits in return. Russia's satellite technology, in particular, is a much-desired asset for North Korean officials.

"It remains to be seen how far Russia will go with North Korea regarding military cooperation, as there's an understanding with South Korea that Russia will not provide offensive military technology to North Korea," says Ha.

Rogue alliance

The trip is just one half of a two-part tour: the Russian leader will also be traveling to Vietnam on June 19. But it is the Pyongyang stop that is attracting the world's attention — and condemnation.

Speaking on Monday evening, John Kirby, spokesperson for the U.S. National Security Council, described Moscow and Pyongyang's relationship as "concerning."

Both American and South Korean officials have previously said that North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un is sending artillery and military equipment to aid Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Although Moscow and Pyongyang deny the claims, reports made by monitoring groups and images from the U.S. State Department suggest that arms deliveries are being made.

"We're certainly going to be watching that very, very closely," Kirby told reporters.

Little of this concerns the Kremlin, 846 days into its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

"Putin is most likely to ramp up economic cooperation with North Korea by providing economic aid and allowing North Korean workers to remain in Russia," says Ha.

Both sides are scheduled to sign a "strategic partnership treaty," and while details of the agreement are yet to be announced, Russian state news agency TASS quickly published an article Tuesday that heralded the deal as an "answer to Asian NATO," a media-friendly term for co-operation between the Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo.

Despite surface-level denials, both Pyongyang and Moscow are happy to play into this speculation.

Putin published an op-ed in the North Korean press in the hours before his visit, expressing gratitude for North Korea's support of his country's full-scale invasion of Ukraine. In the article, he pledged that the two nations would work together to counter U.S.-led plans "to hinder the establishment of a multipolar world order based on justice, mutual respect for sovereignty, considering each other's interests," The Associated Press reported.

The media maneuvering points to another key goal: propaganda internationally and domestically.

"Politically, Putin wants to demonstrate to the Russian people — and the world — his confidence in the Ukraine war," says Ha. Internationally, Pyongyang is keen to show both the West and China, the country's key ally, that the country is not isolated on the world stage.

An officer of North Korean Police guards the streets on June 18, 2024, in Pyongyang, North Korea. Russian President Vladimir Putin is arriving to North Korea for a two-day visit. (Contributor/Getty Images)

There are also domestic considerations. "Kim is most likely to use Putin's visit as a way of political propaganda, (claiming that) North Korean economy will improve through cooperation with Russia," says Ha.

The visit — Putin's first trip to North Korea since 2000 — directly follows Kim Jong-Un's own tour of Russia's Far East in October 2023 that was said to be a sign of deepening political, military and economic ties between the two rogue states.

Next stop Vietnam

It is in this regard that Putin's visit to Vietnam also comes into play. Hanoi may not be providing arms to Moscow's military, but it is far more globally respected than Pyongyang.

Moscow knows Putin will be greeted there on good terms, largely thanks to the Soviet Union's role in aiding the Communist Party of Vietnam during the Vietnam War, says Ian J. Storey, a senior fellow at the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.

"Vietnam did not condemn Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, but nor did they condone it," says Storey. "Privately, many Vietnamese regard it as a major strategic blunder by the Kremlin. But because Russia is an old friend, and Vietnam remains dependent on it for military hardware, it wants to stay on good terms with Moscow."

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Hanoi will have its own diplomatic aims and image-building concerns for the trip, which are important enough that the Vietnamese government is happy to brush aside condemnation of Putin's visit from the West.

"Putin's visit will help underscore the importance of Vietnam's 'bamboo diplomacy': that by balancing Vietnam's relations with the major powers – never taking sides, being self-reliant, and demonstrating flexibility – it can maintain its agency and interests while taking advantage of economic opportunities created by major power competition," says Storey.

But this posturing works both ways. The Vietnam portion of the trip will provide a vital sheen of respectability to Moscow's image. The timing of the event speaks strongly to what the Kremlin hopes to achieve.

"Putin's visit to North Korea and Vietnam comes only a few days after the Ukraine peace summit in Switzerland," says Storey. "Putin wants to show that Western-led efforts to isolate Russia have failed and that Russia still has friends around the world, including in Asia."

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