Kim Jong un’s meeting with Vladimir Putin remains a strategic win for the former, in capitalising on Putin’s vulnerability and in sending a message to both Beijing and the West. Jong un actually has more options and more leverage over Moscow and Beijing, knowing that Moscow will need his weapons, and that the fulcrum of needs tilts towards the advantage of Pyongyang.
America’s heightened regional defence friendshoring, from the Camp David Summit to deeper presence in the Philippines, has further reinforced Pyongyang’s notion that Washington will never cease its target of upping the pressure on not only Beijing’s backyard, but with a closer eye to deterring Pyongyang. Moscow, sensing this inevitability, also capitalised by reaching out to Pyongyang with its offering of food and energy assurances, in return of greater long term returns.
Kim’s Brilliant Playcard
The key interest is in what gains could Kim extract from Putin, in the former trying to capitalise on the latter’s desperate need. Kim might press for a long term assurance in defence support, apart from the normal requests for satellite technology, food and energy aid. This might include greater high technology military assets including submarines and torpedoes, including advanced weapons and know-how in nuclear offensive weapons including nuclear armed submarines, all of which will be unlikely for Putin to easily commit, as the backfiring implications are simply too risky.
However, the very act of Putin extending the helping hand to Kim in the form of food and energy aid, this alone will indirectly help Kim’s nuclear modernisation and military enhancement course.
The global split over Ukraine and the bloc rivalry have emboldened Pyongyang, with Jong un finding a new voice and confidence amidst the new anti-West and anti-US bulwark, in which it can choose between Moscow or Beijing to latch up to.
Kim has always wanted to have a reliable fallback apart from depending on Xi. He is also cognisant of the fact that Pyongyang is critical for Beijing to maintain that vital buffer zone from the West, and Kim now has the leverage in offsetting Pyongyang’s predominant dependence on Beijing for food and economic aid.
Both have greater advantages in working together than being adversary, as both face the worst sanctions by the West. They have endured the sanctions for the longest of time, and they have built resilience and long term adaptation.
For Putin to choose a different venue to host Kim with the pomp and splendour given in Vostochny instead of being held in Vladivostok on the sidelines of the Eastern Economic Forum, shows the intent of Putin to honour and value Kim, and as a message to the West on the essence and perception of their ties.
The meeting is also used as a message to Biden that Kim is not impacted by Biden’s orientation and hardball approach,in mocking the administration’s clueless approach, unlike Trump.
Kim is cognisant that only Trump has the non-political baggage in changing tides and the recent moves are to force Biden’s hands and to shore up resilience in case of any escalatory moves from Biden before the potential comeback of Trump in 2024.It is to force his hands in toning down on the administration’s moves to continue the joint military drills with Seoul which continue to irritate Kim.
Although Kim was left red faced and deeply embarrassed by the second summit in Hanoi in 2019 with Trump that left him with no apparent deal to show amidst heightening hopes of economic relief or a much sought after breakthrough, he still sees Trump as the only rational leader that has the distinctive intent and strategic will to make a historic deal. Since 2019, Kim has lost faith in leaning on the US to make overtures or changes in orientation.
Denuclearization negotiations have stalled and sanctions are not working. Jong Un knows that Biden is preoccupied with Beijing and Moscow, and sees Beijing as the single most existential threat. Now is the time for Jong un to seize the moment and to capitalise on this.
Putin’s New Trusted Fallback Option
The meeting is used as a strategic platform for Putin to send a message to Beijing that Moscow still has options with Pyongyang, for arms support and that the no limits ties are not the be all and end all arrangement.
There are still wariness and future uncertainties, and Moscow dislikes being subservient to Beijing and continues to see Beijing as a potential future long term threat, underlined by past historical discord and a yo-yo trajectory in relations.
The risks of Beijing turning the table against Moscow is higher than Pyongyang. Putin’s offer of space assistance will provide Jong un with much needed push in his twice failed attempts to get a spy satellite into space this year. Putin wanted geopolitical clout and legitimacy in sending a defiant message to the West, more than weapons support alone.
Moscow can also rely on Pyongyang for a future conflict with Japan, especially over territorial claims and use Pyongyang as a leverage and as an added distractive capacity against both the West and potential additional combined weight of a new Asian NATO.
Putin is not really in a desperate need for Pyongyang’s weapons, knowing that putting these weapons to Ukraine war will only invite greater Western offensive and sanctions, but instead uses the meeting as a platform for greater long term alliance possibilities and fallback options, where Pyongyang is trusted more than Beijing.
Both Pyongyang and Moscow face similar realities and impact of the West’s economic squeeze and sanctions, as compared to Beijing who has greater secondary fallback options who does not really need Russia as much for food security and joint economic support.
The arms race is intensifying in Northeast Asia, led by both Tokyo and Pyongyang in upping their defensive and deterrence capacities and best preparing for the possibilities of the worst outcome. To Kim, for Washington to be steadfast in its strings attached demands of forcing Pyongyang to limit its weapons development and to give up its nuclear ambition amidst the new arms build-up by its neighbours, it will be both naïve and a reflection of Washington’s misplaced understanding and strategy.
Pyongyang still spends around 20%-30% of its GDP on its military expenditure, with rising weapons production rate and with an estimated stockpile of more than 100 nuclear warheads. The fact that it has never fought a full blown conflict means that it also has a massive amount of weapons and ammunition stockpile, an advantage where Putin is eyeing.
The visit to meet with Putin is also complementing its missile testing and launch strategy, which has gained steam this year, seeing how the Biden administration is getting back to the same old conventional hardline approach in handling Pyongyang with the usual precondition of complete denuclearisation.
Pyongyang has already fired 26 ballistic missiles and two space rockets so far this year. Last year, it fired more than 70 ballistic missiles, which remained a record.
The ties between Pyongyang and Moscow are not predominantly economic in nature, as there are nearly non existent money flows between the two and trade remains near zero, according to estimates from Seoul. Pyongyang is heavily reliant on Beijing for its trade income, accounting for over 95%. The cosying up to Moscow is also meant to seek ways to diversify and as a long term leverage and second front option for its economic assurances.
Beijing Remains the Worst Victim
Beijing remains the party that loses out the most, where Putin rolling out the red carpet for Kim further displeased Xi, as the latter has always wanted Kim to remain under its firm grip and obedience, with the predominant lifeline given to him. It is seen as a rogue move by Kim to choose Putin and Russia over Beijing as the first visit abroad in years.
Russia is resilient in terms of food security, with long term returns from its Siberian plank, and future trade advantages from its Northern Sea Route which will be crucial for Pyongyang.
However, Pyongyang can still rely on Beijing for food source, as a quid pro quo in giving Beijing security assurances in its eastern flank, through denying Western push and maintaining a buffer zone for Beijing.
Beijing will be wary of the West to use Pyongyang as a pretext to destabilise the region and jeopardise its critical buffer. The same fear is felt by Moscow, already cornered in the east by Japan and Alaska and the Arctic route by increasing US presence. Pyongyang is also critical in the same regard for Moscow as a buffer to mitigate Western presence and to keep Tokyo and Washington on their toes.
Pyongyang remains Beijing’s only ally in the east and northeast, besieged by Tokyo and Seoul and an ever present American presence.
In case of a Taiwan conflict, Beijing needs Pyongyang as a second front offensive power to distract the West and its containment force by using Pyongyang’s constant Achilles heel and its offensive capacity to threaten Seoul or Tokyo and by that, stretch the West’s capacity.
China is also wary that any eventual arms deal between Moscow and Pyongyang will result in further escalation of the Ukraine war which will further put Beijing in a prolonged dilemma, although it would have wanted the West to be distracted for a potential future conflict with Beijing. Any potential arms deal with Pyongyang might compel Putin to use it as a precedent in pushing Xi to do the same.
Beijing still hopes for playing safe and refuses to publicly take a side, in safeguarding its own future manoeuvrability and being wary of the risks of being too close or dependent on Putin which will backfire on Xi’s regional security plans. The Ukraine war has already impacted on Xi’s plans for Taiwan, with renewed and reinforced Western deterrent consolidation and with new quests and hopes for a mini or Asian Nato. Biden’s administration’s greater arms sales and pledges of defending Taiwan have irked Beijing and resulted in greater Beijing intimidation activities against Taiwan as a new normal.
Beijing’s bellicosity and growing pressure to act militarily have emboldened Tokyo’s hard power deterrence and with it toying with the idea of a future alignment or spearheading a move to either enlarge or militarise Quad or to lead the formation of a Asian NATO or expanded functions of current Nato boundaries.The Camp David pact is the final nail in the coffin for Beijing’s hope for any weakening of regional resolve and in continuing the historical divide between Seoul and Tokyo.
By strengthening Pyongyang-Moscow ties, it will threaten the long held conventional status quo of Beijing at the top of the hierarchy of pulling the strings on economic and security dictates and agenda, and this provides a two-pronged long term affront and threat to Beijing apart from dealing with the West. The tie-up in arms collaboration makes sense as Moscow desperately needs weapons, especially ammunition and artillery shells for the war in Ukraine, and Pyongyang has plenty of both.
The Ball in Washington’s Court
Washington must offer more than trying to sever dependence of Pyongyang to Moscow and Beijing alone to engage with Pyongyang. For Washington to ignore the right way to rein in Pyongyang as a direct threat or a threat to allies especially Seoul and Tokyo, or as a leverage to be used by Moscow and Beijing, will be at Washington’s own peril.
Although Moscow is keen on North Korean arms, with their compatibility with Russian weapons and military systems, any immediate impact will be limited. Pyongyang’s small arms and weapon munitions, even if eventually approved for transfer to Putin’s war chest in Ukraine, will not make a substantial and distinctive difference in the outcome of the war against the sustained, more lethal and technologically superior weapons from the West. The logistical barriers in moving these arms and weapons from the east to the west of Russia to Ukraine are another challenge that will take months, which makes any gains in the war, if any, to be negligible.
There is nothing substantial that the US can do to impose deterrence or costs to the Putin-Kim gestures, as current and future toothless sanctions are ineffective for both powers where they seem to have built an ingrained immunity and alternative fallback options to circumvent the implications of those sanctions without jeopardising their strategic intent and inner resilience.
In the current plateau of limbo and growing demise of tried and tested strategies of engagements in the past, Kim just had the opposite advantage than Xi, where the former now enjoys the privilege of time on his side, a growing momentum and greater fallback options with higher leverage and chips and cards in power plays and string-pulling than Xi.
The West will need new audacity in changing its playbook in dealing with Kim, as he now holds the ultimate card in helping Washington in both reining in Xi and Putin and creating the pinnacle of Western countermove in Indo Pacific by turning the Kim regime into its orbit which will effectively checkmate Beijing and in a large part, Moscow. A Trump return might escalate that prospect, or Kim might make the preemptive countermove to outsmart both Washington and Beijing by his next move to play as the kingmaker to the latter’s fate and the former’s Indo Pacific vision.