Putin and Kim are the odd couple with a dual mission – cementing a new world order

Putin and Kim are the odd couple with a dual mission – cementing a new world order

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They make an odd couple. One is smiley-faced and chubby. The other is thin-lipped and scowls a lot. Both are dictators, sinister, brutal and unaccountable in their different ways. Both have made it their mission in life to overturn the post-1945 global order, defying the US, its chief patrolman. And both are sanctioned, ostracised and a little bit feared by the countries of the west.

Those fears are likely to intensify after today’s Pyongyang summit, both symbolic and substantive, between this unofficial Laurel and Hardy tribute act. North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un – the plump one – and Russia’s Vladimir Putin – the skinny one – have a shared aim: consolidating their place in a bullish anti-western, anti-democratic alliance, ostensibly representing a “new world order”, reaching from China to Iran.

It was a gift to Kim. His idea of international diplomacy is to issue threats to acquire leverage he otherwise lacks. His efforts mostly revolve around test-firing ever-longer-range ballistic missiles capable of hitting the US’s west coast (as well as South Korea and Japan), and developing and miniaturising North Korea’s nuclear bombs and warheads.

Yet following the collapse of Donald Trump’s pantomime peace palaver with Kim in Hanoi in 2019, snail’s-pace talks with Washington and its partners on normalising relations, lifting sanctions and denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula ground to a halt completely. Kim drew the obvious conclusion and shifted tack. He is fully committed to the Moscow-Beijing axis. Now he’s backing Putin to the hilt in Ukraine.

North Korea recognised the Russian-occupied puppet republics of Donetsk and Luhansk in July 2022. And, according to the US and South Korean governments, Kim has provided Russia with dozens of ballistic missiles – debris from some of them has reportedly been found in the Kharkiv region of Ukraine – and over 11,000 containers of ammunition, containing millions of artillery shells. In return, or so western countries believe, Putin is helping Kim upgrade his nuclear, missile and space technologies.

This burgeoning relationship is about much more than weaponry. Putin spelled it out in an article published by North Korean state media. “We will develop alternative mechanisms of trade that are not controlled by the west, and jointly resist illegitimate unilateral restrictions [sanctions],” he wrote. “At the same time, we will build an architecture of equal and indivisible security in Eurasia [despite] US pressure, blackmail and military threats.”

Sanctions-busting has become a Russian speciality since 2022. In this area, too, it is offering tangible assistance. Having supported international sanctions on Pyongyang’s nuclear programme for years at the UN security council, Russia, post-Ukraine, has begun vetoing tougher measures and monitoring. Putin and Kim are instead nurturing “an unbreakable relationship of comrades-in-arms”.

Putin probably thinks this is all very clever. In fact, his Pyongyang-politik reflects a degree of desperation with significant potential downsides. While some biggish countries that should know better, such as India, Brazil, Saudi Arabia and South Africa, continue to sit on the fence on Ukraine, the overwhelming consensus at last week’s peace summit in Switzerland was that Russia is acting illegally and should withdraw.

Though he would never admit it, Putin is isolated diplomatically, and to a lesser degree economically, to a damaging extent. In years past, the idea of Russia (and before that, the Soviet Union) needing impoverished North Korea’s support would have been met with derision. Not now. It also says something about the weakness of Russia’s vaunted arms industry and war economy that it is so reliant on imported shells.

Another possible downside of Putin’s east-Asian power games is the dubious view taken by China, his vastly more important “no-limits” ally. Historically, Beijing has had a sometimes difficult relationship with its volatile neighbour, especially over its regionally destabilising nuclear threats. China’s influence can be greatly overestimated, notwithstanding North Korea’s energy and trade dependencies.

Last month, Kim reacted angrily to talks between China, Japan and South Korea on denuclearisation, calling them a “grave political provocation”. He has vowed never to give up his nukes. China understandably worries that a bilateral partnership of the type Putin is due to announce, based around nuclear weapons, could one day come to threaten its own security. Unending Sino-Russian amity is not guaranteed. There’s a history of strife there, too.

The Biden administration is fully aware of the negative strategic and geopolitical implications of deepening Russia-North Korea ties. But it has done little in practical terms to hinder the process. Since Trump, contacts with the North have been minimal. Visiting the demilitarised zone of Panmunjom in April, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, US ambassador at the UN, complained Moscow and Beijing were rewarding North Korea’s “bad behaviour” by shielding it from sanctions. Admitting a lack of US leverage, Thomas-Greenfield urged Russia and China “to reverse course and … urge Pyongyang to choose diplomacy and come to the negotiating table to commit to constructive dialogue”. But as his visit demonstrates, Putin, China’s leader Xi Jinping and Kim himself are simply not listening.

North Korea is but one piece on a much bigger 21st-century chessboard. As in Ukraine as in Gaza, the old world of pax Americana and an international order based on the UN Charter is dying before our eyes. In its place, a terrible travesty is born.

The Guardian