Putin’s concerning bromance with Kim Jong-un

This alignment of rogue states will not go away in a flash

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As Vladimir Putin prepares to land in Pyongyang for his first visit to North Korea in twenty-four years, this second meeting of the two dictators in under a year — Kim Jong-un visited Russia in September 2023 — should not be ignored as mere showmanship. Even if the summit simply brings more bright lights and signatures, the message from the two leaders will be clear: an anti-Western coalition is not merely a fiction, but a worrying reality.

Back in 2000, North Korea was six years away from conducting its first — albeit far from successful —…

As Vladimir Putin prepares to land in Pyongyang for his first visit to North Korea in twenty-four years, this second meeting of the two dictators in under a year — Kim Jong-un visited Russia in September 2023 — should not be ignored as mere showmanship. Even if the summit simply brings more bright lights and signatures, the message from the two leaders will be clear: an anti-Western coalition is not merely a fiction, but a worrying reality.

Back in 2000, North Korea was six years away from conducting its first — albeit far from successful — nuclear test and struggling to recover from a devastating self-induced famine. Pyongyang was also feeling betrayed following the end of the Cold War in 1991. Only a year earlier, much to North Korea’s ire, the Soviet Union established diplomatic relations with South Korea, what the North has long-called a “puppet state” of the United States. The North’s trade with its Cold War patron would no longer take place at friendship prices. In another blow to Pyongyang in 1996, Russia pulled out from a 1961 treaty between the Soviet Union and North Korea, the Treaty on Mutual Friendship, Cooperation and Assistance, which pledged mutual assistance in the event of any military attack on either party.

The two are sending a clear message to the West: any efforts to isolate Russia or North Korea will fail

Putin’s ascendancy to power in March 2000, however, would please then-North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. The two states signed a new, vaguer, treaty committing both sides to “friendship, good neighborliness and cooperation.” Trade relations improved dramatically. Soon after Kim Jong-un became the North Korean leader in December 2011, Putin agreed to write off 90 percent of North Korea’s Soviet-era debt, amounting to a not-so-insignificant sum of nearly $11 billion (roughly equivalent to $15 billion today). With the deal sealed in 2014, it was no surprise that months earlier, North Korea backed Russia’s justification for its invasion of Crimea. Even despite Russia’s subsequent support of United Nations Security Council sanctions on North Korea, the time would come when rhetorical support would extend to something more.

Fast forward to the present day, and how things have changed. Not only is North Korea now a nuclear-armed state with missile capabilities of increasing sophistication, but its rapprochement with Russia has reached new heights following the latter’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. In an article published on North Korean state media only yesterday, Putin pledged that his visit to Pyongyang would place bilateral relations ‘on a higher level’. The Russian President’s spokesperson went one step further, saying that ‘a comprehensive strategic partnership treaty’ would be signed. And whilst both countries are renowned for their bluster, we should not dismiss such statements completely.

Thus far, the relationship between Moscow and Pyongyang has been largely one of mutual convenience, with both countries exploiting the ongoing war in Ukraine to their advantage. North Korea has supplied Russia with nearly 7,000 containers of munitions — amounting to several million — and even short-range ballistic missiles, in exchange for food assistance, cash, and military expertise and technology, not least satellite technology. And we only need to look at Kim Jong-un’s visit to the Vostochny cosmodrome last September, to realize that it is the technology he values the most. Ever since that visit, Moscow and Pyongyang have repeatedly affirmed the “invincible” nature of their relationship, with Russia actively helping North Korea evade multilateral sanctions, especially by supplying oil directly to the hermit kingdom. Together with a cautious China, they have successfully reduced the United Nations Security Council to little more than an impotent talking shop, unable to constrain neither Russia nor North Korea’s actions.

With the substance of this week’s Kim-Putin summit predictably unknown, one looming question is whether the two states will actually upgrade their relationship to that of an alliance. Doing so would be antithetical to North Korea’s ideology of juche, which underscores independence in the realms of politics, economics, and military defense, and actively opposes any form of reliance on other countries. The only country with which North Korea has any type of defense treaty is China, the North’s largest economic partner. While Kim Jong-un has sought to move away from being dependent on Beijing, Xi Jinping will no doubt be watching the outcomes of the Kim-Putin summit closely, particularly since this year marks seventy-five years of relations between the two communist Northeast Asian states. 

Even if amid the handshakes and smiles we only see a statement affirming unity between Russia and North Korea in opposing what Putin called the “aggressive enemy” of the United States, we would be naive to view these words as vacuous. By reciprocating Kim’s visit to Russia under a year ago, the two leaders are sending a clear message to the West, namely that in their minds, any efforts to isolate Russia or North Korea will fail, and that an anti-Western alignment is no longer a figment of the West’s imagination, but an actuality.

With the red carpet rolled, and the streets of Pyongyang festooned with Russian flags and portraits of Putin, it would be unwise to be distracted by the optics of the next two days. A banner on Pyongyang’s Sunan International Airport reads that “the friendship between North Korea and Russia is eternal.” This is why we should be worried: even if Russia no longer needs North Korean artillery in a post-Ukraine world, something says that this alignment of rogue states will not go away in a flash.

This article was originally published on The Spectator’s UK website.