The bromance has blossomed thanks to geopolitical shifts. Mr Kim turned away from talks with America following the failed summit in Hanoi and began making fresh overtures to Russia. The response was lukewarm—until Mr Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine floundered and Russia came to need munitions, one of the few things Mr Kim’s regime has in abundance. But the implications of the realignment go beyond the weapons trade. “It’s a mistake to think about it simply as an arms deal,” argues Jenny Town of the Stimson Centre, an American think-tank.

North Korea plays a useful part in Russia’s wider confrontation with the West, helping to complicate American strategy in Asia and to undermine multilateral institutions. In March, Russia vetoed a United Nations resolution to extend the mandate of the Panel of Experts, the main international body for monitoring sanctions on North Korea. By co-operating with North Korea, Russia also aims to deter South Korea, a big arms producer and American ally, from providing direct lethal aid to Ukraine.

For North Korea, Russia proved a godsend in a time of need. Mr Kim was especially isolated abroad and diminished at home following the debacle in Hanoi; years of sanctions and the covid-19 pandemic had not helped, either. Trade with Russia has helped stabilise the economy, while summitry with Mr Putin has burnished Mr Kim’s image. Delegations working on agriculture, culture, security and technology have shuttled between the two countries in recent months. Russian tourists became the first foreigners to visit North Korea after the pandemic; tour agencies in Vladivostok now advertise summer trips to the hermit kingdom.

The renewed affinity has fuelled talk in Washington of a new axis of evil between Russia, China and North Korea. Both China and the Soviet Union aligned behind North Korea during the Korean War; some fret their joint support could again encourage North Korean aggression. Those fears have proven overblown so far, but at the very least, with two active big backers, North Korea has little incentive to engage with America. It can also play the two powers off of each other. “It is the biggest strategic opportunity for North Korea since the end of the Cold War,” argues Ankit Panda of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, an American think-tank.

When Mr Kim and Mr Putin meet, munitions will be front of mind. American officials allege that North Korea has shipped by sea and by rail around 11,000 containers filled with arms to Russia since September, when Mr Kim visited Mr Putin in Vladivostok. The goods include artillery shells—South Korea’s defence minister reckons as many as 5m rounds—as well as Hwasong-11 class ballistic missiles, which have been linked to dozens of deaths across Ukraine. Much of the material is of dubious quality, but it has nonetheless helped Russia buy time to ramp up its own production, says a senior Ukrainian official.

What Russia has given in return is the subject of much speculation. South Korea’s government has said that at least 9,000 containers are believed to have been sent from Russia to North Korea since last September. North Korea’s wish list probably includes nuclear weapons designs, re-entry vehicles for intercontinental ballistic missiles, as well as technology related to satellites, submarines and hypersonic weapons. Russia could also provide less flashy, but still important support for North Korea’s conventional forces, such as spare parts for aircraft or ships and more modern air defences.

South Korean officials say that Russia has yet to transfer sensitive military technology related to ballistic missiles or nuclear weapons. One area of more immediate concern is space technology: Mr Panda reckons that a recent North Korean satellite launch attempt may have used a variant of an engine used in Russia’s Angara system, which Russia has at a cosmodrome that Mr Kim toured last autumn. For now, food and fuel probably make up the bulk of the trade. Mr Putin also gave Mr Kim a Russian-made luxury limousine.

Yet such seeming affection belies the real limits to their friendship. “The new Russian love with North Korea is shallow and artificial,” argues Andrei Lankov, a Russian expert on North Korea based at Kookmin University in Seoul. Mr Putin is more likely to use the threat of technology transfer to restrain South Korean support for Ukraine than to actually do it. South Korea, in turn, can threaten greater support for Ukraine to enforce its red lines with respect to support for North Korea.

While Russia may be eager to undermine international sanctions, that does not mean it will rush to help North Korea expand its nuclear arsenal. Russia has enough leverage to extract what it needs without giving up its most sensitive technology. Thus far, “North Korea is not happy with the scope and depth of military co-operation with Russia,” says one former South Korean official who recently attended a dialogue with Russian and North Korean participants. As Russia’s own arms production ramps up, its need for North Korean shells may wane.

And although the partnership will probably last as long as the war in Ukraine, it may not endure beyond it. “The calculated convergence of national interests” can shift if the circumstances change, reckons Lee Sang-hyun of the Sejong Institute, a think-tank in Seoul. In the long run, South Korea is a more attractive economic partner; it was Russia’s fifth-largest export destination before the war. Russia seems keen to keep the door open: Russia’s ambassador to South Korea recently said he expects South Korea to be “first among unfriendly countries to return to the ranks of friendly countries”. For Russian elites, North Korea remains a synonym for dysfunction which few would like to associate with, in contrast to the economic powerhouse that is China.

China itself can also shape how deep Russia and North Korea’s co-operation becomes. “It’s not a bilateral relationship—big brother is always watching from Beijing,” says Fyodor Tertitskiy, also of Kookmin University. China’s feelings appear mixed. Its diplomats did not stop Russia from killing off the UN sanctions panel. But during a recent summit with South Korea and Japan, China endorsed a call for the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, drawing a rebuke from Mr Kim’s regime. China’s primary interests are to maintain North Korea as a stable buffer state between it and American-allied South Korea, as well as to retain influence over Pyongyang; closer military ties between Russia and North Korea could threaten these aims.

China also appears keen to avoid the appearance that the three belong to a single bloc. “China wants to be a global leader not a rogue,” says Mr Lee. Mr Putin reportedly wanted to travel on to Pyongyang earlier, immediately after a visit to Beijing last month, but China suggested that he should wait. The picture that emerges is less of a neat authoritarian axis and more a messy love triangle.

© 2024, The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved. 

From The Economist, published under licence. The original content can be found on www.economist.com

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Published: 17 Jun 2024, 07:29 AM IST


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