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Russian President Putin on a rare trip to North Korea for a 2-day visit

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Russian President Vladimir Putin is making a rare appearance in North Korea today. His two-day state visit and expected meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un comes as international concern grows over their military cooperation. And joining us now to talk about all this are NPR correspondents Charles Maynes in Moscow and Anthony Kuhn in Seoul. Charles, you're leading off for us here. So what can we expect on this trip?

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Yeah, sure, A. You know, this is not Putin's first trip to North Korea, but it certainly has been a while - 24 years, in fact, since he last stepped foot in Pyongyang. That was to meet with the previous generation of North Korean leadership, Kim Jong Il. Nearly a quarter century later, Putin will meet now with Kim's son, Kim Jong Un, as he mentioned. Now, Putin arrives in North Korea this evening, but the bulk of the talks happen Wednesday with Putin accompanied by top Kremlin officials from his defense and economic teams.

Advisers say there'll be some signing ceremonies focused not only on humanitarian needs and trade but also security issues. They'll also be exploring ways to find workarounds to western financial sanctions both countries face. Keep in mind, this trip was announced last minute, but it didn't come from nowhere. It's been anticipated for some time. Putin, in fact, hosted Kim in Russia's Far East last September and that's when Kim extended an invitation to Putin to come to Pyongyang. So this is a returned favor, so to speak.

MARTÍNEZ: OK, we're going to get to Anthony in just a moment for the North Korean perspective. But, Charles, given that nearly quarter of a century gap, I mean, why this interest now?

MAYNES: Well, the short answer is Ukraine. Russia's invasion of its neighbor changed the dynamics of the relationship with North Korea. They now have this shared struggle against the U.S. in particular. Kim wholly endorsed Russia's invasion of Ukraine, calling it a sacred struggle against Western imperialism. And this morning, Putin published an essay in North Korea's main newspaper in which he thanked Kim for, quote, "unwavering support" over the Ukraine issue. He also pledged much the same in terms of North Korea and its struggles against the U.S., for example, at the U.N. Security Council, where Russia holds a veto.

But the suspicion by the U.S. and its allies in Europe and Asia is that there's more going on here. They suspect that North Korea is providing Russia munitions for the war in Ukraine in exchange for Russian technologies that could aid North Korea's nuclear and missile weapons programs - in violation of U.N. sanctions, I might add. Now, Moscow and Pyongyang deny the charge, even as they seem to enjoy making their critics all very nervous with the prospect. Take, for example, last September, when Putin gave Kim a tour of Russia's Vostochny Cosmodrome in front of cameras and offered to help North Korea launch a satellite. Well, you know, the potential nuclear uses weren't hard to imagine there.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. Anthony, you're in Seoul. And you've been reporting recently on North Korea making a dramatic shift in foreign policy this year. So how does Vladimir Putin's visit fit into that?

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Well, North Korea has called its ties with Russia its top foreign policy priority, and this visit is intended to show that. That also implies that their traditional reliance on ally and neighbor China is no longer their top priority. And also, this year, they've dropped their goal of eventually reunifying with South Korea, and tensions along the border between the two Koreas have soared. Just today, North Korean troops actually crossed the border for the second time in two weeks. Now, that may have been an accident, but the South Korean troops fired warning shots and the Northern troops retreated. Meanwhile, North Korea continues to say it's not interested in talking with the U.S. They don't think they'll get anything out of it. On the other hand, they have not tested any nuclear weapons or long-range missiles. So it appears like they're trying to keep their powder dry and wait to see who takes office after U.S. elections in November.

MARTÍNEZ: OK, so but what does North Korea have to offer? And then what do they have to stand to gain in transactions with Russia?

KUHN: Well, South Korea's defense ministry says North Korea may have sent Russia up to 5 million artillery rounds and some short-range missiles, and they assume Putin probably wants more of these. Ukraine and the U.S. say North Korea has fired North Korean-made missiles into Ukraine this year, but the missiles were not of great quality. That gives North Korea a chance to get data and improve those weapons. So in exchange, Russia is believed to have provided food and fuel to North Korea, as well as help with their spy satellite program. They attempted a satellite launch last month, but that failed. So I spoke to Cho Han-bum, who's a senior researcher with the Korean Institute for National Unification, a think tank in Seoul. And he says that basically, these two sides see it as a convenient time for a transaction. Let's hear what he said.

CHO HAN-BUM: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: "The upcoming visit is likely to be a kind of political lip service," he says. "It may look flashy from the outside, but their relationship will be limited to what it already is, an exchange of North Korean ammunition for Russian flour, cooking oil, sugar and energy." And he adds that once the war in Ukraine is over, North Korea's importance to Russia will probably dry up pretty quickly. I assume that's something you may be hearing on your end in Moscow, Charles?

MAYNES: Yeah, you know, it's an interesting new dynamic here at play. Russia needs North Korea to a degree politically, but more importantly militarily right now because of the war in Ukraine. How long that dynamic lasts? Well, Russia certainly acts as though this wider conflict with the West, which is the context in which the Kremlin views the war in Ukraine, is generational. Either way, it's put North Korea, at least for now, in a rather unique position for a pariah state. It's being courted by a much more powerful country, Russia, and of course Pyongyang has its own wish list of what it wants. Now, the good news here is there may be limits to just how much Moscow is willing to offer in terms of cutting-edge technology. There are several reasons for that but here's the key one - Russia doesn't have a long-term interest in helping North Korea's nuclear program succeed if only because it doesn't want to see the Korean Peninsula, which borders Russia, after all, turned into a nuclear battleground.

MARTÍNEZ: Anthony, North Korea has talked about joining what it's called a new Cold War axis. First off, what is that, and is it something to worry about?

KUHN: Well, today, in both North Korean and Russian media, we saw this heavily ideological rhetoric about resisting Western sanctions and building a new, righteous, multipolar international order. And Kim Jong Un has called for his country to play a bigger role in an anti-U.S. bloc of nations in a new Cold War. The problem with this whole idea is that China and not Russia accounts for the largest share of North Korea's foreign trade, and China is definitely not interested in getting hit with the kind of sanctions that Moscow and Pyongyang are under. And that may be one reason that we're not seeing any Russian-Chinese-North Korea joint military drills, which Russia may reportedly want. And by contrast, the U.S., Japan and South Korea have held three-way drills to deter North Korea already and those are expected to become an annual event.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Charles Maynes and Anthony Kuhn reporting from Moscow and Seoul. Thank you both.

MAYNES: Thank you very much.

KUHN: Thanks, A.

(SOUNDBITE OF MADE OF OAK'S "PINEBENDER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Charles Maynes
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Anthony Kuhn
Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.
A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
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