Kim Jong Un is en route to Russia. His luxury armored train is heading north, presumably to the Russian city of Vladivostok. Citing US government intelligence reports, the New York Timesrevealed last week that Kim Jong Un was planning to visit Vladivostok where he would meet Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the Eastern Economic Forum, which kicks off on Sunday. The Kremlin confirmed today that Putin and Kim will be meeting in the coming days.
On the agenda: securing a deal in which North Korea would send munitions to Russia in exchange for weapons technology and food aid.
The two leaders have met before—in 2019. But the context and circumstances of this meeting portend a much deeper alliance between Moscow and Pyongyang.
In July, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visited North Korea to meet with Kim. Moscow was apparently searching for an ally — and access to North Korea’s vast stockpiles of munitions compatible with Russian artillery systems used in Ukraine. This was the first time a Russian Defense Minister set foot in North Korea since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and he reportedly delivered a letter in which Putin personally invited Kim to Russia. Weeks later, a North Korean delegation left for Russia to law the groundwork for a Putin-Kim summit.
There is now mounting evidence of an imminent arms deal between North Korea and Russia in which each side would benefit: Russia needs North Korean munitions; North Korea needs Russian missile know-how, and food. Putin and Kim may distrust each other, but for now their interests align.
Should this deal go through it would upend 15 years of diplomacy to forestall North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. The Korean Peninsula would suddenly become a much more dangerous place. And the United States would face an overt alliance between two adversaries whose nuclear weapons are pointed to the US homeland.
The Nuclear Implications of a Russia-North Korea Arms Deal
Both Putin and Kim have taken an increasingly cavalier attitude towards making nuclear threats. At the start of the Ukraine invasion, Putin explicitly invoked the specter of a nuclear conflict in order to scare off American and Western support for Ukraine. That obviously did not work, but these threats cannot be dismissed out of hand. The consensus among experts who analyze such things is that Putin may resort to nuclear weapons — potentially a tactical strike against targets in Ukraine — should he feel backed into a corner. That would end the 72 year taboo against using nuclear weapons and send human civilization into a dangerous new era.
Meanwhile, North Korea has been the only country in the world to test a nuclear weapon this century—having conducted six tests since 2006. The most recent test, however was five years ago, in 2017. This is the longest North Korea has gone with out a nuclear test since that first one in 2006.
This lull can at least be attributed to the unified international condemnation of North Korea following each of the tests, including from the UN Security Council. After each test, the Security Council has typically responded with tightening sanctions. In all, there have been no fewer than nine major sanctions resolutions since 2006 — all passed unanimously by the Security Council, including Russia.
Here’s the rub: If Moscow inks a deal with Pyongyang over the purchase of conventional munitions for its Ukraine war, Russia would be violating the sanctions it imposed on North Korea as a member of the Security Council. These sanctions expressly prohibit the import and export of weapons to and from North Korea. That a veto wielding member of the UN Security Council would be willing to violate its own sanctions resolution strongly suggests that no future sanctions would be imposed should North Korea conduct a seventh test in the near future.
“For 15 years we’ve built up a network of sanctions against North Korea to stop it from developing and trading in weapons of mass destruction,” Yang Uk, a research fellow at the Asian Institute for Policy Studies told the BBC. “Now Russia, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, could cause this whole system to collapse.”
This potential arms deal with Russia also comes at a time in which North Korea is undertaking an unprecedented series of missile tests. For the last year and a half, Pyongyang has launched over 100 such tests, most recently on August 30th in which it sent two mid-range ballistic missiles off its eastern coast. An increasingly jittery Kim Jong Un is feeling less and less constrained.
To be sure, the fact that Vladimir Putin is looking to North Korea for arms and ammunition is a sign of weakness. If he felt the war in Ukraine was on a surer-footing, he would not be compelled to form an alliance with someone as unpredictable and capricious as Kim Jong Un. But if this potential deal between the two leaders goes through, it would open up a new diplomatic order in which the past playbook for confronting North Korea’s nuclear ambitions is no longer operable. The sanctions were not perfect—but they were impactful. Without a unified Security Council there are fewer constraints on Kim’s actions.
A sanctions-busting arms deal between Russia and North Korea would grind to a halt cooperative international efforts on North Korea’s nuclear weapons development, with no real alternative in place. In those circumstances, a seventh North Korean nuclear test is eminently predictable — and would mark yet another catastrophic consequence traced to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
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