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Putin in Pyongyang

The Russian leader’s visit to North Korea is part of a complex maneuver

Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin meet in Pyongyang, North Korea, on June 19. Associated Press/Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service

Putin in Pyongyang
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This week Russian dictator Vladimir Putin visited North Korea. It was Putin’s first trip to Pyongyang in 24 years, and his sojourn seems inspired in equal parts by geopolitical need and historical nostalgia.

Russia has been increasing its support for North Korea, including missile and satellite technology and other illicit weapons, oil and gas, and money laundering. The two nations even signed what was described as a mutual security pact. This Russian empowerment of North Korea increases the risk to American allies South Korea and Japan, not to mention the United States itself. It is yet another example of Putin’s unrelenting hostility to America.

Russia in turn relies on North Korea for help with sanctions evasion, menial labor in its fields and factories, and—critically—rockets, artillery shells, and other ammunition for its very costly invasion of Ukraine. In that respect Putin’s trip reveals Russia’s weakness. He arrived in Pyongyang as a supplicant. Great powers normally do not rely on a gangster state with an economy one-third the size of Vermont’s for the supply of ammunition. Russia has squandered its stockpiles of artillery shells and lacks the industrial capacity to sustain its warmaking. Moscow now finds itself in the humiliating posture of relying on impoverished kleptocracies such as North Korea for basic munitions, just as it depends on Iran for supply of attack drones.

North Korea may sit on the margins of northeast Asia but it is also an integral part of a new geopolitical threat, what I have previously described as the “Eurasian Belt of Tyranny.” Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea have forged an axis of malevolent regimes spanning the Eurasian continent that are committed to supporting each other and undermining the free world. It is a formidable challenge, and the United States must recognize the interconnectedness of these threats.

North Korea is sometimes called “the world’s last Stalinist regime.” This is apt, as the former Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin literally created the nation of North Korea. At the end of World War II, as the price for his support of the American campaign to defeat Imperial Japan in the Pacific Theater, Stalin demanded as spoils the partition of the Korean peninsula and communist control of the northern half.

Stalin installed Kim Il Sung as North Korea’s first dictator. Kim Il Sung’s grandson Kim Jong Un is now the third-generation despot controlling the nation, making it the only communist regime in history to be ruled by a familial dynasty. It remains a surpassingly wicked dictatorship. Three generations of Kims have subjected the North Korean people to unfathomable torments, including famine, widespread torture and executions, and a nationwide network of concentration camps. North Korean Christians have especially suffered, as the regime seeks to extinguish any religious belief as a threat to its personality cult.

Putin’s errand to Asia this week suggests there may indeed be a limit to the Russia-China partnership.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union over three decades ago, China emerged as North Korea’s main patron. Though the Chinese Communist Party sometimes tires of Pyongyang’s mischief that destabilizes the region, Beijing has long made the cynical calculation that propping up the Kim dictatorship is a worthy price to pay for a pliant buffer state that prevents a reunified and democratic Korean peninsula.

Pyongyang both depends upon and chafes at China’s control. It is no surprise that Kim would welcome Putin’s visit and Russian resources as a way to tweak Beijing and diversify his patrons.

Something else in Putin’s Asia itinerary bears noting. That is the Russian leader’s upcoming stop in Vietnam. Here again are the echoes of the Soviet past. During the Cold War, the USSR was North Vietnam’s main supporter, a role the Kremlin continued after the communist North conquered the South and imposed communist rule throughout the nation. Putin’s visits to both Pyongyang and Hanoi represent his efforts to recapture what he sees as the glory days of the Soviet empire with its global client states.

Meanwhile Vietnam and China, despite both being communist governments, are historic rivals. Their enmity extended to a military clash in 1979 when China invaded Vietnam. That short war remains the last time the Chinese military engaged in battle. Vietnam today remains very wary of China, and the two nations are jockeying for power and territorial influence throughout Southeast Asia and the South China Sea.

Putin and Xi Jinping have infamously declared there are “no limits” to the new Moscow-Beijing alliance. It is indeed a formidable and worrisome pairing. The last time the two nations were this close was the 1950s, when the Kremlin served as Communist China’s main patron. Now the relationship is somewhat reversed, in that Beijing is the stronger partner in economic and military terms.

Yet Putin’s errand to Asia this week suggests there may indeed be a limit to the Russia-China partnership. Beijing no doubt sees Putin’s trip for what in part it is: a quiet effort to assert some measure of autonomy from China by renewing the Kremlin’s ties with North Korea and Vietnam. In the complex chess board of geopolitics, this is a small crack in the Moscow-Beijing axis that American strategists should watch—and consider ways to exploit.

William Inboden

William is a professor and director of the Hamilton Center for Classical and Civic Education at the University of Florida. He previously served as executive director and the William Powers Jr. chair at the William P. Clements Jr. Center for National Security at the University of Texas at Austin. He has also served as senior director for strategic planning on the National Security Council at the White House and at the Department of State as a member of the Policy Planning Staff and a special adviser in the Office of International Religious Freedom.

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