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What do Russian and North Korean leaders expect to get out of their summit?

Ahead of his planned visit to North Korea on Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Russia would work with North Korea to develop a system of reciprocal payments and trade that is not controlled by the West and to counter what he called the West’s unilateral and illegal restrictions. In short, Putin emphasized the need to jointly respond to international sanctions and strengthen economic and political cooperation. In this column, I attempt to analyze Putin’s visit to North Korea.

The first point to be made is that Putin is the only Soviet or Russian leader who has ever visited North Korea. None of the Soviet leaders or former Russian presidents Boris Yeltsin or Dmitry Medvedev made such a visit. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had planned to visit North Korea in 1959, but his visit was ultimately canceled. This was Putin’s first trip to North Korea since he visited shortly after taking power in the summer of 2000, 24 years ago.

There are numerous records of North Korean leaders visiting first the Soviet Union and later Russia. In particular, North Korea’s founder, Kim Il Sung, resided in the Soviet Union from 1940 to 1945 and returned several times thereafter (1946, 1949, 1950, 1952, 1953, 1955, 1956, 1959, 1961, 1966, 1984, and 1986). In 1980, Kim even met with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev while attending Tito’s funeral in Belgrade, the capital of Yugoslavia.

Kim Il Sung’s son, Kim Jong Il, who was born in the Soviet Union, spent his early years in his birthplace before traveling to North Korea with his mother, Kim Jong Suk, in 1945. He visited his birthplace with the elder Kim in 1959, and later visited Russia in 2001 and 2002, as well as in 2011, shortly before his death.

Kim Jong Il’s son and current North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, has made two visits to Russia, in 2019 and 2023.

To be sure, Putin’s second visit to North Korea comes against the backdrop of the Russia-Ukraine war. Over the past year, North Korea has supplied artillery shells for the Russian military’s invasion of Ukraine, and those shells have served Russian gunners well.

For this reason, news outlets around the world have taken great interest in Putin’s visit to North Korea. It serves the interests of Putin and Kim to have their statements, claims, and speeches closely followed by a global audience.

What Putin’s visit could entail

When Putin visits North Korea, he is likely to lay a wreath at the Liberation Tower in Pyongyang. He will probably mention the “Korean patriots and the Soviet troops who fought for the liberation of Korea. The term “Korean patriots” is generally used in a Russian diplomatic context. The term originated in 1967, when North Korea claimed that Korea had been liberated from Japanese colonial rule by the Korean People’s Revolutionary Army.

In reality, there was no such formation in the Soviet attack on Japanese positions in East Asia in 1945, nor were there any examples of Koreans fighting alongside Soviet troops. Nevertheless, the Russians have adopted the term in an attempt to maintain diplomatic relations with the North Korean leadership.

Putin and Aleksandr Matsegora, Russia’s ambassador to North Korea, are also expected to lay wreaths before the portrait of Andrei Karlov at the Russian embassy. Karlov served as Russia’s ambassador to North Korea from 2001 to 2006, and was killed by an Islamic radical in Turkey in 2016.

Matsegora holds Karlov in high regard and has often been heard expressing admiration for his predecessor’s sacrifice. Putin could also use this as an opportunity to emphasize that Russia is the enemy of extremists.

Another variable worth remembering is the anniversary of the Korean War. North Korea has always commemorated June 25, the start of the Korean War, as a day of struggle against the United States and its “puppets” in South Korea, in line with the North Korean narrative that the Korean War was started by a South Korean military invasion. The North Koreans may even ask Putin to attend the ceremony. We’ll have to wait and see if Putin attends.

The agenda of Putin’s upcoming second summit with Kim is expected to be dominated by the Russia-Ukraine war. According to several sources and pieces of evidence, North Korea is shipping large amounts of ammunition to Russia in exchange for fuel and food. North Korea also reportedly hopes to obtain aircraft and missile technology from Russia. This has been reported by U.S. and British intelligence, and North Korean delegations have also shown interest in these areas when visiting Russia.

For example, I am told that a delegation from North Korea’s State Science and Technology Commission visited the Moscow Aviation Institute in May 2024. It is still unclear whether Russia will accept North Korea’s requests in this area. If Russia refuses, North Korea will continue to try to persuade the Russians. North Korea’s traditional diplomatic strategy is “salami slicing,” which refers to taking slow steps toward its ultimate goal.

The possible goals of the Russia-North Korea summit

While we cannot predict the outcome of the Putin-Kim summit, we can examine their respective goals. Putin’s main concern from 2022 until now has been his war against Ukraine. The Russian president considers this war more important than any other domestic or international issue. As a result, Putin’s main goal in the summit with Kim is likely to be to acquire as much quality ammunition for the war as possible at a reasonable cost. North Korean overseas workers, tourism and cultural initiatives are unlikely to be key topics at the summit.

Kim’s goal is to use Russia to reduce North Korea’s dependence on China. North Korea currently relies on China for nearly 90% of its trade; for Pyongyang, this gives China too much leverage. As a result, Kim will seek to increase cooperation with Russia.

North Korea’s main goal may be to revive its 1961 mutual defense pact with Russia. This would amount to a military alliance with Russia. Russia no longer has the military alliance with North Korea that existed during the Soviet years. But even if such a treaty were signed, it would be of little use to Russia. Moreover, Putin does not seem eager to further damage Russia’s relationship with South Korea. Thus, there seems to be little chance that Russia and North Korea will form a military alliance.

In analyzing North Korea’s relationship with Russia, it is important to consider how it fits into the trilateral relationship with China, which closely monitors cooperation between Russia and North Korea. Even before Russia attacked Ukraine, its diplomatic support for China was almost automatic, and Russia has become even more dependent on China since the outbreak of the war.

Therefore, the decisions that will be made at the Kim-Putin summit will almost certainly require China’s approval. China’s position and support are important elements in determining the scope of potential cooperation between North Korea and Russia.

Finally, some of the decisions made at the summit may be kept secret. Even if the summit ends without any major decisions being announced, we should not simply assume that no such decisions were made. In that case, our best bet is to wait for information to be released by the U.S. and British intelligence services. These countries’ intelligence can be trusted, given the high degree of accuracy of their claims about Russian diplomacy over the past two years.

Please send any comments or questions about this article to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.

Read in Korean

June 21, 2024 at 06:00AM

by DailyNK(North Korean Media)

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