Kim Jong Un's Meeting With Putin Could Be Felt Around the World

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's visit to Russia is being touted in the West as a sign of desperation. The planned meeting in the eastern port city of Vladivostok is expected to focus on new military deals, with President Vladimir Putin apparently hoping Pyongyang's arsenals can help him wrestle some kind of success from his gambit in Ukraine.

"I think obviously it means that he is having trouble sustaining the military effort and so is looking for help from North Korea," State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller told journalists on Monday. "Not only has he failed to achieve his goals on the battlefield, but you see him traveling across his own country hat in hand to beg Kim Jong Un for military assistance."

Putin has few places to turn. While Ukraine is gathering advanced weaponry from its NATO backers—and awaiting the green light to receive hardware such as F-16 fighters and the MGM-140 Army Tactical Missile System—Moscow is relying on Iran for kamikaze drones, Belarus for armored vehicles, and North Korea for ammunition.

Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin Vladivostok
Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) is pictured with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in the far-eastern Russian port of Vladivostok on April 25, 2019. The two men are set to meet again this week amid Moscow's invasion of Ukraine. ALEXANDER ZEMLIANICHENKO/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

The Chinese government is yet to throw its full weight behind the Kremlin. Though Beijing appears to be pursuing a disingenuously pro-Russian neutrality, President Xi Jinping has not been willing to arm the neighboring autocracy.

An increasingly isolated Russia is being forced to turn to similar regimes. "Many Russian patriots will wonder why their mighty empire must come begging to a tinpot dictator," Frederik Mertens, a strategic analyst at the Hague Centre for Strategic Studies, told Newsweek.

New weapons exchanges will pose problems for Ukraine, but could also exacerbate tense relations elsewhere. Russia has reportedly agreed to arm Iran with fighter jets in exchange for Tehran's backing in its Ukraine invasion. A similar agreement with Pyongyang will cause concerns among East Asian democracies.

"Any increase in [North Korean] military capabilities will further fuel the arms race in the Far East, as it will push both South Korea and Japan to further increase their armed forces—especially the latter will seriously worry China," Mertens said.

Kyiv, meanwhile, will be warily watching developments as its troops seek a decisive breakthrough of Russian defensive lines in the occupied south of the country.

"Of course, there is concern about this visit," Oleksandr Merezhko, a member of the Ukrainian parliament and the chair of the body's foreign affairs committee, told Newsweek.

"First of all, North Korea is a close ally of our enemy and has recognized Russian-occupied territories. Second, if North Korea will start supplying munitions to Russia it will increase the risk for our soldiers and civilians. In fact, North Korea will become an accomplice in Russia's aggression against Ukraine."

"North Korea is a part of the axis of evil waging war against Ukraine. Among these countries are also Belarus and Iran. It's a sign of desperation that Putin has turned to North Korea for help."

Newsweek has contacted the Russian Foreign Ministry by email to request comment.

Guns and Shells

The demands of full-scale war are weighing on both Ukraine and Russia. Kyiv has become increasingly reliant on its Western backers, while Russia has been forced to delve deep into decades-old stockpiles and turn to weaker partners. Human and materiel attrition has been high.

Russian armor and artillery losses are thought to run into the thousands, and Moscow's guns have reportedly been muted in recent months due to a combination of logistical challenges and punishing Ukrainian counterbattery fire.

North Korea's legacy Soviet artillery corps may offer some relief. "The most important direct aid Kim can offer Putin is ammunition," Mertens said, as well as "replacement barrel liners and other artillery parts and artillery pieces." North Korean tactical missiles might also be a subject of discussions, Mertens said.

"Considering the vital role of artillery in the mostly static fighting in Ukraine, this will have its impact on the battlefield. How much depends on how much aid Kim will be sending to Russia. My estimate is that this might slow and possibly stop the growing fire inferiority of the Russian artillery, but I would be surprised if it could revert it."

Destroyed Russian howitzer in Kyiv Ukraine
A destroyed Russian self-propelled MSTA-S gun is pictured on Khreshchatyk Street in preparation for Independence Day on August 21, 2023, in Kyiv, Ukraine. Russia has suffered staggering human and material losses in its invasion of Ukraine Roman Petushkov/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images

Pavel Luzin told Newsweek that the Kim-Putin summit may do little to ease Russia's battlefield issues. "We don't know how much artillery [North Korea] has, and we don't know the quality of this artillery; it seems to be doubtful." Luzin is a Russian military analyst and visiting scholar at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Massachusetts.

Pyongyang, he suggested, "is incapable of helping Russia much. The number of the shells is limited, the quality is low."

North Korea possesses a large number of armored vehicles. "Russia desperately needs not only ammunition but heavy equipment," Oleg Ignatov, the Crisis Group think tank's senior Russia analyst, told Newsweek.

"Russia needs a supermarket where it can buy weapons right now," he added. "North Korea has a very good military industrial complex." Moscow is thought to be able to produce around 200 main battle tanks each year, a number that Ignatov said North Korea can come close to, despite being much smaller and poorer.

"North Korea is a logical choice" for weapon-starved Russia, Ignatov said. "It has solid standards, it has capacity to produce a lot, and it would be quite cheap."

"They can help them in terms of artillery. The tanks are not very modern, but Russia is already not using modern tanks on the frontline."

Missiles and Jets

Kim is not on a charity mission. "If Russia gets something from North Korea, it will not be for free," Ignatov said. "Russia will have to give something to Kim."

"North Korea is definitely interested in modern missile technology," he added. Pyongyang is pushing ahead with its hypersonic weapon technology, but Kim and his officials appear motivated to seek help from elsewhere.

Indeed, a state-backed North Korean hacking group was accused in August of repeatedly breaching computer networks at the Russian Mashinostroyeniya rocket development corporation.

"If Kim asks for missile technologies, I don't know how Putin would react," Ignatov said, noting the sensitivity of such technology. "But if he approves, of course, it will be a very bad evolution of this situation."

Mertens said the North Korean dictator "stands to gain a lot: direct aid to lessen the deprivation of North Korea's masses and Russian military technology. The latter is something he really craves as it will allow him to deal with the near block obsolescence of his conventional forces and enhance his nuclear forces."

Man watching North Korean parade in Seoul
A man watches footage of the North Korean ruling party's founding 75th anniversary day military parade released by Korean Central News Agency at the Seoul Railway Station on October 10, 2020 in Seoul, South Korea. Moscow is hoping to leverage Pyongyang's military might in its invasion of Ukraine. Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

North Korea's defunct air force could be a particular area of interest, Mertens added. "The [North Korean] air force still seems to have Chinese-built Ilyushin Il-28 and Shenyang F-5 aircraft in its roster; these aircraft belong in a museum of antiquities."

Any technological leap for North Korea will pose difficult questions for China, which since the 1950s has been Pyongyang's most important and influential foreign partner.

"I am really wondering how happy Xi is with these developments," Mertens said. "He probably prefers that Russia won't be defeated—although a post-war Russia that is even more beholden to China must seem a very tempting scenario—but Russia indirectly pushing South Korea and Japan to arm themselves further won't please him."

Ignatov concurred. "Are they interested in the development of a modern missile program in North Korea?" he asked of Beijing. Either way, he suggested that Kim will have his eye on challenging U.S. regional influence.

"I don't think they are interested in fighter jets, I think they are interested in the missiles," Mertens said. "Their main interest is to have such capabilities which they could use—or potentially use—against the United States, not only Japan and South Korea."

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