December 11, 2023

There are two reasons for North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un’s visit to Russia this week: Russia is running low on weapons in its war against Ukraine, and Vladimir Putin really enjoys making the West nervous.

It seems he’s succeeded at both.

Like most things Russia does, the whole meeting was a massive, carefully calculated, staged display — and it began even before Putin and Kim met on Wednesday. (READ MORE: Libya, Morocco, Disasters, and Failed Regimes)

First, there were the rumors. At the beginning of September, a U.S. official anonymously told the Associated Press that the U.S. suspected Kim might visit Russia — likely traveling to Vladivostok — by the end of the month.

Those rumors were confirmed on Tuesday when Kim’s green-and-yellow bulletproof train crossed the border from North Korea into Russia. As it turns out, that anonymous U.S. official was correct — Kim arrived at the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Vladivostok on Wednesday.

NPR reports that just hours before Kim was scheduled to meet Putin, North Korea launched two short-range ballistic missiles — even though Kim was out of the country — likely to demonstrate the country’s technological prowess.

And then Putin greeted Kim with a 40-second handshake — the AP was counting.

Of course, meeting at the cosmodrome was no accident. Reuters reports that the facility, in addition to being relatively close to North Korea, is Russia’s “most modern space rocket launch site” — and Kim got a full tour. (READ MORE: Ignoring Russian History Is Costly)

Some kind of agreement between the two countries involving arms would make sense. Russia needs artillery shells for its war in Ukraine, and North Korea has a stockpile of them, according to the Economist. Meanwhile, North Korea would love to be able to launch a satellite but has failed to develop the necessary technology. Russia, of course, has been launching satellites for years.

Any kind of deal that supplies Russia with more artillery could prove problematic for Ukraine. The Economist notes:

Ukraine has at least achieved parity with Russia in the artillery war, with both sides facing constrained supplies. But were Russia to receive an influx of ammunition, it would be able to pin down Ukrainian forces more effectively, slowing their advances even further and increasing the level of attrition in the coming winter months.

Ukraine’s response has been to mock the Russians’ decision to host its smaller neighbor. Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak wrote on X that “Moscow’s need to beg for help from North Korea is certainly a reason for jokes, a manifestation of Russia’s incapacity, and a verdict on Putin’s 23-year policy.” (READ MORE from Aubrey Gulick: Ukraine Doesn’t Want the Vatican’s Help Negotiating Peace)

The United States, Japan, and South Korea took a far more diplomatic approach. They issued a joint warning to Russia, reminding Putin that an arms deal would violate international sanctions against North Korea.

“All three countries expressed grave concerns over the discussions between the two leaders, which include topics related to military cooperation, including the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), despite repeated warnings from the international community,” the statement read.

Today, the Kremlin assured reporters that Russia did not sign any kind of agreement, military or otherwise, with North Korea this week. In fact, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov assured the West that there was never any plan to sign an agreement. Of course, the Kremlin’s statement doesn’t preclude the existence of an agreement — whether verbal or signed — prior to the Kim’s visit to Russia.