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  • Writer's picturePaul Hansbury

QUICK NOTES ON THE PUTIN—KIM SUMMIT

With his collar suits and Mao-styled haircut, Kim Yong-Un instantly conjures up a mental image of China. His South Korean counterpart, by contrast, usually opts for a western-style business suit. Their respective fashions serve as a not-so-gentle nod to the geopolitics of the Korean peninsula's division since the second world war.


Today Kim met Vladimir Putin at the unimaginatively named Vostochny Cosmodrome (Eastern Cosmodrome) in the far east of Russia. Kim, note, donned a tie for the occasion. It is reported that he is already on his armoured train and headed back home: it has been a brief visit, albeit the Korean leader's train journey looks somewhat interminable; it was a twenty-hour trip from Pyongyang, with a top speed of 30mph while on Korean tracks, a little swifter through China, and then a wheel-change for the 21-carriage train to deal with the wider gauge on the Russian network... And now back again.


Frankly, I think the summit's significance is far slighter than implied by the considerable media coverage it has received, and which has focused on the belief that the two leaders met to discuss military cooperation. Without irony, I shall add my thoughts.


Geopolitics and Korea


The geopolitics of Korea stretch back far further than its post-war division. East Asia is not really my area of knowledge, but a passage in Hans Morgenthau's Politics Among Nations has stayed with me over the decade or more since I read the book:


Because of its geographic location in the proximity of China, [Korea] has existed as an autonomous state for most of its history by virtue of the control or intervention of its powerful neighbo[u]r. Whenever the power of China was not sufficient to protect the autonomy of Korea, another nation, generally Japan, would try to gain a foothold on the Korean peninsula. Since the first century BC, the international status of Korea has by and large been determined either by Chinese supremacy or by rivalry between China and Japan.


Morgenthau proceeds to describe a long period of Korean subservience to China, the emergence of prevalent Japanese influence after the 1894-5 Sino-Japanese war, and Russia's efforts to muscle in on the peninsula in the ensuing decade. Russia's ambitions ended with its humiliating defeat in the 1904-5 Russo-Japanese war, one of the short-term causes of Russia's 1905 revolution. Russia, by now the Soviet Union, renewed its interests by supporting the communist North during the Korean war (1950-3). Since then -- a peninsula divided.


Russia and Korea today


Russian state media is unsurprisingly talking up the leaders' meeting. Moskovskiy komsomolets reports that the choice of venue is a 'frightening sign' for western states, invoking as it does missiles and rockets. The choice of venue 'hints' that Russia might help North Korea with improving the means for delivery of its nuclear warheads. Putin told media earlier today: 'Kim shows great interest in rocket engineering.'


On state television, meanwhile, presenters seem to be wrapped up in their frightened adulation for Putin and the war. On one talk show last night, I note, a guest praised the 'so successful' economic and political system of North Korea. That is, ahem, an unusual perspective. According to the World Food Programme, a UN fund, eleven million North Koreans are undernourished; that's roughly 40% of the population. It is known that North Korea had a famine in the 1990s, although secrecy means the details are sketchy -- but state policy is blamed for contributing to, and exacerbating, the crisis. Estimates of the number that perished range from 600,000 to three million (Alex J. Bellamy, 2015).


Russia can perhaps help to supply Korea with grain, with Putin telling media that agriculture was discussed, and it can indeed provide technological support. The two states have today announced cooperation on rocket and satellite production. The meeting also burnishes Kim's image as a world statesman.


Kim Jong-Un and Vladimir Putin in 2019 (from Kremlin.ru). Full credit at the end of blog post

Russians keenly praise North Korea's 'sovereignty', implicitly contrasting its state ideology (Juche) with western states who, so many Russians claim, have yielded sovereignty, in some cases to Brussels, but mostly to Washington. In return, Kim today lauded Russia's role in 'the struggle against imperialism' (this, in the fun-fair mirrors of global politics, is the kind of counter-imperialism that involves annexation and territorial expansion).


But if the gains for Korea are clear, that is less the case for Russia. Its group of friends these days is nothing to boast of and Putin's world has shrunk round him. His recent travels are as limited as Kim's, in part due to the risk of arrest (on the ICC warrant) and in part because he is, perhaps, nervous in the wake of Prigozhin's mutiny that his absence from Russia might encourage any domestic coup-plotters to strike.


In any case, it's hard for me to think North Korea's prospective support for Russia's war effort can amount to much of lasting significance. It is said Korea has stockpiles of 'tens of millions of artillery shells' and it is true that Russia could do with ammunitions support since it can only produce 2.5 million shells per year (a quarter of what it used up in 2022), but I can't see Korea handing over everything because of its own paranoia about security. And, while one might argue such support could prove crucial for sustaining a war effort in the short run, one cannot avoid the fact North Korea's production capabilities are relatively small.


Enter the dragon


One might speculate that China will backfill munitions Korea supplies to Russia and that is a possibility. More seriously, there are suggestions that the kernel of any agreement resulting from the talks isn't really about North Korea. The idea here is that Kim is simply providing cover for the Chinese to supply weaponry and ammunition. Although China refrained from giving Russia military support early on, it seems to be an open secret that it has stepped up its backing and it may well wish to 'push the envelope'.


Still, I think the idea China will use North Korea as a proxy for supporting Russia's war is unlikely. The main reason is that it would be difficult to conceal and discovery brings ramifications for China in the form of sanctions from the US and its allies. I've written in the past about China's dependence on the west for advanced microchips. Investigative journalists usually do a good job and I don't think China could keep its role a secret.


On the other hand, if Russia really does think it can benefit from deals with North Korea, then efforts by Russia to enhance cooperation are likely to rile China. As noted above, Russia has taken an interest in the Korean peninsula in history, but that was only possible when China's power was insufficient to shield Korea from others. China's hegemony may only apply in the top half of the peninsula today, but no one thinks China's power has weakened such that another actor could come in and take its place.


Ergo: the Russia-North Korean partnership is being overstated. I am prepared to be proven wrong.



The image shows the last summit between Putin and Kim, which took place in April 2019. Image credit: Kremlin.ru, cropped by user, used under creative commons licence 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=78329719

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