Putin and Kim Forge Stronger Ties

Partly to rile the U.S., Russia ships aid to the dictatorship

Kim Jong Un in 2013.

Photographer: Wong Maye-E/AP Photo

In his more than three years in power, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un has purged his government of rivals, forged ahead with the country’s nuclear weapons program, and, if the FBI is right, humbled Sony after it dared to mock him in a movie.

One thing Kim hasn’t done is travel outside of North Korea. Although his father, Kim Jong Il, was a regular visitor to Beijing, relations with China have been frosty since the December 2013 execution of the younger Kim’s uncle and onetime second-in-command, Jang Song Thaek, who’d been close to Chinese leaders. Asked on March 8 whether President Xi Jinping would meet this year with Kim, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi wasn’t encouraging. “When our leaders will meet will have to suit the schedules of both sides,” he said.

With the Chinese so standoffish, Kim is turning to another leader with a bit of a PR problem—Vladimir Putin. Russia wants Kim to make his first trip abroad to attend the May celebrations marking the 70th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany. Russia’s Foreign Ministry says North Korea has “given positive signals” about the trip, which would be the culmination of efforts to improve relations between the countries. The Russian government has promised to help build infrastructure in North Korea and increased shipments of coal, oil, and timber to the country. A new Russia-North Korea business council is promoting Russian investment. Both sides have proclaimed 2015 as Russia-North Korea Friendship Year.

Undergirding the emerging Moscow-Pyongyang axis is shared hostility toward Washington. Putin needs friends following the annexation of Crimea and intervention in eastern Ukraine. “Russia in its isolation has clearly been using North Korea as one way of poking its finger at the U.S.,” says L. Gordon Flake, chief executive officer of the Perth USAsia Centre at the University of Western Australia. North Korea last month vowed it was done talking with the Americans following President Obama’s remarks in an interview with YouTube on Jan. 22 predicting the regime’s collapse. “North Korea feels protected, potentially supported by the Russians,” says Leonid Petrov, a visiting fellow at the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific. Kim, he adds, has been “emboldened by antagonism between the Kremlin and the White House.”

Closer ties with Russia could provide a further boost to North Korea’s economy, which is showing signs of a rebound. There have been several good harvests, and the country is producing more food than ever, says Joel Wit, a senior fellow at the U.S. Korea Institute at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins. Statistics for North Korea are hard to come by, but anecdotal evidence suggests the quality of life in Pyongyang is better, with residents getting more consumer goods, says Charles Armstrong, a professor of Korean studies at Columbia University. The country “is in a stronger position than a few years ago,” he says. The economic situation, hardly good by most standards, “does appear to be more stable,” he says.

The North Korean nuclear program is moving ahead. SAIS published a report in February forecasting that North Korea could have as many as 100 nuclear weapons by 2020. “Their capability is becoming larger,” Wit says, “and that’s making them feel more confident.”

There are limits to what the North Koreans can expect from Russia. It’s not like the 1950s, when money was no object in Stalin’s support for North Korea founder Kim Il Sung. Putin’s Russia is a lot less generous, says Andrei Lankov, professor at Kookmin University in Seoul. Kim’s regime wants “cheap or free loans that are not going to be repaid, or investment which won’t pay profits in the foreseeable future,” Lankov says. “The North Koreans don’t understand that Russians are not going to spend significant money to annoy the Americans and the West.”

—With Sam Kim and Henry Meyer

The bottom line: Pyongyang is forging stronger ties with Moscow, giving North Korea’s stabilizing economy a further boost.

(Corrects the spelling of Kim Jong Un's name in the headline.)

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