North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s rare expected trip to Russia sometime next week is sending loud alarms to government officials in South Korea and the United States, as Kim is seen pushing for an arms deal with President Vladimir Putin, a scenario that will complicate the already thorny geopolitical situation on and possibly beyond the Korean Peninsula.
Kim is now expected to travel from Pyongyang by armored train to Vladivostok on the Pacific coast of Russia, where he would attend the Eastern Economic Forum, set to run from Sunday to Sept. 13, where he would meet Putin, the New York Times reported, citing US and allied officials.
According to the officials, Kim wants to secure technology for satellites and nuclear-power submarines as well as food aid for his regime, while Putin wants North Korea’s artillery shells and anti-tank missiles for his war in Ukraine.
If the two agree to the technology-for-weaponry deal, it would pose problems for policymakers in both Seoul and Washington. South Korea does not want to see North Korea gaining advanced military technology, given its frequent saber-rattling through missile tests; nor does the US want Russia to find a fresh source of ammunition for the protracted war in Ukraine.
On Tuesday, the South Korean government expressed deep concern about Kim’s visit to Russia and possible arms negotiations, calling for North Korea to follow internal norms and peace. A senior official from the Unification Ministry was quoted as saying that the government “has raised the reminder that all member countries of the United Nations have a duty to comply with the UN Security Council resolutions.”
The Foreign Ministry in Seoul also called on UN member countries to abide by Security Council resolutions that ban such arms exchanges with North Korea.
But Kim’s second visit to the eastern Russian city, following one in April 2019, next week is speculated to play out in a way that may ignore the UN resolutions, as it often has done in developing nuclear weapons and conducting missile tests.
The US is now actively trying to prevent North Korea from providing Russia with weapons to be used in Putin’s war in Ukraine in exchange for Russian technology that will advance its own military weapons.
US national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Tuesday that negotiations in which Pyongyang plans to provide weapons to Russia are “actively advancing,” and the North “will pay a price” if it offers any lethal weapons to Russia.
Sullivan also said that Kim has expectations for high-level, including leader-level, engagement with Russia, mentioning that Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu made a trip to Pyongyang to ask for weapons.
Shoigu traveled to North Korea from July 25-27, a high-profile trip where he met with Kim and made a proposal of conducting a three-way naval exercise with North Korea and China.
The three-way military cooperation involving North Korea is exactly designed to counter the recently fortified tripartite alliance of South Korea, the US and Japan. Although China’s decision about such drills is yet to be confirmed, such a military exercise is expected to ratchet up military tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
While the US keeps mounting strong pressure on North Korea and Russia regarding the potential arms deal, Seoul’s government officials in charge of military and inter-Korean relations are required to consider drawing up more contingency plans, especially if Pyongyang gets what it needs to advance its nuclear weapons program and other strategic military assets.
Given that Russia badly needs additional ammunition for its war, Kim could use his meeting with Putin as a key leverage to secure a much-needed technical breakthrough for weapons programs, following the regime’s failed attempts to put its first military spy satellite into orbit and build its first ballistic missile submarine due to technical issues.
With a flurry of warnings about Kim’s visit to Russia swirling around, Seoul’s officials must carefully beef up cooperation with the US and Japan, while closely watching how the three-way military cooperation of Pyongyang, Moscow and Beijing unfolds.