Putin on his way to North Korea with weapons and war support top of the agenda

Vladimir Putin has left Russia and is on his way North Korea for a rare trip to meet Kim Jong-un, in a sign of deepening ties between two of the most sanctioned nations on the planet.

The Russian President has left Russia’s far eastern region of Sakha for North Korea after stopping off there for a few hours en route to his summit with Kim Jong Un, the regional news outlet 14news reported.

The two-day visit to the country, where he is set to sign a security deal, will be the Russian president’s first visit to North Korea in 24 years.

Russia and North Korea have intensified ties in terms of trade and co-operation since the invasion of Ukraine in 2022. Russia is struggling to source weapons and key technology components from elsewhere after the West imposed far-reaching sanctions, while North Korea, under heavy UN sanctions over its nuclear weapons and missile programmes, is taking advantage to extract money, food and probably military technologies from Moscow.

The two leaders are expected to sign a co-operation deal during the visit, part of a strategy to lend each other “political legitimacy”, experts said, which is likely to intensify confrontation with the West.

“It’s a show of solidarity and strength against the unilateral sanctions imposed by the West,” Callum Fraser, research fellow in Russian and Eurasian Security at the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi), told i.

He said the threat posed by North Korea in relation to the war in Ukraine was “nominal”, with its real danger lying in the possible consequence of a Moscow-Pyongyang alliance. “The true threat is characterised by the potential of what [the Russia-North Korea alliance] could be,” he said. “Russia has tried to deconstruct the non-proliferation agreements affecting North Korea. There is potential that Russia could help North Korea build nuclear weapons.”

Martin Smith, senior lecturer in defence and international affairs at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, said the motivation behind the Russian visit was “primarily political and diplomatic”. “[It is] to remind international and Western audiences that Russia is not isolated and indeed is developing its own network of partners and allies.”

In comments published in North Korean state media before his arrival, Mr Putin said he appreciated North Korea’s firm support of his invasion of Ukraine. He said the countries would continue to “resolutely oppose” what he described as Western ambitions “to hinder the establishment of a multipolarised world order based on mutual respect for justice”.

“We will build an architecture of equal and indivisible security in Eurasia,” he wrote in an article published by North Korea’s state-run Korean Central News Agency.

(FILES) This pool image distributed by Sputnik agency shows Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un (L) shaking hands during their meeting at the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Amur region on September 13, 2023, ahead of planned talks that could lead to a weapons deal with Russian President. Russian President Vladimir Putin will travel to North Korea on June 18, 2024, in a rare visit that may see Moscow sign a
Vladimir Putin and North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, at the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia in September 2023 (Photo: Vladimir Smirnov/AFP)

He also vowed support for Pyongyang’s efforts to defend its own interests, despite what he called “US pressure, blackmail and military threats”.

Faten Ghosn, professor and head of the University of Essex’s department of government, said the visit was an “elaborate and strategic move” to challenge Nato’s position across the world, and expand Russia’s influence in the “global south” in particular.

She pointed out that after visiting North Korea, Mr Putin would go on to visit Vietnam, a US ally, in a bid to build further support.

“We should not see these things in isolation,” she said. “They are trying to present an alternative vision which they say is going to provide respect for national sovereignty.”

Mr Putin said Russia and North Korea would develop unspecified trade and payment systems “that are not controlled by the West” and jointly oppose sanctions against the countries, which he described as “unilateral and illegal restrictive measures”. He added that the countries would also expand co-operation in tourism, culture and education.

Mr Fraser said he would avoid calling the countries’ relationship an alliance, saying it was based on a “transactional basis”.

“Russia doesn’t really have any allies to speak of- they build relationships through providing something of value,” he said. “To China it’s providing cheap fossil fuels, with North Korea it is a bit different.

“Russia has more to offer, but the reason this relationship started is because of North Korea’s massive stockpiles and capability to produce munitions. I’d say it’s more a transactional relationship in material and political terms.”

Military, economic and other exchanges between North Korea and Russia have sharply increased since Mr Kim visited the Russian Far East in September for a meeting with Mr Putin, their first since 2019.

US and South Korean officials have accused the North of providing Russia with artillery, missiles and other military equipment to help prolong its fighting in Ukraine, possibly in return for key military technologies and aid.

This week the US State Department repeated charges that North Korea had supplied “dozens of ballistic missiles and over 11,000 containers of munitions to Russia” for use in Ukraine.

The Department of State’s spokesperson, Matthew Miller, said Mr Putin had become “incredibly desperate over the past few months”, and was looking to Iran and North Korea to make up for equipment lost on the battlefield.

But both Pyongyang and Moscow have denied those associations.

The BBC has reported that South Korea’s first vice foreign minister Kim Hong-kyun and Kurt Campbell, the US deputy Secretary of State discussed the trip in an emergency phone call last week.

Mr Campbell told his South Korean counterpart that Washington supports Seoul’s stance that the visit should not result in a “further deepening of military cooperation between Pyongyang and Moscow in a way that undermines regional peace and stability in violation of UN Security Council resolutions”.

Russia and China have both provided cover for Mr Kim’s attempts to advance his nuclear arsenal, repeatedly blocking US-led efforts to impose more sanctions on North Korea over its weapons testing.

In March, a Russian veto at the UN ended monitoring of its sanctions against North Korea over its nuclear programme, prompting Western accusations that Moscow is seeking to avoid scrutiny as it buys weapons from Pyongyang for use in Ukraine.

Moscow’s ties with North Korea weakened after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, though Mr Putin has consistently sought to rebuild those ties in recent years.

On Tuesday at the North’s border with South Korea, soldiers from the South fired warning shots after North Korean soldiers temporarily crossed the border.

South Korea’s military said 20 to 30 North Korean soldiers briefly crossed the military demarcation line that bisects the countries as of 8.30am. It said the soldiers retreated after the South broadcast warnings and fired warning shots.

The South also fired warning shots on 11 June after another of North Korean soldiers briefly crossed the Military Demarcation Line.