Ukraine war brings North Korea out of isolation

Vladimir Putin, who received Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Sochi on Monday, will host again in a week, with Kim Jong Un.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
05 September 2023 Tuesday 10:22
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Ukraine war brings North Korea out of isolation

Vladimir Putin, who received Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Sochi on Monday, will host again in a week, with Kim Jong Un. Ten thousand kilometers further east and without leaving Russia. The North Korean president will only have to cross the border to Vladivostok in an armored express to negotiate on arms, according to The New York Times.

"We have nothing to say about it," Kremlin spokesman Dimitri Peskov said instead. In any case, the relations between Putin, a former KGB agent, and the North Korean communist leader should not be surprising. They already met in the same place and in the same way four years ago.

After all, the Soviet Union was as much a midwife in North Korea's traumatic birth—along with China—as the United States was in South Korea's. But it is true that, since the North Korean nuclear tests of 2006, even Moscow and Beijing had adhered to the sanctions against Pyongyang.

However, the planned meeting between Putin and Kim Jong Un shows that, after the Russian invasion of Ukraine – punished with batteries of sanctions and with the rearmament of Kyiv by almost all NATO countries – the rules have changed. Russia and China are already blocking new US-inspired sanctions against Pyongyang at the UN Security Council.

The port city of Vladivostok will host, from September 10 to 13, the Eastern Economic Forum, which last year brought together representatives from 68 countries. If confirmed, Kim's visit would represent his first outing since before the pandemic.

The Vladivostok appointment does not come out cold. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu paved the way, with an official visit in July, to demand North Korean ammunition for its artillery and trench warfare and to propose naval maneuvers, according to Seoul intelligence.

The qualitative change would be that the relationship between Russians and Koreans, previously mediated by the Wagner paramilitary organization, becomes state-to-state. In exchange, the communist regime would demand technology, hydrocarbons, or simply carbohydrates for a population visibly worse fed than its leader.

Although six countries have sided staunchly with Moscow in the war in Ukraine – and several dozen more look the other way – only Iran has provenly sent war material – drones – for the Russian army.

If it materializes, the use of North Korean weapons would add a new flag to the internationalization of the conflict. But it is not the attitude of the little North Korea that attracts the attention of the world, but that of China. So far no military supplies from Beijing have been proven. As much as Xi Jinping and Putin alluded last March in the Kremlin to "a relationship without limits", this one has them.

Of course, many countries of the South, with Mexico and Brazil as standard bearers, have also expressed that they do not intend to feed the bonfire of war with more weapons.

So Russia isn't exactly alone – as the six recent Brics membership shows – but Putin continues to gauge its outflows abroad with an eye on the Hague Tribunal.

Kim Jong Un, for his part, prefers to travel by train, like his father, Kim Jong Il, and his grandfather, the no less distrustful and no less dictator Kim Il Sung. The young Kim also used his armored train back in the day to meet Donald Trump in Hanoi, via China.

Despite his North Korean contacts, this Eastern wisdom seems not to have rubbed off on Wagner's big man, Yevgueni Prigozhin, who died two weeks ago in a mysterious plane crash, two months after challenging Putin.