An agreement between the two leaders will come down to Moscow offering Pyongyang the humanitarian aid it so desperately needs in exchange for the artillery shells Putin wants to continue his war in Ukraine.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will hold this month an unusual trip to Russia to meet with his old ally Vladimir Putin and discuss possible military aid for the Russian president’s war efforts in Ukraine, according to US officials.
The meeting between the two authoritarian leaders, which seems straight out of a Bond movie, is expected to strengthen cooperation between the two countries and help both Jong-un and Putin.
For one thing, Putin needs artillery shells for his invasion of Ukraine that North Korea has the capacity to produce, said Fyodor Tertitskiy, a researcher at Kookmin University in Seoul and an expert on North Korean history and military.
On the other hand, North Korea is in desperate need of food and humanitarian aid, as its isolation during the pandemic has led to devastating food shortages in the country, Tertitskiy said.
Weapons and humanitarian aid are expected to be the main topics on the table during the two leaders’ meeting. But what does this mean for Russia’s war in Ukraine? Can an agreement between North Korea and Russia change the speed or even the direction of the invasion?
“Nothing will happen” without Xi Jinping’s approval
Tertitskiy doubts even that the meeting between Jong-un and Putin will take place, and that, if it does, the two leaders will be able to reach a meaningful agreement.
“I’m not sure they will reach an agreement,” he told Euronews.
Tertitskiy believes that cooperation between Pyongyang and Moscow has a limit, a limit named after Xi Jinping, president of China.
“Nothing will happen unless Xi Jinping gives the green light,” he said. “But if it happens and they reach an agreement, it will be about the war in Ukraine.”
According to Tertitskiy, “North Korea’s goal will be to get at least something from Russia, because if you look at the real trade balance in 2022 it was zero,” he said. “North Korea is currently in great need of aid of various kinds, first and foremost food.”
Over the past 20 years, Russia has followed China’s lead on North Korea, with Putin backing Xi Jinping in his decisions on sanctions against Pyongyang.
North Korea also has no real trade relations with Russia, and despite its public support for the invasion of Ukraine and its recognition of Crimean independence in 2014, Pyongyang has not reaped any real economic benefits from siding with Moscow, Tertitskiy said. .
China continues to provide most of the economic trade that North Korea depends on.
Leverage and food in exchange for weapons
The trilateral coalition between North Korea, China and Russia against the West (and South Korea) that Kim Jong-un might be dreaming of has so far eluded him, as Beijing and Moscow maintain close ties and Pyongyang remains heavily dependent on Beijing measure.
Any meeting with Putin this month could be the North Korean Supreme Leader’s chance to gain some influence over a crucial ally and, indirectly, over Beijing as well.
What Russia needs in exchange for this humanitarian aid is ammunition for its invasion of Ukraine, and North Korea can produce it in “abundant quantities,” Tertitskiy said.
“North Korea has a huge military industry. They have lots and lots of things that the military industry makes all the time. And artillery is very important to North Korea, so I think they would probably supply some directly to Russia, especially considering that Russia is using quite obsolete equipment,” he said.
That means North Korean artillery – much of which is likely copied from Soviet ammunition – would be compatible with Russia’s obsolete Soviet systems and would not need complex adjustments. This, in turn, would help Russia replenish the artillery stock it depleted in Ukraine.
Tertitskiy believes that it is “unlikely” that an agreement between Pyongyang and Moscow will significantly change the course of the war in Ukraine, because North Korea’s willingness to help Russia will incentivize the West to turn to Ukraine more.”
But the brutality of the conflict could increase with the addition of North Korean weapons to the battlefield.