The Putin-Kim Summit Could Be an Inflation Point for East Asian Geopolitics – Barron’s

About the author: Seong-Hyon Lee is a senior fellow at George H. W. Bush Foundation for U.S.-China Relations and visiting scholar at Harvard University Asia Center.

Faced with diplomatic isolation, Russian Vladimir Putin is undertaking a significant geopolitical maneuver. He has reached out to North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, effectively ending Kim’s diplomatic seclusion and setting the stage for a strategic confrontation with the U.S.

The two met Wednesday for the first time in more than four years at the Vostochny Cosmodrome, a Russian spaceport, located about 950 miles from Vladivostok in Russia’s Far East. The two leaders’ public statements prioritized military cooperation. Kim said that his selection of Russia for his first overseas trip since the Covid-19 pandemic illustrated the “strategic significance” of their nations’ relationship.

This rapid fortification of ties between Russia and North Korea follows Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February last year. With the invasion dragging on and Putin grappling with a weapons shortage and diplomatic alienation, he has turned to North Korea, eager for its arms and ammunition supply. Conversely, Kim is capitalizing on this scenario to extract military and economic backing from Russia, bolstering his strategic position against the U.S. and its allies in East Asia.

At the 8th Party Congress of the Workers’ Party in 2021, North Korea outlined some of its objectives for the forthcoming five years: enhancing intercontinental ballistic missile technology, developing atmospheric re-entry capabilities, constructing nuclear-powered submarines, and fabricating large-scale nuclear warheads. These are ambitions that would all benefit from Russian technical expertise. 

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Kim’s comments during this week’s meeting emphasized a desire to deepen an understanding of “space power,” a sentiment Putin mirrored. Putin also confirmed to journalists that Russia would aid North Korea in satellite production, underscoring Kim’s evident enthusiasm for rocket technology. The meeting was also noteworthy for the attendance of “missile trio,” the three top men in North Korea’s missile program, highlighting the military-centric nature of the summit.

While North Korea may supply substantial armaments, Russia seems poised to furnish Kim with reconnaissance satellites and coveted nuclear-powered submarine technology. This potential exchange has spurred anxiety in South Korea, evoking fears of a renewed Cold War.

Kim’s choice of the Russian venue, symbolizing Moscow’s command over satellite and rocket technology, is a clear indicator of his intentions. Following the summit, Kim was expected to tour a manufacturing unit for Russia’s Su-35 and Su-57 aircraft and an adjacent shipyard focused on submarine and warship construction, aligning with North Korea’s current military upgrades.

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These visits mirror expeditions to the same sites by Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, in the early 2000s, suggesting a continuation of a family legacy. Soviet records show that Kim Jong-il was born in the village of Vyatskoye, near Khabarovsk, in Russia in 1941.

The historical relationship wasn’t always cordial. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the cash-strapped Russian government demanded that Pyongyang pay back in hard currency the money it owed the Kremlin, which soured the Russo-North Korea relationship.

Russian interest as well as influence in North Korea steadily declined in the 1990s, especially after Moscow established diplomatic ties with Pyongyang’s rival, Seoul, making North Korea feel betrayed. The relationship was partly restored in 2000 when Putin visited North Korea, the first trip of its kind by a top Russian leader.

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Today, dismissing the Kim-Putin summit as mere theatrics would constitute a grave oversight, as their mutual dependence has grown more existential than ever. Kim’s rhetoric emphasizes a shared struggle “against imperialism,” a thinly veiled reference to the U.S. That signals both symbolic and substantive unity between Russia and North Korea in opposition to Washington. The deepening cooperation between these two adversarial powers raises concerns about the potential ineffectiveness of current and future UN sanctions against North Korea. If this collaboration continues with Russia, and especially if China also joins, it could ultimately undermine the legitimacy of the U.N. Security Council, potentially leading to the erosion of the most prominent global governance system since World War II.

Should arms deals materialize between the two nations, existing strategies to counter North Korea’s nuclear program will falter, reshaping the security landscape in East Asia. Although sanctions have had some effect, a divided UN Security Council would erode the means to influence Kim’s strategies. An emboldened Kim might opt for aggressive, possibly deadly, shows of force. North Korea has already publicly threatened to deploy nuclear weapons during U.S.-South Korea military drills.

The North Korea-Russia summit heralds a potential pivot in the geopolitical stability of the region. A deal between the two could start small and then intensify, with significant repercussions. For instance, South Korea, currently facing threats from North Korea, has not been supplying lethal weapons to Ukraine. However, if the weapons trade between Putin and Kim Jong-un intensifies, South Korea might find itself in a situation where it has no choice but to modify its existing policy stance. If that happens, relations between Russia and South Korea will deteriorate, heightening tensions in Northeast Asia. This, in turn, could further escalate the confrontation between the U.S. and Russia, heightened by Ukraine, into East Asia.

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Another concern is the potential for tripartite military cooperation involving North Korea, China, and Russia, similar to the trilateral security partnership recently signed at Camp David between the U.S. and its two Asian allies, South Korea and Japan. 

All told, the writing on the wall hints at transformative shifts in East Asian geopolitics. If not handled well, this might be the starting point of the inflection point for a new Cold War-like global order.

Guest commentaries like this one are written by authors outside the Barron’s and MarketWatch newsroom. They reflect the perspective and opinions of the authors. Submit commentary proposals and other feedback to

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