On Wednesday, September 13th, 2023 North Korean leader Kim Jong Un traveled to the Vostochny Cosmodrome in eastern Russia to meet with President Vladimir V. Putin. This is rare for Kim, as he tends to limit his trips abroad, having traveled out of the country only seven times during his 12-year rule. After stepping off his luxury, slow-moving, and heavily armed locomotive, he joined Putin for a lavish six-course meal, during which they raised their glasses to “the strengthening of friendship and cooperation between our countries.” Kim even surprised the world by announcing his intention to extend his stay and extended an invitation for Putin to visit North Korea in the near future. Over the course of his visit, Kim explored an aircraft manufacturing plant, inspected warplanes, and paid a visit to a Pacific Fleet frigate alongside Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and the commander-in-chief of the Russian Navy, Admiral Nikolai Evmenov. North Korean state media reported that Kim had been “deeply impressed” by the “rich independent potential and modernity” of what he had seen, with both nations hinting at potential future cooperation in manufacturing.
This visit came at a particularly significant time due to the ongoing war in Ukraine. As Russian military resources have been strained by the war, they have turned to North Korea as a source for replenishing their artillery and ammunition. In turn, North Korea seeks to acquire essential supplies, including food, energy, and technology, which have been significantly depleted in recent years due to nuclear sanctions that isolated North Korea from the international financial system.
This recent visit and the friendliness between the two leaders have raised many concerns, especially in the US. Representatives from Washington have spoken up numerous times in the past week, reminding North Korea of the UN Security Council resolution which bans all arms transactions with North Korea. However, these warnings seem to have little impact on either leader; both have largely brushed them aside to continue their meetings. Dmitry Peskov, Press Secretary of the President of the Russian Federation, even fired back, saying that “the interests of our two countries are important to us, and not warnings from Washington.” In addition, Kim gave a particularly snide remark and backed Russia in its “great victory in the sacred struggle to punish the band of evil that aspires to hegemony and feeds on expansionist illusions,” a clear jab at the US.
These series of meetings have highlighted the fact that as tensions between the US and Russia rise due to the war in Ukraine, North Korea and Russia are inclined to form a stronger alliance to counter plausible animosity from the West. Their shared antipathy toward the US and its allies has led them to explore cooperation, particularly in sharing their expertise in satellite technology, rockets, and similar technology.
Russia and North Korea have a long history of cooperation, with the Soviet Union providing significant military support to North Korea’s invasion of the South during the Korean War of 1950-1953. Now that North Korea is returning the favor, this could cause significant stressors for the rest of the world. A strengthened alliance could alter the course of the Ukrainian War – bad news for Ukraine and its allies. As both sides are currently struggling to acquire new weapons, they have reached some sort of a stalemate. Yet, Ukraine has still managed to slowly advance in its counter-offensive; a revitalization of Russia’s missile stocks would jeopardize Ukraine’s hard-fought advances. This strengthened alliance could also cause risks for nuclear proliferation, given the unpredictability of both nations and their growing nuclear arsenals. Such a partnership could instill global fear, as it could easily escalate to a conflict that would eradicate humanity as a whole.
While there may be limited options for preventing this deepening alliance, the international community should stay on top of these exchanges and continue to warn both sides about previously imposed sanctions (such as the Resolutions 2094 and 2270, both passed after North Korean nuclear tests). The West should also provide increased backing to Ukraine to counter potential offenses. While Ukraine’s allies have offered verbal support, their humanitarian aid and military assistance have been sluggish and insufficient. A more proactive approach to defending Ukraine could send a clear signal to the world that the West and its allies possess a robust support system and military capabilities to counter potential threats.