The frightening debt Vladimir Putin owes North Korea’s Kim Jong Un

Russia’s war in Ukraine has come at a great time for North Korea. While the U.S. would like the United Nations to punish the North with more severe sanctions for any and all intercontinental ballistic missile tests, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un can play up his great relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin and be sure that Russia will block any such move. 

On April 25, 2019, Kim and Putin met in Vladivostok, Russia’s far eastern port city. Since then, they appear to have been on better terms than ever, thanks to North Korea’s total support for the invasion of Ukraine.

Now it’s time for Putin to repay Kim for his rhetorical loyalty with the aid he badly needs. Putin could begin by providing North Korea with heavy weapons and spare parts. A top priority for North Korea is to repair and/or replace all those MiGs and other fighters, bombers and transport aircraft bequeathed Kim’s grandfather, dynasty founder Kim Il Sung, by the Soviet regime after the North Koreans invaded South Korea in June 1950.

The breakup of the Soviet empire in 1991 ended the flow of aid from the former USSR into North Korea. The most immediate effect was that Russia ceased accepting near-worthless North Korean currency as payment for a wide range of goods desperately needed to shore up the impoverished North Korean economy. Quickly, North Korea plunged into such dire poverty that as many as 2 million people starved to death or died from disease during what North Korea officially calls the “arduous march” of the 1990s.

You can blame North Korea’s worst suffering on Russia’s refusal to shower the regime with not only armaments but also many other items, including machinery for factories that soon were forced to shut down. Kim Il Sung died at the height of the crisis in 1994, escaping blame for starving his citizens while hundreds of thousands were also tortured, executed or sentenced to the “gulag” that he had established in his country’s forbidding, cold, mountainous northern reaches for showing the slightest disloyalty to his rule. His son, Kim Jong Il, was no less cruel during a reign that ended with his death in December 2011 and the rise of the third-generation heir, Kim Jong Un, to absolute power.

Now, with the Kim dynasty still firmly ensconced while the country sinks ever deeper into poverty, Putin should restore relations to where they were before the demise of the Soviet empire. In gratitude for Kim’s support, he may be expected to ship food and other goods into North Korea for nearly nothing, and he should leap at the opportunity to strengthen the 1.2 million-man Korean People’s Army, which includes all ground, air and naval elements.

Putin’s affinity for Kim, and vice versa, is affirmed by their mutual belief in threatening to nuke their enemies. While Putin has boasted of the power of his “nuclear forces,” Kim said much the same in an April 25 speech in Kim Il Sung Square celebrating the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Korean People’s Army.

His own nuclear forces must be “strengthened in terms of both quality and scale so they can perform nuclear combat capabilities in any situations of warfare,” according to the official English-language version released by Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency. He would focus on “developing the nuclear forces of our state at the fastest possible speed” — a warning that he has every intention of challenging South Korea’s President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol from the moment Yoon is inaugurated in Seoul on May 10.

Most frighteningly, Kim said he views nuclear power to be used as not merely “a deterrent” but “when a situation we are not desirous of at all is created on this land.” Nuclear force might be needed “to decisively accomplish an unexpected second mission,” he said, meaning if “fundamental interests” were violated. In other words, any pretext should do.

There’s no doubt that Kim has the nukes at hand. North Korea is believed to have fabricated at least 60 warheads while producing more of them at its main nuclear facility at Yongbyon, about 60 miles north of Pyongyang, and in underground facilities elsewhere. Kim ordered the North’s sixth, most recent, nuclear test in September 2017, and he is assumed to have a seventh test high on his “to do” list. At the parade before his speech, several intercontinental ballistic missiles were on dramatic display, including the latest-model Hwasong-17.

If Kim’s rhetoric seems abstract, Putin should still be glad to reward him with planes, artillery pieces and, most fearsome of all, the missiles and missile technology for striking North Korea’s near neighbors, Japan and South Korea. The need for more and better Russian planes and arms to bolster the North’s decaying, decrepit arsenal is all the more urgent considering that Yoon has made clear he’ll stand up to North Korea and do away with pleas for appeasement voiced by outgoing South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

Putin has just tested a long-range intercontinental ballistic missile, and the Russians know how to fire it with a nuclear warhead. The North Koreans are not believed yet to have figured how to fix a warhead onto the tip of their own ICBMs. Putin should be able to resolve that issue. Russian scientists, physicists and engineers may be expected to advise the North Koreans on technology that will deepen the confrontation on the Korean peninsula and bring the world ever closer to a devastating war in which millions might die. 

Donald Kirk has been a journalist for more than 60 years, focusing much of his career on conflict in Asia and the Middle East, including as a correspondent for the Washington Star and Chicago Tribune. He currently is a freelance correspondent covering North and South Korea. He is the author of several books about Asian affairs.

Tags ICBMs Kim Il Sung Kim Jong Un North Korea nuclear warheads Russia Vladimir Putin

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