Ahead of a summit that many governments and analysts fear will conclude with agreements on exchanges of weapons and military technology, Russian President Vladimir Putin greeted North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the Vostochny Cosmodrome in eastern Russia on Wednesday afternoon.
Last week, the US said Russia was in the process of purchasing “millions of rockets and artillery shells from North Korea for use in Ukraine.”
However, White House national security spokesperson John Kirby later added that there were “no indications” that the purchase had been completed, and no sign yet of any North Korean weapons being used in Ukraine.
Any weapons deal between North Korea and Russia would be in breach of multiple UN Security Council resolutions, ironically including resolutions that had previously been supported by Moscow.
Earlier this year, the US reported that North Korea already provided artillery rounds to a Russian military that is running low on stocks as it continues its war in Ukraine.
“My impression is that both sides want military hardware and technology, but a lot of this is also about simply frightening their rivals with speculation about the new weapons and capabilities they are suddenly going to acquire,” said Yakov Zinberg, a Russian-born professor of international relations at Tokyo’s Kokushikan University.
“There have been many reports that Russia cannot produce enough munitions for its troops in Ukraine and we also know that North Korea has lots in stock, so Pyongyang providing its artillery rounds, and potentially artillery pieces as well, then that is designed to worry Ukraine and its allies,” he told DW.
There has been no immediate confirmation of the contents of the two leaders’ talks or on what agreements have been reached, with analysts suggesting the details may not be announced at all to further muddy the waters over the burgeoning military alliance.
US national security spokesman Kirby said last week that the potential weapons deal is “just another indication of how desperate Putin’s becoming […] It’s an indication of how much his defense industrial establishment is suffering as a result of this war and the degree of desperation.”
Russia needs to secure additional artillery rounds, even if the shells that North Korea has in stock are based on designs from half-a-century ago.
Although these less-advanced weapons do not allow for precision attacks, they could be used for barrages on civilian infrastructure and Ukrainian positions.
North Korea has retained the weapons production facilities provided to it by the former Soviet Union during the 1950-53 Korean War and has been building up its stockpiles ever since.
The country, however, is experiencing dramatic food shortages after another poor harvest season and has been short of fuel since initial sanctions from 2006 were stepped up in 2017. It’s likely that Kim will request food and fuel supplies to ease those shortages.
North Korea is also attempting to build more high-tech satellite technology, and Russian material could provide a boost.
Two attempts to launch rockets carrying satellites have failed in recent months and Kim may very well ask Putin to share rocket technology, which is in many cases identical to the technology required to launch long-range missiles.
Nuclear weapons technology may also be on the North Koreans’ shopping list, including the know-how required for the safe atmospheric reentry of a nuclear warhead atop an intercontinental ballistic missile, a challenge that analysts believe Kim’s scientists have not yet overcome.
And while Kim may ask for the most advanced technology that Moscow can provide, such as technology to miniaturize nuclear devices or propel nuclear-powered submarines, Putin is unlikely to give away all his secrets, said Leif-Eric Easley, an associate professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.
“Even a desperate war machine does not trade its military crown jewels for old, dumb munitions,” Easley told DW.
Kim also attended the launch earlier this week of what the North claimed was its first ICBM-capable submarine, based on a heavily modified Russian design that dates back to the 1950s.
The North Korean leader used the occasion to declare that he intends to build up the navy’s nuclear capabilities. This is another area in which Russia could be a powerful ally.
“North Korea has the crude ammunition that Putin needs for his illegal war in Ukraine, while Moscow has submarine, ballistic and satellite technologies that could help Pyongyang leapfrog the engineering challenges it suffers under economic sanctions,” said Easley.
Joseph Dempsey, a defense researcher at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, told Reuters news agency that Russian access to North Korea’s cold-war era artillery stocks may “prolong the conflict, but it is unlikely going to change the outcome.”
A wider North Korea-Russia axis in Asia?
Widely considered responsible for crimes against humanity and seen as international pariahs, Putin and Kim nevertheless want to show accomplishments to their respective domestic audiences and “appear to be normal statesmen,” said Easley.
He added that Pyongyang and Moscow are unlikely to make the full scope of the cooperation public due to the international legal violations, but can be expected to “echo the propaganda of the other about sovereignty, security and humanitarian solidarity.”