After decades of complicated and chilly relations and especially in the shadow of fast-moving international developments and heightened tensions with the West, Russia and North Korea are once again walking a path of closeness and strengthened ties.
On Sunday, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un boarded his armored train and departed Pyongyang, and after 48 hours, he crossed a railway bridge over Razdolna River in he Russian Primorsk region and headed north on his second visit to Russia.
The leaders of the two countries met in the Russian city of Vladivostok, a city only 130 kilometers from the North Korean border, on the sidelines of Eastern Economic Forum (EEF).
The flight between Pyongyang and Vladivostok takes about an hour and is one of the few routes that North Korea’s state-owned airline offers, but the North Korean leader preferred to travel with his armored train to enjoy the natural beauty of the region along the route.
Pyongyang keeps Jong Un’s rare foreign trips secret for security reasons, and the olive-colored carriages of his special train are secured with armor and a variety of defense and security systems. According to some sources, Jong Un’s train is an armed fortress on wheels that is believed to include a karaoke room, satellite communications, and an emergency medical center. Also, his personal car, which is a Mercedes-Benz limousine, is also carried by the train.
In the trip, Foreign Minister Choe Som-Hui and a number of senior party and military industries officials including the manager of the ammunition production sector, accompanied Jong Un.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov commented on the goals of the North Korean leader’s visit to Russia, saying that the visit and meeting with Putin were part of the North Korean leader’s comprehensive visit to this country.
“Discussions will be held between the two sides, and after that, if necessary, the two leaders will continue their bilateral communication independently, and we will continue to strengthen our friendship ties,” Peskov stated.
Russian news agencies, citing Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrey Rudenko, reported that during the talks, the two leaders may discuss humanitarian aids delivery to North Korea.
This is the first foreign trip of the North Korean leader after four years and his agenda was not given publicity due to security reservations. This is the second visit of him to Russia. In April 2019, he immediately visited Vladivostok after a rare meeting with then US President Donald Trump. Jong Un rarely travels abroad and over the past 12 years of his rule, he only had 7 foreign travels, 4 of which to the close ally China.
Relations between the two countries date back to the establishment of North Korea 75 years ago, and Russia is traditional ally and main supporter to Pyongyang that has been isolated for decades due to Western sanctions. North Korea is also one of the strongest supporters of Moscow’s war on Ukraine and welcomed the annexation of the eastern and southern regions of Ukraine to Russia and expressed its interest in sending construction workers to these areas to help the reconstruction efforts.
In the beginning of Jong Un rule, North Korea’s relations with Moscow were chilly as the Russians joined international sanctions against North Korea over its nuclear and missile programs. Since 2018, however, North Korean leader has moved to mend relations, capitalizing on the rivalry that has separated China and Russia from the US and its allies.
Although trade relations between Russia and North Korea are at a low level due to UN Security Council sanctions against Pyongyang, the two sides have tried to strengthen bilateral relations in recent years. According to the last statistics provided in April 2019 by the North Korean consulate in Vladivostok, the trade between North Korea and the Russian Far East region was $10.69 million in the period from January to March of the same year, and this figure was $30.72 million in the same period last year, showing a triple growth. Of this volume of trade, Russia’s share was $10.67 million of exports, of which $9.08 million were oil products. North Korean share was only $20,000.
Jong Un’s visit to Russia comes at a time when the tensions between the US and North Korea have escalated on the Korean Peninsula, and this action is partly an attempt by Moscow to warn the US that it can no longer isolate and punish non-compliant states. Over the past year, Russia has tried to attract developing countries to its side and increase its weight and position against the West in the new multipolar world order, and North Korea is also in the framework of this global Russian program.
Western controversy over Moscow-Pyongyang alliance
Despite the denials of Moscow and Pyongyang, the US insists that Russia’s negotiations with North Korea are actively proceeding with the aim of supplying the Russian military with weapons to compensate for the weapons lost in the Ukraine war. The US government officials believe that Putin, during his talks with Jong Un, focuses on getting more military equipment, especially artillery and ammunition, to check the counterattack that Ukrainian forces launched against Russia about three months ago.
Moreover, Washington officials claim that Russia may use North Korean weapons to attack Ukrainian food storages and warming infrastructures to put strains on Kiev as the winter arrives.
General Mark Milley, the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, claimed on Tuesday that the Russian government has asked North Korea for military assistance in the war in Ukraine. General Milley said that even if North Korea agrees to provide military assistance to Russia, Moscow cannot make a significant change in the battlefield with Ukraine.
The Pentagon Spokesman Brigadier General Patrick Ryder said that he had no information about the details of this visit, adding: “I would just again reiterate that we remain concerned that North Korea is contemplating providing any type of ammunition or materiel support to Russia, in support of their war against Ukraine.”
Matthew Miller, the spokesman of the US State Department, said that the meeting between Putin and Jon Un showed the Russian president’s request for help and warned that any agreement on weapons between the two countries will lead to the imposition of more sanctions.
In a speech last week, White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan warned North Korea against sending weapons to Russia and threatened Pyongyang will pay the price if it continued to do so— a warning that was immediately answered by Peskov who said that “what is important for the two countries is their interests, not Washington’s warnings.”
Western countries claim that after a year and a half of the Ukraine war, Moscow has lost many of its weapons and is in bad conditions. The US government said last week that a meeting between Putin and Jong Un could be part of Russia’s efforts to find new suppliers for the weapons it is using in its Ukraine campaign.
The Western claims about Russia getting weapons from North Korea come as the Kremlin officials have more than once said that they do not need foreign weapons and they have enough arms and ammunition that can allow them engage in a fight against all NATO members. The Russians are so sure of their victory in Ukraine that Putin on Monday said that even Western-provided F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine will make no difference to the developments on the battlegrounds and only perpetuate the war.
In addition to claims of military assistance, some experts raise other possibilities behind this Moscow-Pyongyang interaction. Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Kookmin University in Seoul, said a Putin-Jong Un summit was part of “gentle diplomatic blackmail” by Russia of South Korea, because it did not want Seoul to supply weapons to Kiev.
Waves of Western media rumors
As Jong Un arrived in Russia, the rumors on Western media began to boil over, with each outlet making several claims to the public about goals of the visit. The BBC and NBC News reported that nuclear partnership is one of the objectives of the visit, adding that since Pyongyang is under the UN and US sanctions, due to Pyongyang’s pursuit of nuclear weapons program, the meeting between the two leaders can lead to North Korean access to technology needed for developing its arms from which the sanctions of the past two decades have deprived Pyongyang.
Western observers claim that the North Korean side is seeking food, energy, and advanced satellite and submarine technologies to enhance its ballistic missile and other weapons programs.
Some media have turned to controversy to damage the Russian-North Korean relations. The Reuters, citing technical evidence “reviewed” by it, claimed last month that an elite group of North Korean hackers secretly breached computer networks at a major Russian missile developer for at least five months last year. These media outlets apparently intend to imply that the North Korean aim behind closeness to Russia is spying over its missile and nuclear programs.