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Vladimir Putin’s Trip to North Korea Reeks of Desperation, Not Strength

6 minute read

It must be somebody pretty important in your life to warrant a personal airport pickup at 3 a.m. But that’s the honor North Korean “Supreme Leader” Kim Jong Un paid to Vladimir Putin on Wednesday morning, greeting the Russian President on a red carpet-laid runway in the wee hours and then riding with him through Pyongyang streets festooned with roses and murals of his stout, balding guest, whom Kim had earlier hailed as an “invincible comrade-in-arms.”

The last time Putin visited North Korea, it was his first year as Russian President and Kim was still ensconced under a fake name at a Swiss boarding school. (Kim’s late dictator father, Kim Jong Il, played host instead.) Twenty-four years on and Putin’s return to the “Hermit Kingdom” comes as he’s embroiled in Europe’s deadliest land conflict since World War II and the younger Kim wields a nuclear arsenal capable of threatening the continental U.S.

The Kremlin described the trip as a “friendly state visit,” though the prospect of the two leaders inking partnerships on security, food, energy, and foreign currency prompted the White House to express concern about the “deepening relationship.” At a joint press briefing with U.S Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg echoed those worries, particularly “potential support that Russia provides to North Korea when it comes to supporting their missile and nuclear programs.”

Certainly, ties between these two pariahs are stronger than any point since the fall of the Soviet Union. In a letter published in Rodong Sinmun, mouthpiece of North Korea’s ruling Workers Party, Putin promised to develop trade and security systems with Pyongyang “that are not controlled by the West,” while promising to help his host stave off “U.S. pressure, blackmail and military threats.” Yuri Ushakov, Putin’s foreign policy aide, told Russia’s Tass news agency that the meeting could result in a “comprehensive strategic partnership.”

Washington and Seoul have accused Kim of supplying Russia with artillery, munitions, and other equipment to help Russia’s military navigate a shortfall over the winter, for which North Korea likely received food, fuel, and military technology in return. Both North Korea and Russia deny the existence of an arms deal, though on Wednesday Putin opened talks with Kim by gushing about Pyongyang’s support “including in the Ukrainian direction,” according to Tass. Kim responded by congratulating Russia’s role in “maintaining the strategic balance in the world.” Meanwhile, analysis of debris in Ukraine’s Kharkiv region indicates North Korean short-range missiles had been deployed there.

Putin’s arrival also comes at a time of heightened tensions on the Korean peninsula. In recent weeks, North Korea has sent hundreds of balloons with bags of trash and excrement into the South in apparent retaliation to activists there dispatching anti-Pyongyang propaganda. Meanwhile, several North Korean soldiers were reportedly maimed or killed on Tuesday while laying landmines in the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that have separated both sides since the 1950-53 Korean War. In addition, more than 20 North Korean soldiers briefly encroached into the DMZ on Tuesday for the second time in less than two weeks but retreated following warning shots, according to South Korea.

The question is whether Kim’s blossoming bromance with Putin risks emboldening the North Korean despot. Historically, one of the main reasons North Korea has pursued improved relations with the U.S. was to negotiate sanctions relief. But if Russia offers a viable long-term solution for improving North Korea’s economy, Kim has less of an incentive to improve relations with Washington.

Russia’s permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council makes this autocratic rapprochement particularly valuable for Kim. Despite previously supporting the most robust sanctions regime in history against North Korea, Russia on March 28 vetoed a U.N. resolution renewing the bloc’s Panel of Experts’ mandate to monitor sanctions enforcement. Moscow is also taking steps to permanently dismantle punitive economic measures targeting Pyongyang by calling for a “sunset clause” for the existing sanctions regime.

At the least, any financial or political cover that Putin can provide enables Kim to ramp up the brinkmanship—alternating threats and conciliatory gestures to eke concessions—that has formed the bedrock of North Korean foreign policy since the days of Kim’s illustrious grandfather. It also eases the burden on national coffers under such strain that currently human hair for wigs and fake eyelashes accounts for 60% of declared exports to China, North Korea’s largest trading partner.

“This really takes some pressure off of the North Korean economy, which I expect to rebound,” says Stephan Haggard, professor of Korea studies at the University of California San Diego. “In effect, this is a positive shock for the country. It can churn out munitions and get food and possibly fuel in return.”

From Putin’s perspective, any cost imposed to Western allies is a net positive. Putin’s message to Japan and South Korea, says Alexander Gabuev, the director of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center in Berlin, is “your help shredding thousands of young Russian boys on the battlefield is having a price as we can create problems for you from North Korea.”

Yet budding ties may risk fissures developing between Moscow and its only backer that really matters: China. Credible reports suggest Putin originally intended to travel directly to Pyongyang at the culmination of last month’s visit to China but was dissuaded by nervous Beijing officials. For while both Kim and Putin both likely scroll Bond villain YouTube compilations on the can, China’s Xi Jinping clings to a notion of the Middle Kingdom as legitimate global power, and he fears the optics of belonging to, as Gabuev puts it, a “triangular Axis of Evil in the Indo-Pacific.”

Moreover, China only tolerates North Korea’s existence—including the very real threat of nuclear catastrophe just 500 miles from Beijing—because that is deemed strategically preferable to a unified, U.S.-allied Korean peninsula on its border. Putin coming along and whipping Kim into rattling cages isn’t necessarily part of Beijing’s plan. “The Chinese are probably weary or unnerved about North Korea and Russia becoming too close,” says Daniel Pinkston, an East Asia expert at Troy University in Seoul.

So while Russia and North Korea getting chummy is never a good thing, even a “comprehensive strategic partnership” between two of the most sanctioned countries on earth is unlikely to tip the balance in any meaningful way, and could well backfire if Beijing gets peeved. Ultimately, “Authoritarian regimes are transactional, and dictators can always renege on their commitments, so they’re not credible partners,” adds Pinkston. “Russia and North Korea are both aggrieved, revisionist states, but they don’t have shared values other than overturning the status quo.”

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Write to Charlie Campbell at charlie.campbell@time.com