Putin will head to North Korea as war in Ukraine redefines ties with Kim

Russian President Vladimir V. Putin will travel to North Korea on Tuesday for the first time in 24 years after vowing to take ties with Pyongyang to new heights and jointly fight what he called the United States' “global neocolonial dictatorship” .

The war against Ukraine brought Putin closer to the North's leader, Kim Jong-un, who gained new status in the Kremlin by opening his vast ammunition depots in Moscow.

Nine months ago, after Kim arrived by armored train in the Russian Far East, the two men met at a Russian cosmodrome and toasted their “sacred struggle” against the West. The North Korean leader, between visits to sensitive Russian missile and fighter aircraft facilities, invited Putin to pay a reciprocal visit.

Now the Russian president has accepted the offer. And the deepening relationship between the two authoritarian leaders represents a particular challenge for Washington. The United States once relied on Moscow's cooperation in trying to curb North Korea's nuclear and missile programs. Now it faces a Kremlin intent on acting as a spoiler for American geopolitical interests around the world.

Russian state media released footage showing large Russian flags and portraits of a smiling Putin along the streets of Pyongyang as North Korea prepared to welcome the Russian leader.

Before the trip, Putin issued an order authorizing the conclusion of a new “comprehensive strategic partnership” agreement with North Korea.

He also published an article in Rodong, the North's main newspaper, praising Kim for resisting “economic pressure, provocations, blackmail and military threats from the United States” and thanking Pyongyang for its strong support for the operations of the Russia in Ukraine.

Victory over Ukraine has been the guiding principle of Russian foreign policy for more than two years, and Putin's top priority during the trip will be to ensure North Korea's continued cooperation to help him achieve his goals on the ground of battle.

North Korea is one of the poorest and most isolated countries in the world, but it has one of the largest armies.

The exact extent of the North's military aid for Moscow's war is unclear. Many analysts say the contribution was significant, because the Russian military needs more and more ammunition in its war of attrition against Kiev. Russian forces have recently made territorial gains against Ukraine, in part because they are able to expend more ammunition.

In an interview with Bloomberg last week, South Korean Defense Minister Shin Won-sik said Seoul had tracked down at least 10,000 containers that could contain up to 4.8 million artillery shells being transported from North Korea to Russia . The Minister predicted that Putin would demand more during his trip.

Before Kim's visit to Russia last year, US intelligence reported that Moscow had purchased millions of artillery shells from North Korea. The United States has since accused Russia at the United Nations of firing several North Korean ballistic missiles at Ukraine.

But questions have arisen about the quality of the North's supplies. Officials in Kiev said that Russia launched about 50 North Korean ballistic missiles into Ukrainian territory last winter and that the failure rate of the weapons was high.

The burgeoning relationship with Moscow has already produced dividends for Pyongyang. In March, Russia vetoed the annual renewal of the 15-year-old UN panel of experts examining North Korean sanctions violations. The move highlighted the dramatic shift in Moscow's stance toward Pyongyang after years of playing a role in the country's U.N. disarmament efforts.

Before their mandate expired, U.N. observers verified that debris from the January attack on the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv came from a North Korean missile and said the weapons transfer had violated the U.N. arms embargo in Pyongyang, according to Reuters. The embargo prohibits the export and import of weapons.

Putin is unlikely to acknowledge any deliveries of ammunition or weapons during the trip. Russia has denied any military transfers that violate the UN embargo.

Kremlin foreign policy aide Yuri V. Ushakov told reporters at a briefing Monday that the two leaders would discuss energy, transportation, agriculture, economic and security issues during the trip.

Putin will also visit Vietnam later this week, underscoring the Kremlin's penchant for challenging American interests even in nations with which Washington has improved its ties. The Russian leader's trip comes after President Biden's visit in September.

Kim, whose grandfather came to power with Moscow's support in 1948 and founded North Korea, has steadily expanded his arsenal of high-end weapons and has increasingly sought the Kremlin's help.

Warming relations between Moscow and Pyongyang have led to a breakdown in international efforts to contain North Korea's nuclear and missile ambitions and raised questions about the future enforcement of sanctions.

Since the two leaders met last year, questions have persisted about what Kim received in exchange for supplying Moscow with much-needed ballistic missiles and artillery shells.

Among other things, the conflict has given Pyongyang a rare opportunity to evaluate the performance of its missiles in combat and potentially refine their designs.

North Korea would also welcome greater access to sophisticated Russian military technology, including its vast knowledge of satellites. Two months after Kim's visit to Russia last year, North Korea put its first military reconnaissance satellite into orbit, a launch that South Korean officials say was aided by technological assistance from Moscow.

Russia, which has the world's largest arsenal of nuclear weapons and one of its most sophisticated submarine programs, has a number of other technologies of interest to North Korea. Despite many years of disarmament efforts by Washington and the United Nations, Pyongyang has conducted six nuclear tests and developed intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the United States.

Isolated from the rest of the world due to international sanctions, North Korea has a number of needs outside of the military that Moscow could also help meet. South Korean officials said Russia, the world's largest grain exporter, supplies food and raw materials as well as parts for weapons production.

In the article published in Rodong before the trip, Putin said Moscow would support North Korea's fight against “the cunning, dangerous and aggressive enemy” by deepening economic relations and establishing a new system of trade agreements free from American interference.

Ushakov said Russia's trade with North Korea reached $34.4 million in 2023, nine times the previous year's amount. He said the summit will include a discussion on restoring humanitarian ties that have been suspended during the pandemic due to North Korea's strict rules.

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