Cosmodrome summit will likely lead to weapons-tech swap by N. Korea, Russia

Posted on : 2023-09-14 15:46 KST Modified on : 2023-09-14 15:46 KST
With remarks emphasizing cooperation and shared battles, the two international pariahs appear ready to circumvent sanctions to partner with one another
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (second from right) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) listen to an explanation of the Vostochny Cosmodrome’s space launch facilities ahead of their summit there on Sept. 13. Before the two are diagrams in both Russian and Korean. (Reuters/Yonhap)
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (second from right) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) listen to an explanation of the Vostochny Cosmodrome’s space launch facilities ahead of their summit there on Sept. 13. Before the two are diagrams in both Russian and Korean. (Reuters/Yonhap)

No joint statement, agreement or any other document came out of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s summit on Wednesday at the Vostochny Cosmodrome, a Russian spaceport. Nevertheless, Kim emphasized “strategic cooperation,” while Putin openly said he means to help North Korea with its satellite development, suggesting that the two countries made substantial headway in their discussion of military cooperation during the summit.

On Wednesday, Putin expressed eager willingness to reach a deal with North Korea to trade technology for munitions. When Russian reporters asked Putin prior to the summit whether he would help North Korea develop satellite technology, he said, “That’s why we’re here,” referring to the spaceport.

“The leader of the DPRK shows great interest in rocket engineering; they are also trying to develop space,” the Russian president continued.

North Korea attempted to launch military spy satellites in May and August, but both launches failed. In the May launch, the rocket carrying the Malligyong-1 satellite failed at the second stage or later, while the August launch was scuttled by an error in the “emergency blasting system,” presumed to be the flight termination system.

North Korea hopes that Russia, as a powerful player in space, will share some of its technological expertise in satellite launches.

“North Korean satellite launches are currently running into engine problems at a high altitude. There are several options here: Russia could provide appropriate ground-level equipment or could bring the engine home to run tests on it,” explained Lee Chun-geun, an emeritus research fellow at the Science and Technology Policy Institute.

North Korea plans to attempt another spy satellite launch in October.

Certain countries, including South Korea and the US, have been warning Russia that providing satellite technology to North Korea would be in violation of UN Security Council sanctions against the North, but Russia might be able to dodge sanctions on the grounds that satellites can also be put to peaceful use.

“There’s some reluctance in the international community about denouncing dual-use technologies such as satellites that have both peaceful and military applications. That’s likely to be the first area addressed in North Korean and Russian deliberations going forward,” said Choi Yong-hwan, a senior analyst at the Institute for National Security Strategy.

Russia expects to receive conventional weaponry, including artillery shells and ammunition, in exchange for giving North Korea satellite technology. A year and a half into Russia’s war against Ukraine, its stockpile of shells is running low.

An arms deal of that sort would be in contravention of UN Security Council sanctions resolutions.

When asked shortly before the summit whether Putin and Kim would discuss an arms deal, Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov said, “As neighbors, our countries implement cooperation in sensitive areas that should not become the subject of public disclosure and announcement.”

Also, Kim’s remarks about joining Russia in the “fight against imperialism” at a post-summit dinner with Putin are being read as signaling that North Korea will be lending its support to Russia’s war against Ukraine.

Kim was additionally quoted as saying that he had “no doubt that the heroic Russian army and people, the glorious successors of the traditions of victory, will convincingly demonstrate the invaluable importance of honor on two fronts: during the special military operation” — Russia’s term for the war in Ukraine — “and when building a powerful state.”

Explaining that he and Putin had discussed the political situation on the Korean Peninsula and Europe, he stressed that he believed his Russia visit would be an important occasion in transitioning the North Korea-Russia relationship into “unbreakable relations of strategic cooperation.”

This alluded to the possibility of a relationship in which Russia’s conventional weapons are exchanged for Russian advanced military technology.

The US warned of additional sanctions for North Korea and Russia if they engage in transactions involving shells and satellite technology. But Russia has consistently ignored this kind of pressure to date.

“Given that North Korea and Russia are both facing sanctions, the US-Russia relationship has worsened due to the war in Ukraine, and North Korea is on poor terms with both the US and South Korea, UN sanctions are unlikely to be a major issue,” assessed Kim Dong-yup, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies.

“The key takeaway here is that under these circumstances, the North Korea-Russia relationship has been dramatically upgraded,” he explained.

Russia does not appear very likely to deliver nuclear-powered submarine technology to North Korea any time soon. Major military powers like the US and Russia have been reluctant to provide key security-related advanced technology like nuclear-powered submarines even to their allies.

“Transferring advanced technology like nuclear technology would also pose a burden on Russia, which has stated nuclear non-proliferation as one of its key national interests,” said Choi Yong-hwan.

“The aim could be to develop the level of cooperation between North Korea and Russia in the future while observing the responses from South Korea and the US,” he suggested.

Another possibility is that joint military exercises between North Korea and Russia were on the summit’s agenda.

In remarks before the summit, Putin stressed the definite need to discuss matters of economic cooperation, issues of a humanitarian nature, and the regional situation. Economic cooperation is an important concern for North Korea, which is in a difficult situation economically.

During their summit, some of the matters that came under discussion included cooperation in the areas of transportation and agriculture, including the food and energy needed by the North.

TASS quoted remarks made by Putin in an appearance on Channel One Russia after the summit, in which he commented on projects related to transportation, distribution, railways, and roads. It also quoted him as saying Russia “has a great deal to offer” in terms of agricultural development.

Another possibility that has been mentioned is an expansion of transportation through a railway linkage between Khasan in Russia and Rajin in North Korea’s North Hamgyong Province. A project to achieve this was initiated in 2001 based on an agreement between the two sides’ leaders but has been suspended since 2013 due to North Korea’s nuclear testing and sanctions.

By Jang Ye-ji, staff reporter

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