By Max S. Kim
The latest summit between Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un, held in the Russian Far East on Sept 23, has stirred up security concerns and interests for the global community.
The concerns are mostly about the potential impact of any serious military and technological deals between the two men on the progression of the current world affairs, amidst the continued war between Russia and Ukraine, China’s military preparations to take over Taiwan, and the political coup underway to depose South Korea’s Yoon Administration as orchestrated by China and North Korea.
But in many ways, this hastily arranged summit was tainted by a number of anomalies, which raise interesting questions about the two men’s mindset and the true relationship of the two countries. What are the gains and losses of this summit for Putin and Kim? What further developments are expected from this summit for the world-stage politics and the geopolitics in the region in particular?
The most bizarre happening at the summit was North Korea’s overreaction to the chair Russia prepared for Kim. Kim’s security guards inspected the chair and meticulously cleaned the chair as if they suspected hidden deadly poisons awaiting Kim. That diplomatic nonsense merely showed how little North Korea has trusted Russia. The anti-Russian sentiment goes all the way back to Kim’s grandfather, and the Kim family has regarded Russia as an exploitative partner.
What then urged Kim to meet with Putin at an impromptu summit without sufficient pre-summit negotiations and agreed-upon agendas? No signed agreements came out after their 4-hour summit, which included Kim’s tour of the Russian spaceport. That indicates that they had no state-level agendas for the summit. Rather, the way the summit was arranged by Russia revealed much about what Putin aimed to gain from it.
Putin’s exploitation of Kim’s frustrations
North Korea repeatedly failed their landmark satellite launches in recent months, which has made Kim shocked and desperate and his only pride nosedived into the ground. Furthermore, the South Korean and US military analyzed the retrieved debris of the North Korean rockets and discovered that the satellite rockets were worthless for any military use. The rocket engine’s designer reportedly committed suicide when this discovery was announced, and Kim got furious at the lies about the rocket’s mechanical flaws that made him blind to the reality.
Surely, Putin has not failed to notice that. For Putin, the timing of the summit was important since it was just one week before the General Assembly meetings at the UN this year. He would want to use the summit as a way of sending out a political threat to the West such that Russia’s military cooperation with North Korea would not only crush Ukraine’s ability to continue the war but would jeopardize world peace as well. Indeed, right after his summit with Kim and just before the start of the UN meetings, Putin offered Zelensky a ceasefire in return for certain deals he suggested.
Putin’s invitation of Kim for this summit had focus rather on Kim’s tour of Russia’s aerospace facilities and naval fleets with nuclear submarines, since Putin knew that would attract Kim’s keen interests.
Russia’s military cooperation with North Korea?
Will there be any substantial military and technological deals between the two men? The answer to that question is negative, however, for three important reasons.
First, what can Putin get from Kim for their military cooperation? Very little other than combat supplies such as ammos, bombs, and some anti-tank shells. But the quality may be questionable since those are decades-old stockpiles kept after the Korean War. Putin would be more interested to receive North Korean soldiers as a mercenary army, send them to the combat fronts, and save the Russian lives. But that also would face uncertainty since it is difficult to know how North Korean mercenaries, if sent at all, would behave in the Ukrainian combat zone. Would they fight bravely to death for Russia or take the opportunity to surrender to the Ukrainian forces and flee from Kim?
Second, North Korea’s collapsed economy is impossible to fix. Without external supplies of energy and foods, a quarter of its nationals will starve to death within a year or so. How can Kim pay for Sukhoi-17 fighter jets and nuclear-powered submarines, even if Putin is willing to sell them against the UN security measures and sanctions on North Korea?
North Korea already closed down most of their air force bases since the maintenance was beyond their ability for lack of money and fuel. How can Kim afford to build top-of-the-line launch pads for satellite rockets, like the one seen at the Russian spaceport in Vostochny Cosmodrome, even if Putin offers rockets as his gifts to Kim?
Third, Putin’s main political interest is the West, not the Far East. It is unclear what he can gain by having military cooperation with North Korea, a country already on the brink of collapse and supporting its dictator? Russia and North Korea share borders in the Far East. Thus, giving advanced military technology to North Korea would only serve to threaten Russia’s own security.
It seems an interesting episode already foretold the shadowed outcome of their summit. Putin invited Kim to take a seat in his Russian-made armored Aurus limousine that is worth at $192M. But his kindness had a nuanced message. It was like asking how poor North Korea would meet the Russian expectations for any state-level deals?
The summit’s foreseeable aftermath for the future of North Korea
On the other hand, it appears that Putin opened a can of worms for Kim, whether he intended it or not. Kim did not rise to the throne as a battle-hardened warrior but was raised as an immature king inside a castle. What his impatient and impulsive behavior would bring to his nation from this moment on is well worth watching.
During his tour of the Russian military facilities Kim looked like a kid lost in a luxury toy store. Upon his return to home, Kim would certainly demand his men to develop an aerospace program that will produce advanced missiles and good satellite rockets. But does North Korea have the technological capabilities and economic strengths to achieve the goal?
The nation’s priority must be given to the starving populace and not to a fantasy of the madman. But unfortunately, Kim is surrounded by a bunch of political thugs and corrupted military men as a result of his rampant purges of many patriotic aides who voiced concerns for the nation. If the regime’s experienced diplomats were saved, they would have cautioned Kim not to fall for this Russian political showcase.
If Pyongyang fails to restrain their dreaming dictator, they will soon see the consequences, pushing the regime to collapse and extinction. While that should be good news for the global community, North Korea’s sudden collapse would bring chaos to the region if South Korea and its allies are unprepared to handle the aftermath. The Chinese intervention would be a certainty as Xi Jinping has turned his eyes to war profit in order to cope with China’s collapsing economy and bolster his power over his political dissidents.