Kim’s Russia jaunt offers an uncertain mix of substance, theater

SEOUL, South Korea — How many 152mm artillery shells could be bartered for a SU-57 stealth fighter bomber? How many days’ work by a company of North Korean laborers will get you an aid package of food and fuel? How many 122mm tactical rockets buy a satellite launch?

These may be some of the calculations underway on North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un‘s armored train as he and his delegation returned home from a closely-watched, unexpectedly expansive six-day traipse around Russia‘s Far East Monday.

It is unknown what deals, if any, were approved between Moscow and Pyongyang during Mr. Kim‘s trip, but Russian host President Vladimir Putin showed up for one-on-one talks and allowed Mr. Kim a peek at a vast array of military technologies at multiple sensitive sites.

North Korea’s state media portrayed it as a chance to strengthen the longstanding alliance and cooperation between the two nations, based on comradeship and military unity, and to initiate a fresh phase in their relationship.

The USSR helped establish the North Korean state in 1948 and aided it during the Korean War and afterward. But after the Soviet Union’s implosion, China took on North Korea‘s life support, supplying the isolated, sanctioned Kim regime with essential food and fuel.

Now, Mr. Putin, looking for friends and suppliers as his war in Ukraine drags on inconclusively, could offer Mr. Kim advanced weaponry and technology that could reset the peninsula’s military balance, and complete North Korea‘s “nuclear triad” deterrent. The opening to the Kremlin could also slash Mr. Kim‘s uncomfortable food and fuel reliance on Beijing.

For his part, Mr. Putin could gain masses of North Korea tactical ammunition and cheap, disciplined labor to work on reconstruction in occupied territories.

In a trip that lasted less than a week, Mr. Kim, who was becoming more isolated, demonstrated to Russians that they have allies who can resist Washington’s influence.

It is uncertain for those outside whether the visit signifies a potentially risky revived connection or merely a display of political performance. Nevertheless, the initial feedback from Seoul and Washington is predominantly negative.

Packed agenda

A fawning Russian state media showed the visitor — dubbed “Comrade Kim” — hobnobbing with Mr. Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. Mr. Kim was seen avidly touring the Vostochny satellite launch complex and a factory producing SU-35 and SU-57 warplanes. He also visited an airfield where nuclear-capable Tu-160, Tu-95 and Tu-22M3 bombers are stationed, and was shown a Russian MiG-31, a supersonic interceptor that can carry hypersonic missiles.

He embarked on a frigate from the Pacific Fleet in Vladivostok and was given a demonstration of missile launch controls. He toured a food factory, interacted with North Korean technical students, and managed to attend a ballet performance and explore an aquarium.

Russian news outlets reported that he left the country with new drones, next-generation military uniforms — reportedly invisible to thermal imaging — and possibly even a new Russian limo. Mr. Putin and Mr. Kim exchanges matching gifts — a pair of rifles.

Even a scene of Mr. Kim‘s bodyguards carefully sanitizing his seat before his sit-down with Mr. Putin was followed with fascination. State TV talk shows, translated by YouTube channel Russian Media Monitor, had discussants gleefully toting up the headaches for the Biden administration coming out of the summit.

“I am unable to reword this text.”

Mr. Miryazan referred to Mr. Putin’s suggestions of providing space technologies to Mr. Kim as “Level-80 trolling.” However, some individuals expressed the belief that transferring technology could be possible soon.

“I cannot reword”

Mr. Mikheyev applauded Pyongyang‘s resistance to pressure from the U.S. and its allies.

“The weakness of North Korea lies in its low living standard, but paradoxically, it also serves as its strength,” he further stated. The U.S. “is unable to take any action against these individuals.”

However, certain international analysts expressed doubt regarding the potential scale of the weapons exchanges, considering the security needs of both countries.

Alex Neill, a security expert at Pacific Forum, questioned whether North Korea’s offer to assist Russia is genuine or merely a show to cater to anti-U.S. sentiments. He also highlighted the importance for North Korea to prioritize its own security concerns in the peninsula.

Chun In-bum, a retired South Korean general, warned that Pyongyang‘s arms complex should not be underestimated.

“He stated that they have a workforce of 2 million individuals diligently producing weapons and other valuable items.”

Rising fears

If, as suggested by Mr. Kim’s schedule and some analysts in Seoul, Moscow provides advanced aircraft, Pyongyang could complete its “nuclear triad” – systems for launching on land, at sea, and in the air – to hinder any attempt to neutralize North Korea’s nuclear weapons in a conflict.

Mr. Chun expressed his disagreement, stating that he believes North Korea would not be interested in having the triad. He believes that ground-launched and sea-launched options are sufficient for their objectives.

But Russian supply of cutting-edge kit could overturn long-held strategic assumptions under which North Korea boasts mass and atomic arms, but prosperous South Korea wields high technologies.

“He further stated that there exists a compilation of items that could potentially be acquired by the North Koreans. These items encompass highly sophisticated technologies capable of significantly altering the military equilibrium in the Korean peninsula.”

North Korea and Russia have a common border, which facilitates covert transfers. Online transmission of technical blueprints is possible, while missile components can be transported with less visibility compared to fully assembled missiles.

Daniel Pinkston, an international relations expert at Troy University, acknowledges that there is a significant imbalance in the wish lists. Many individuals argue that these desires are unrealistic or mere fantasies. However, Pinkston emphasizes the importance of considering intangible and abstract factors in this context.

Certain cooperative modes may not receive official approval.

“He mentioned that they have the capability to provide technical training and pilot training. Russia has the potential to supply them with jet fuel for such training, which would not be subjected to sanctions since it would be conducted within their own country.”

The visit comes as a shock to the Biden administration, as their attempts to engage in direct discussions with Pyongyang have been harshly rejected by the Kim regime.

Independent experts have warned for decades that Washington‘s goal — North Korean denuclearization — was unrealistic given the security needs and paranoia of the North Korean leadership. Pyongyang, they said, would never melt its “sacred sword” of atomic weapons.

After the Ukraine war started, China and Russia have prevented the U.S. from imposing additional sanctions through the U.N. Security Council, which has weakened its effectiveness. As Russia appears willing to challenge certain norms in its interactions with Mr. Kim, American diplomats may need to reassess the balance of power in the region.

Ankit Panda, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment, stated in Foreign Policy that this could lead to a significant reassessment of the United States’ strategy towards North Korea, marking a major shift after many years.