North Korean leader Kim Jong Un appears to be using this week’s much-heralded summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin to tighten his control over a country struggling with international sanctions and a pandemic-stricken economy, analysts said.
Putin and Kim met on Wednesday at the Vostochny Cosmodrome, a rocket launch facility in the Russian Far East, for their first summit in more than four years.
North Kores’s official Korean Central News Agency said Putin and Kim vowed to strengthen “strategic and tactical cooperation” without providing details.
Concern over arms deal
Washington suspects Pyongyang may supply Moscow with munitions for its war in Ukraine in return for help from Moscow in overcoming critical barriers to building intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear-propelled submarines, and military reconnaissance satellites.
After the meeting, the U.S. warned North Korea against supplying arms to Russia.
“No nation on the planet, nobody should be helping Mr. Putin kill innocent Ukrainians. And if they decide to move forward with some sort of arms deals, well, obviously we’ll take a measure of that, and we’ll deal with it appropriately,” White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters on Wednesday.
Analysts, however, say Kim might be looking for more than technical assistance in his weapons programs.
Seong Ok Yoo, a former South Korean intelligence official who extensively dealt with North Korea, said Kim is trying to use the summit as a propaganda tool to elevate his image globally while seeking greater internal unity.
“Kim seeks international recognition. He believes he can push the U.S. to soften its attitude toward him by touting his presence,” said Yoo, who played a key role in an inter-Korean summit in 2007.
“He wants to ensure the U.S. takes him seriously,” Yoo added.
Jong Dae Shin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said using an international event as a tool to rule a country is a long-established practice for members of North Korea’s ruling Kim dynasty.
For a country like North Korea, which has been isolated for many decades by heavy sanctions, the dog-eared ruling strategy has served the regime by re-enforcing loyalty and devotion among the citizens, according to Shin.
Shin said Kim seems to follow the path of his predecessors.
For Kim, a serious opportunity to enhance his standing came in 2018, when he started rapprochement with a series of summits with the leaders of China, South Korea, and the U.S.
Kim’s summit diplomacy culminated in the historic meeting with former President Donald Trump in June 2018 in Singapore, at the time hailed as a possible path to peace on the Korean Peninsula.
The two leaders met in February 2019 in Hanoi for their second summit, but they failed to reach an agreement.
Analysts say recent geopolitical developments, including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the U.S.-China strategic competition, give Kim another chance to elevate his image.
Accoridng to them, Kim sees a golden opportunity to advance his country’s weapons programs with few repercussions and increase its leverage with Russia and China, which are at odds with the U.S.
In 2022, North Korea conducted a record number of missile tests in violation of multiple U.N. sanctions.
The U.N. Security Council, however, failed to act because of objections by Russia and China, which have veto power.
In December 2017, the council passed tough sanctions against North Korea in response to the launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile by Pyongyang with the support of Russia and China.
Yoo believes North Korea’s leverage with Russia has increased because of Moscow’s confrontation with Washington over the war in Ukraine.
“There is a reversal of position from the previous summit,” said Yoo, referring to the summit between Russia and North Korea in April 2019.
Then, Kim turned to Putin for diplomatic support following the failed summit with Trump but now Russia, hungry for ammunitions, is reaching out to Kim, according to Yoo.
“In 2019, Kim had no choice but to rely on Putin to break out of diplomatic isolation. Now, Kim is in the driver’s seat,” said Cho Han-Bum, senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification.
International news coverage of the latest summit between Putin and Kim underscored the lavish welcome Putin prepared for the North Korean leader.
Some South Korean news outlets reported that Putin, who is known for showing up late for meetings with foreign leaders, waited for Kim for 30 minutes at the meeting venue.
The Associated Press reported that Putin greeted Kim with a handshake of about 40 seconds.
North Korea state media hailed the summit as a “new milestone” for the development of relations between Pyongyang and Moscow.
This week’s summit took place as North Korea appears to be facing severe food shortages.
Elizabeth Salmon, the U.N. special rapporteur on North Korea’s human rights, told a Security Council meeting last month some people are dying “due to a combination of malnutrition, diseases and lack of access to health care.”
In March, South Korean lawmakers briefed by the country’s main intelligence agency told reporters there was a surge of deaths from starvation and suicide due to acute food shortages.
Intae Kim, a former North Korean defector who is now the chief research fellow at the Institute for National Security Strategy (INSS), a think tank run by South Korea's National Intelligence Service, said Kim has pursued a policy of pushing economic growth and expanding nuclear development simultaneously since he took power in December 2011.
While the North Korean leader has advanced the country’s nuclear program, his economic plan has completely failed, according to Kim.
Cha Du Hyeogn, principal fellow at South Korea’s Asan Institute, said Kim is trying to send a message to his people with the latest summit that he is working hard to salvage the country’s economy crippled by sanctions, the pandemic and natural disasters.
Kim’s decision to ride a slow train for his journey instead of a short flight might be an attempt to send the message, according to Cha.
“The train ride reminded me of his journey to Hanoi,” said Cha, referring to Kim’s second summit with Trump.
At the time, Kim took a 60-hour train trip for the summit.
“Kim might have intended to promote an image of a leader who would be willing to take a long journey for his people,” said Cha.