Russia’s Putin, ‘desperate’ for ammunition, arrives in North Korea


SEOUL — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “warmly” embraced Russian President Vladimir Putin upon his arrival in Pyongyang early Wednesday morning and the two leaders shared their “pent-up inmost thoughts,” according to North Korean state media, setting the tone for a trip in which the outcast leaders of two heavily-sanctioned states will present a united front against the west.

Before his arrival, his first trip to North Korea in nearly a quarter-century, Putin thanked Kim for “firmly supporting” his war against Ukraine, fueling concerns the two leaders will use this visit to deepen their military partnership in the face of Western efforts to isolate them.

Washington and its allies have raised concerns about the growing military cooperation between the two states at a time when Moscow is hungry for munitions to use in its war against Ukraine. North Korea is believed to have a large stockpile of dated artillery shells and rockets that would be compatible with Soviet and Russian weapons systems used in Ukraine.

The State Department on Tuesday said North Korea had “unlawfully transfer[ed] dozens of ballistic missiles and over 11,000 containers of munitions to aid Russia’s war effort” in recent months.

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The trip highlights how dependent Putin has become on Kim as he shuns the West and seeks partners to support his war in Ukraine, said Michael McFaul, former U.S. ambassador to Russia.

“I think the fact that Putin has to come all the way to North Korea to pay his respects underscores how desperate he is for the ammunition he needs from North Korea,” McFaul said. “That is a giant reversal from 10 to 20 years ago when Putin was the powerful one. Now he needs weapons, and he needs Kim Jong Un, and he needs weapons for his war in Ukraine.”

As Putin stepped off his plane onto a red carpet, Kim greeted him with a handshake and a hug, according to footage captured by Russian media. The streets of Pyongyang were lined with Russian flags and banners welcoming Putin, Russian media videos show. Kim rode in his private car with Putin to the Kumsusan State guesthouse, where the Russian leader will stay, North Korean state media said.

Putin arrived with a large delegation of top government officials, including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, First Deputy Prime Minister Denis Mantrov, Deputy Prime Minister Alexandr Nobak and Minister of Defense Andrei Beloussov, according to North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency.

North Korea is scheduled to host a welcome ceremony Wednesday afternoon. Then the two leaders will have a “tete-a-tete during a stroll about the North Korean leader’s residence and a tea party,” Russia’s Tass news agency reported.

The two-day summit program will be “very intensive,” Yuri Ushakov, top foreign policy adviser to Putin, told state media on Monday. The two leaders are expected to hold meetings Wednesday on ways to strengthen their strategic cooperation on a range of issues, including security matters, according to Russian state media.

The two leaders are likely to deepen their efforts to counter U.S.-led sanctions and isolation of Putin over his invasion of Ukraine and Kim over his pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.

Putin made a nod to such efforts in an article published Tuesday in KCNA: “We will develop alternative trade and mutual settlements mechanisms not controlled by the West, jointly oppose illegitimate unilateral restrictions, and shape the architecture of equal and indivisible security in Eurasia.”

Putin’s trip reciprocates Kim’s visit to Russia’s Far East in September, when the North Korean leader called his country’s relations with Russia his top priority and pledged support for Moscow’s “sacred struggle” against Ukraine.

McFaul said Putin’s pivot to become closer with Kim reflects the Russian leader’s shift in how he views Russia’s role in reining in North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic ambitions.

“Earlier in his career, he still wanted to be a part of the international community of states … with regards to proliferation, that put Russia on our side when it came to North Korea,” he said. “That’s completely changed now. I think Putin has just decided he’s done being a stakeholder in the international community. … I think as long as he’s the leader of Russia, Russia has pivoted.”

The White House has repeatedly accused North Korea of sending “equipment and munitions” to Russia to replenish its dwindling supplies for the war in Ukraine, including ballistic missiles with a range of roughly 550 miles and missile launchers.

In addition, North Korea has a production capacity that would help Russia maintain its high ammunition burn rate as the Kremlin seeks to scale up domestic production.

These dynamics have given Kim a rare bargaining chip. It’s a reversal in their relationship, given North Korea’s history of military dependence on the Soviet Union, including in its Soviet-supported invasion of the South that sparked the 1950-1953 Korean War.

“This summit serves as both a testament to the current strength of the relationship between the two countries and a harbinger of an even stronger partnership in the future,” said Lami Kim, professor at Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu.

Kim added that the two leaders’ economic and military cooperation “will further undermine the effectiveness of sanctions against North Korea, enhance North Korea’s military capabilities, and elevate Kim Jong Un’s legitimacy to rule internally.”

The visit will also highlight the longevity of autocratic leadership in both countries: Putin last visited North Korea 24 years ago, soon after he became president for the first time, when the country was led by Kim Jong Il, the current leader’s father.

Their meeting has highlighted how China could respond to warming relations between Pyongyang and Moscow — what China might seek to gain from it or what it would do to do deter it. Chinese leader Xi Jinping stands with Putin and Kim in their objective of reshaping global power and ending the dominance of the United States in world affairs. But China does not want to see North Korea emboldened in its nuclear ambitions.

When Xi and Putin met in China in May, the two leaders agreed to hold “constructive dialogue” with North Korea on allowing Chinese vessels to navigate from the Tumen River to the Sea of Japan, or the East Sea, according to their joint statement.

Putin’s trip to Pyongyang, China hopes, could speed up discussions in this regard and pave way for trilateral development of the region, said Ba Dianjun, a professor of Northeast Asian Research Center at Jilin University.

“China raised the issue before, but it didn’t work out because our economies were developing at an uneven pace,” Ba said, explaining that Russia was concerned about this access giving China too much control in Northeast Asia while North Korea found it more profitable to lease port facilities to China. Ba’s views echo Chinese state media talking points.

“The world looks vastly different now, and we have restarted the efforts and are on the right track,” Ba said, pointing to a renewed interest in doubling down on regional economic cooperation as China, North Korea and Russia are all dealing with respective economic woes.

Lyric Li in Seoul contributed to this report.



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