‘A threat like no other': The West watches on with concern as Putin visits North Korea

Vladimir Smirnov | Afp | Getty Images
  • The Kremlin announced only on Monday that Putin would pay "a friendly state visit" to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) at the invitation of North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un.
  • Videos and images on social media platform X show roads in Pyongyang decorated with Russian flags and images of the Russian president ahead of his arrival.
  • One analyst said the relationship between Moscow and Pyongyang poses "a threat like no other" for the West.

As Russian President Vladimir Putin visits North Korea for the first time in 24 years on Tuesday, Western officials will be closely watching the two-day trip for signs of a closer military partnership between the nuclear-armed states.

The Kremlin announced on Monday that Putin would pay "a friendly state visit" to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) at the invitation of North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un, as ties deepen between the two leaders.

North Korea has not been shy in its outpourings of reverence for Putin, describing him as a "comrade-in-arms" in the battle against what both countries see as Western hegemony.

The country is certainly rolling out the red carpet for the Russian president's visit, with videos and images on social media showing roads decorated with Russian flags and images of Putin ahead of his arrival.

Ties between Russia and North Korea have deepened in recent years with the countries — which are both heavily sanctioned by the West — hailing their strategic cooperation in the spheres of defense and trade. On this trip, Russian officials have signaled that a "comprehensive strategic partnership" could be signed, without providing further details.

Geopolitical analysts at risk consultancy Teneo noted Monday that "the quid pro quo at the summit could be another round of advanced military technology transfers to the Kim regime in areas like missiles, spy satellites, and submarines, in violation of multiple UN Security Council resolutions."

Bad signs

Western officials will watch the two-day visit closely for signs that the partnership has advanced when it comes to security and defense.

U.S. State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller on Monday repeated the U.S.' assertion that North Korea had supplied "dozens of ballistic missiles and over 11,000 containers of munitions to Russia" for use in Ukraine, and that Putin's Pyongyang trip is aimed at getting more weaponry.

He said the U.S. had seen Putin "get incredibly desperate over the past few months" and look to Iran and North Korea to make up for equipment lost in Ukraine. "So I'm quite certain that that is what he's up to," Miller said, in comments reported by Reuters.

Analysts say the deepening relationship between Russia and "rogue" state North Korea is increasingly hazardous for the West.

"This relationship, deep in history and reinvigorated by the war in Ukraine, undermines the security of Europe, Asia, and the U.S. homeland," Victor Cha, senior vice president for Asia and Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), said in analysis Monday.

Describing Russia-North Korea military cooperation as a "threat like no other," Cha said that "amid front-burner issues like the wars in Ukraine and Gaza, the [U.S.] administration relegates this problem to the back burner at its own peril."

Cha, a former director for Asian affairs on the National Security Council, warned that Kim Jong Un was "likely to fuel Russian war stocks indefinitely," and there are particular concerns over what Putin will give in return.

The countries' relationship has advanced since the start of the war in Ukraine in 2022, with Pyongyang accused of supplying ballistic missiles and millions of artillery shells to Moscow for use against Ukraine. Both deny the charges, although U.S. military intelligence, UN monitors and Ukraine say there is evidence to the contrary.

In return for military hardware, analysts say Russia is likely providing the isolated North Korean state with food, fuel, financial support and military technology.

"Kim wants advanced telemetry, nuclear submarine technology, military satellite wares, and advanced intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) technology," Cha said. "Kim has also been expressing satisfaction with his nuclear submarine plans, which is a very bad sign. This aspect of the relationship not only destabilizes security on the peninsula and in Asia; it also heightens the direct threat posed by North Korea to the [U.S.] homeland."

It is unclear what further strategic cooperation between North Korea and Russia could entail. Ahead of his trip, Putin said the countries would work together to counter Western sanctions — imposed on Pyongyang for its nuclear weapons and missile testing program and on Moscow for, among other things, the war in Ukraine — and to establish independent transaction systems.

"We are ready to closely work together to bring more democracy and stability to international relations," Putin said in an article for North Korean state media outlet Rodong Sinmun.

"To do this, we will develop alternative trade and mutual settlements mechanisms not controlled by the West, jointly oppose illegitimate unilateral restrictions, and shape the architecture of equal and indivisible security in Eurasia," he said in the article published on the Kremlin's website.

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