ANALYSIS: With Defiant Summit, Putin and Kim Send Rivals a Warning

Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, both at center right, visit the Vostochny cosmodrome outside the city of Tsiolkovsky, about 200 kilometers (125 miles) from the city of Blagoveshchensk in the far eastern Amur region, Russia, Wednesday. (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP)

SEOUL (Reuters) – Whatever practical cooperation emerges from this week’s summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, their deepening relationship is aimed at sending their rivals a warning, analysts said.

Calling each other “comrade,” the men toasted their friendship on Wednesday after Putin showed Kim around Russia’s most modern space launch facility and they held talks alongside their defense ministers.

The two countries have an interest in demonstrating that, despite their geopolitical isolation, they have partners they can call on. And both seek to weaken U.S.-led sanctions and pressure campaigns, against Russia over the war in Ukraine and against North Korea for its nuclear weapons and missile programs, analysts said.

“Putin and Kim would both gain from a transactional bargain but they would also gain geopolitically by giving off the impression that their nuclear-armed countries are cooperating militarily and sending a warning about potential consequences to America’s allies and like-minded partners that support Ukraine,” said Duyeon Kim, of the Center for a New American Security. “Kim would also be signaling to Washington, Seoul and Tokyo that Russia has his back in Northeast Asia.”

Both Russia and North Korea have denied U.S. claims that they plan to provide each other with weapons, but the leaders promised to deepen defense cooperation, and Putin said Russia would help the North build satellites.

If they simply wanted a secret arms deal, the two leaders did not have to meet in person, said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.

“Putin and Kim’s diplomatic display is meant to claim success in challenging the U.S.-led international order, avoiding over-reliance on China, and increasing pressure on rivals in Ukraine and South Korea,” he said.

Discussions of any open violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions on North Korea would signal that major international agencies will be paralyzed, said Andrei Lankov, a Korea expert at Seoul’s Kookmin University.

The summit is an indicator that North Korea-related Security Council resolutions are dead, as are all attempts to stop North Korea or penalize it for having a nuclear program, he said.

“It creates an important precedent that is likely to be used not only by Russia but pretty much every major international player, that if you don’t like a UNSC resolution you just ignore it,” Lankov said.

Lankov also said that Russia may be unlikely to provide North Korea with advanced technology that it could eventually lose control of. But its “excessive” signaling at defense cooperation allows it to send a strong message to South Korea not to directly provide military aid to Ukraine, he said.

Despite pressure from Kyiv and Washington, South Korea has only given Ukraine non-lethal aid, sold massive numbers of weapons to neighboring Poland, and provided the United States with artillery shells to fill dwindling reserves, while insisting it has no plans to provide lethal aid.

If Russia, North Korea and China feel that they are threatened, it makes sense they would seek to support each other through partnerships or even alliances to counter the United States. But each country has a limited history of making such relationships work, said Mason Richey, a professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul.

“It’s just difficult for me to imagine that Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin can trust each other enough for a real, long-term concerted alliance formation,” he said. “It might be in their interest… [but] it’s just difficult for dictators to cooperate with each other.”

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