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Putin’s North Korea visit about ‘more than pleasantries’

Seoul, South Korea — When North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visited eastern Russia in September, a big part of his mission seemed clear: look at as many Russian weapons as possible.  

During his highly publicized multi-day visit, Kim climbed to the cockpit of one of Russia’s most advanced fighter jets, examined nuclear-capable strategic bombers, and toured a warship in Russia’s Pacific Fleet.  

Russian President Vladimir Putin also gave Kim a personal tour of the Vostochny Cosmodrome, the country’s most modern space rocket launch site, where he acknowledged that Russia would help North Korea build satellites. 

Though the interactions underscored growing defense ties between Moscow and Pyongyang, no formal agreements were announced during the meetings, surprising some observers.  

But when Putin soon visits North Korea for the first time in 24 years, there may be more than just handshakes, according to some analysts, who say the two sides have likely been working to cement burgeoning military cooperation. 

“I would expect some sort of formal outcome from the visit, rather than an exchange of pleasantries,” said Alexey Muraviev, who focuses on national security and strategic studies at Australia’s Curtin University. 

Russian authorities have confirmed Putin’s planned visit but have not provided any dates. On Wednesday, South Korean authorities said the visit would likely occur in the next “few days.” 

On Friday, senior U.S. and South Korean diplomats held an emergency phone call about Putin’s impending visit. According to Seoul, both sides warned that Putin’s trip should not result in any violations of United Nations Security Council resolutions, which ban a wide range of economic and military interaction with Pyongyang. 

Ups and downs 

Russia has for decades been one of North Korea’s most important economic and military supporters, along with China. But ties have sometimes been rocky.  

As recently as 2017, Russia — a permanent, veto-wielding member of the U.N. Security Council — supported international sanctions in response to Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons advancements.  

Since then, Putin and Kim have found reasons to work together, as each wages their own campaign against Western influence. 

After walking away from talks with the United States in 2019, Kim has dramatically expanded his nuclear arsenal, which he says is aimed at deterring the United States and its regional allies.

Putin, meanwhile, launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, and has since fought Western-backed forces there. 

Shortly after Russia’s invasion, Kim became one of only a handful of world leaders to express explicit support for Putin’s war. 

Independent observers have found North Korean weapons, including missiles, on the Ukrainian battlefield, confirming U.S. government assertions that North Korea is providing Russia with munitions.  

The development is consistent with Russia’s increasing boldness about conducting activities that may explicitly violate U.N. sanctions, which Moscow says it now opposes. 

Putin’s visit 

Putin may still proceed cautiously in Pyongyang. He is not likely to fully or explicitly abandon U.N. sanctions, since Moscow has an interest in portraying itself as a responsible stakeholder that respects international law, according to Muraviev. 

Muraviev said Russia may “raise its middle finger to the West,” however, by continuing to gradually degrade U.N. sanctions against North Korea.  

“Russia is now under even more sanctions than North Korea, so if Russia violates the international sanctions regime, what can Russia suffer from more than what’s already been coming its way as a result of its aggressive actions in Ukraine?” he asked. 

Putin could also use his North Korea trip to underscore further support for North Korea’s satellite program.  

Since Kim’s visit to Russia, North Korea has conducted two satellite launches. Though its most recent launch failed, defense analysts said North Korea’s use of a new type of carrier rocket suggested Russian assistance. 

Though U.N. sanctions remain a significant restraint on Russia-North Korea cooperation, both sides may find economic ways to cooperate, such as sending North Korean laborers to Russia, said Artyom Lukin, a professor at Russia’s Far Eastern Federal University.  

“Russia has never said that it’s going to stop observing UNSC sanctions on North Korea. But you know, there are ways to manage some things like this — just look at China,” Lukin told VOA. “I think Russia might follow the same pattern in some ways.”  

Lukin refused to speculate about how exactly Russia may support North Korea’s weapons programs, but he acknowledged that Russia “seems to be the only major power which can provide some stuff which can make North Korea feel safe.”  

Lukin said it is impossible to know whether expanded Russia-North Korea cooperation will outlast the Ukraine war, but he hinted that longer-term interests were at play.  

“I think it’s fair to call the relationship between Russia and [North Korea] a de facto alignment,” Lukin said. “We don’t know yet whether this alignment will transition to a real alliance or not, but I wouldn’t rule it out.”  

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