Kim offers Putin ‘unconditional support’ in fight against ‘imperialism’

Sep 13, 2023, 6:50am EDT
Russia's President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un during a meeting at the Vostochny Сosmodrome in the far eastern Amur region, Russia, September 13, 2023. Sputnik/Mikhail Metzel/Kremlin
Sputnik/Mikhail Metzel/Kremlin via Reuters
Jenna Moon/

Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un met at a space station in Russia’s far east on Wednesday, agreeing to strengthen ties between their countries.

Kim pledged his “unconditional support” for Putin’s “sacred fight” against “imperialism” during the rare summit where the two leaders were expected to strike an arms deal.

Putin has reportedly offered to help Pyongyang launch satellites, while the U.S. and South Korea suspect Pyongyang may replenish Russia’s depleting ammunition and weapons supplies in its war with Ukraine.

The meeting is symbolic for the isolated North Korean regime: Kim has not met with another foreign leader since the pandemic began, Al Jazeera reported. "North Korea is one of the few countries to publicly support Russia in its invasion and war in Ukraine. Now Kim has stated that he considers this war a righteous endeavour, and he also said that North Korea is ready to stand with Russia, against imperialism," Al Jazeera reporter Florence Looi wrote. "We can take this reference as these two countries challenging the global world order."1 What remains unclear at this stage is whether the talks will result in an arms agreement, which the U.S. has warned Pyongyang against.2

Deepening ties with Russia marks a fundamental shift in North Korean foreign policy. Rather than working to normalize ties with the U.S. — as North Korea did for 30 years — Kim is looking further afield. "It appears that Pyongyang has concluded that long-term geopolitical trends call for a realignment with Moscow and Beijing as the most practical and probably safest path for North Korea to follow," scholars Robert Carlin and Siegfried Hecker wrote in Foreign Policy.3

It's unclear exactly what an arms deal with Russia would look like. The negotiation may encompass food or energy assistance, high-tech satellites, submarines, or missiles, Victor Cha and Ellen Kim, of the think- tank CSIS, told the Financial Times in a recent interview. "A Russia-North Korea axis complicates the security picture both in Ukraine and on the Korean peninsula," they noted. Ultimately, Kim likely aims to shift the balance of power in the region and possibly threaten the U.S.'s security.4

Putin's need to rely on Pyongyang signals Russia's growing isolation on the world stage. With Western sanctions and an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court severely limiting Putin's movement and ability to broker new deals, Kim is a "lifeline," Robbie Gramer and Amy Mackinnon wrote in Foreign Policy. "While Russia has always been uneasy with the prospect of a nuclear North Korea, its setbacks in Ukraine have forced the country to rethink its priorities," the authors said.5