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Opinion: Putin and Kim forge closer ties, resuscitating a defunct Stalinist alliance

Part of a welcome for the United States-Soviet commission on Korea on their arrival in Pyongyang on July 23, 1947, was this parade of Korean communists carrying huge portraits of Josef Stalin and Kim Il Sung. The commission visited Pyongyang, 165 miles north of Seoul, for the purpose of getting views of political groups on the prospecting.
U.S. Army Signal Corps
/
AP
Part of a welcome for the United States-Soviet commission on Korea on their arrival in Pyongyang on July 23, 1947, was this parade of Korean communists carrying huge portraits of Josef Stalin and Kim Il Sung. The commission visited Pyongyang, 165 miles north of Seoul, for the purpose of getting views of political groups on the prospecting.

Sergey Radchenko is the Wilson E. Schmidt distinguished professor at the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He is based at SAIS-Europe, in Bologna, Italy. His new book, To Run the World: The Kremlin’s Cold War Bid for Global Power, was published by Cambridge University Press in May.


When in September 1990 Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze traveled to Pyongyang with the news of the imminent Soviet recognition of South Korea, North Korea’s dictator Kim Il Sung was so angry that he refused to receive him. Instead, in a testy meeting, Shevardnadze’s counterpart, Kim Yong Nam, read out a litany of complaints. The Soviets, he charged, were trying to discard their erstwhile ally like a pair of “worn-out shoes.” But they would not get what they want. North Korea, he said, would not follow East Germany’s path toward dissolution and reunification. Instead, Pyongyang would build a nuclear bomb to make sure that it could resist external encroachment.

Shevardnadze took this criticism in stride. It did not really matter. In his view, North Korea was a grim, bankrupt, Stalinist tyranny that seemed destined for the garbage bin of history. South Korea — glittering, bustling and open — was so much more attractive as a partner.

If anyone told Shevardnadze that in 2024 North Korea would be one of Russia’s few allies, actively helping it reconquer a neighboring country, he surely would have thought the idea utterly absurd. And yet, Russian President Vladimir Putin is in Pyongyang this week, working hard to build up his axis of tyrannies.

Kim Il Sung’s grandson, Kim Jong Un, is playing the courteous host. For the first time in the troubled history of Moscow-Pyongyang relations, he has become an equal partner. He no longer feels the need to beg the Russians. Putin is there to attend to his wishes, and, in turn, grasp a helping hand.

Kim the grandfather, in his time, was completely subservient to Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. He had to beg Stalin to allow him to invade South Korea. After months of hesitation, the Soviet dictator signaled his agreement in January 1950. As I show in my new book, To Run the World, Soviet spies intercepted American cable traffic suggesting that the United States would not intervene in Korea. Stalin presently felt reassured that his gamble would succeed.

It didn’t go well. The North Korean invasion of the South or, as Putin now conveniently calls it, Pyongyang’s “patriotic war of liberation,” triggered U.S. involvement and ultimately China’s intervention, too. It was the Chinese that managed to push the advancing U.S. and United Nations troops back to the 38th parallel. The fighting ended with a cease-fire in 1953, although the two nations are technically still at war.

Although he owed his survival to Beijing and Moscow, Kim the grandfather was a very difficult client even in the best of times. “He is like a seedling,” China’s dictator Mao Zedong grumbled in 1956, in a conversation with an envoy from Moscow. “You planted him. The Americans pulled him out. Then we planted him again in the same place. Now he is assuming airs.”

Mao was referring to a purge of the Workers’ Party of Korea that Kim unleashed in 1956, when he targeted his opponents whom he suspected of pro-Chinese and pro-Russian leanings. Kim got away with his purge and embraced what Pyongyang called juche (a form of self-reliance). It was never actual self-reliance, of course, certainly not in economic terms. The North Koreans continued to depend on their two sponsors — China and the USSR — for economic and military aid.

The Soviet relationship with North Korea never quite returned to what it was under Stalin. Pyongyang leaned to China’s side in the Sino-Soviet split in the early 1960s, and although Kim later quarreled with the Chinese (few know that the two dictatorships fought a brief border skirmish in 1969), he never drifted to the Soviet camp, preferring a posture of fierce independence.

The Soviets eyed their sometimes-ally with frustration and annoyance, worried as they were that Kim’s militant outbursts (such as the North Korean capture of USS Pueblo in 1968 and the shootdown of the American reconnaissance plane EC-121 in 1969) would implicate the Soviet Union. When the relationship began to fracture in the late 1980s, only the hard-line Stalinists shed any tears. The rest of Russia looked to South Korea.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen with North Korea's then-leader Kim Jong Il at the Freedom Memorial Tower in Pyongyang, North Korea, on July 20, 2000.
Korean Central News Agency / via AP Images
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via AP Images
Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen with North Korea's then-leader Kim Jong Il at the Freedom Memorial Tower in Pyongyang, North Korea, on July 20, 2000.

In July 2000, Putin made an unexpected visit to Pyongyang. This was part of the Kremlin’s effort to “stand on two legs” on the Korean Peninsula, which was beneficial for Russia’s self-image as an important regional player and increased Putin’s leverage with Seoul. Even so, North Korea remained at most a footnote in broader strategy for the Asia Pacific, where Putin prioritized China, Japan and South Korea. A participant in the six-party talks, Russia appeared genuinely concerned about Pyongyang’s attempts to develop nuclear weapons and joined in the international sanctions regime to punish North Korea for its transgressions.

Meanwhile, Russia’s economic ties with South Korea expanded dramatically. Seoul became a major investor in Russia’s economy, and trade between the two countries surged to over $28 billion by 2014.

As late as 2021, there were few signs that North Korea was about to become Russia’s closest friend. That February, when COVID-19 restrictions prompted an evacuation of the Russian Embassy in Pyongyang, Russian diplomats were seen pushing a rail cart in a desperate dash for the border. Kim Jong Un’s affront was humiliating, but it was quickly forgiven. Putin had bigger fish to fry.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 changed the Kremlin’s game in Korea. South Korea joined U.S.-led sanctions against Russia, causing a plunge in bilateral trade. South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol visited Kyiv in July 2023 in a show of support for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Putin, in the meantime, discovered the value of having a well-armed militant neighbor. North Korea began supplying Russia with much-needed ammunition for the war in Ukraine, a previously unthinkable development. In September 2023, Kim Jong Un visited the Russian Far East and met with Putin amid rediscovered bonhomie.

Pyongyang was never known for altruism: Russia is paying for military supplies with fuel and food. Kim is clearly interested in Russia’s space and missile technologies. In his all-out embrace of his new “comrade” (as Putin now calls Kim), Putin may well oblige.

But there is something more to this relationship than pragmatic considerations alone explain. Putin has embraced North Korea because Kim’s militant, anti-Western outlook is something that chimes well with his own turn against the West and against democracy. Rhetorically at least, Russia is becoming more and more like North Korea.

Sure, it is not quite there yet, and Moscow’s consumerist opulence contrasts starkly with the grim deprivation of Kim’s socialist utopia. But the tendencies of gradual convergence are nevertheless perceptible. North Korea, as militant as ever, and now nuclear-armed, stands side-by-side with Russia in its aggressive pursuits.

In his marvelously Stalinist article for the North Korean mouthpiece Rodong Sinmun, Putin spoke of “the heroic Korean people in their struggle against the cunning, dangerous, and aggressive enemy,” the West. That struggle has now also become Putin’s raison d'être.

A lot has changed since Foreign Minister Kim Yong Nam accused Shevardnadze of discarding North Korea like a pair of “worn-out shoes,” more than three decades ago. Putin pulled out these old, blood-stained shoes from the garbage bin and put them back on. He likes the look.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Sergey Radchenko
[Copyright 2024 NPR]