On Tuesday, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s armored train arrived in Vladivostok, Russia, for a summit meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. This summit marks a dangerous turn for global and regional security and could have major implications for the Ukraine war.
This meeting also is the latest example of the serious deterioration of global stability since Joe Biden became president in January 2021.
After arriving in Vladivostok, Kim stated his strong support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and for the North Korean-Russian relationship. On the Ukraine war, Kim said “Russia is currently engaged in a just fight against hegemonic forces to defend its sovereign rights, security and interests.” Kim added, “We are confident that the Russian army and people will win a great victory in the just fight to punish evil groups who pursue hegemony, expansion, and ambition.” As talks with Putin began, Kim declared, “”I will always be standing with Russia,”
This is not the first time Kim has defied the international community on the Ukraine war. North Korea was one of only four countries to support the Russian invasion of Ukraine and has blamed U.S. meddling for the Ukraine conflict. Pyongyang followed Moscow’s lead in 2022 by recognizing the separatist Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent nations. On Oct. 4, 2022, North Korea recognized Moscow’s annexation of the Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk, and Zaporizhzhia regions of Ukraine.
On Sept. 5, 2022, Biden administration officials told the press that declassified intelligence indicated Russia was buying millions of rockets and artillery shells from North Korea to support its invasion of Ukraine. In November 2022, the Biden administration charged North Korea with covertly supplying Russia with a “significant” number of artillery shells. In December 2022, Biden officials claimed North Korea supplied the Wagner Group, a Russian mercenary group, with infantry rockets and missiles for the war in Ukraine.
This week’s Putin-Kim Summit may indicate that some or all of the above reported North Korean military aid to Russia did not occur.
The main purpose of the summit reportedly is Putin’s urgent need for ammunition for the Russian army to use in the war in Ukraine, especially artillery shells and anti-tank missiles. His army in Ukraine is in trouble and on the defensive. Russia’s stockpiles of ammunition have run low because of sanctions and its poor management of the war. Meanwhile, Western military aid to Ukraine is increasing, including advanced weapons, and Ukraine’s counteroffensive is making slow progress.
North Korea is believed to want food aid, hard currency, and fuel in exchange for its military support. Kim could also press Putin for advanced technology for its missile, satellite and submarine programs.
Putin might agree to any or all of the above requests by Kim. But there will be a limit to this new relationship. I believe Putin will not agree to provide North Korea with nuclear technology, given that he privately views Kim as an unstable megalomaniac who might use or proliferate nuclear weapons. Putin is not going to strike a deal with North Korea that could give it nuclear weapons with which it might attack South Korea, Japan, or the United States.
The Kim–Putin Summit may have other dangerous consequences for regional and global security.
First, Putin’s decision to embrace Kim could indicate that North Korea will regain with Russia the client-state status it had with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Russia ended this relationship after the breakup of the USSR because it could not afford it and was more interested in improving relations with South Korea and Japan. Although China stepped in as North Korea’s benefactor, and today provides significant energy assistance, its support of North Korea has been far less generous than what it received from the Soviet Union.
Although Russia has its own severe financial problems, North Korea’s economy is small and backward. Putin might have decided that the cost of supporting North Korea as a client and proxy state is in Russia’s interests, given how severely isolated it has become due to the Ukraine war.
Second, the Kim-Putin Summit may be part of a new Russia-China-North Korea axis meant to counter the United States and establish a new world order. The significant deterioration in U.S. relations with Moscow and Beijing over the past 18 months and during the war in Ukraine have driven these two states closer together and led to speculation that they could be forming a formal alliance. A recent joint visit by high-level Russian and Chinese officials to Pyongyang and press reports that there could be a joint Russia–China–North Korea naval exercise may also indicate these states are exploring a three-way alliance or axis.
The Kim-Putin Summit could result in Russia obtaining artillery shells and antitank missiles that will enable it to withstand Ukraine’s current counteroffensive until the fighting season ends in early November. Food assistance, hard currency, and missile and satellite technology from Russia to North Korea could significantly boost the stability of the Kim regime and provide the country with the capability to greatly expand its weapons programs and threaten the security of the Asia-Pacific region. North Korea probably is seeking Russian assistance to launch military reconnaissance satellites, which it needs to enhance the capabilities of its nuclear-armed ballistic missiles. Russian military support to North Korea also could lead to an expansion of Pyongyang’s arms transfers to other nations, especially Iran.
The Kim-Putin Summit and the possibility of a Russia–China–North Korea axis obviously are bad news for American and global security. They are the latest examples of how far global security has deteriorated under the presidency of Joe Biden. It is important to note that Trump’s personal diplomacy with Kim left Biden a stable situation with North Korea when he became president in January 2021. U.S. relations with Russia and China also were far better. The current North Korea situation is a direct consequence of the foreign policy failures of the Biden administration, a global perception of Biden’s weakness, and the Biden administration’s decision to ignore North Korea.
It also is no accident that the surge in North Korean missile tests and Putin’s invasion of Ukraine occurred after the disastrous U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan ordered by Biden.
After North Korea tested a record 75 ballistic missiles in 2022 and at least 20 missiles in 2023, and began preparations to conduct a seventh underground nuclear test, the Biden administration stated in July that it was prepared to conduct high-level diplomacy with North Korea on its nuclear program with no preconditions.
The Kim-Putin Summit probably indicates that the Biden administration’s change of heart on North Korea was too little and too late. Although Biden’s recent effort to build a stronger U.S.–South Korea–Japan alliance was a good initiative in response to growing provocations from North Korea, it probably is not possible at this point for the Biden administration to halt a possible surge in North Korean influence and power in the development of a dangerous new Russia–China–North Korea alliance.
There is no way that Joe Biden’s deeply incompetent and poorly regarded foreign policy can solve the mess that it caused. This situation proves once again that U.S. elections can have significant consequences for American and international security.
Author Expertise and Biography
Fred Fleitz is vice-chair of the America First Policy Institute Center for American Security. He previously served as National Security Council chief of staff, CIA analyst and a House Intelligence Committee staff member.