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As North Korea and Russia consider an arms deal, what can they offer each other


North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un, has arrived by train in Russia's Far East. He's expected to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin. We're not sure just where they will meet or exactly what business they will do. The United States is concerned that Kim will sell weapons to Russia. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports on the benefits and possible costs for each leader.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Kim's visit speaks volumes about how much tougher the security environment around the Korean Peninsula has gotten. The last time Putin hosted Kim in Russia in 2019, he had this to say.



KUHN: "We welcome the steps taken by DPRK authorities," he said, "focused on establishing a direct dialogue with the United States of America." Back then, diplomacy between the U.S. and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, as the North is officially known, had not yet collapsed. Kim had paused testing missiles capable of reaching the U.S., and Russia had not yet invaded Ukraine. All of that is now changed.

WI SUNG-LAC: In terms of denuclearization and peace settlement on the peninsula, the general environment is turning very bad.

KUHN: And it could get worse, says Wi Sung-lac, South Korea's former ambassador to Russia. Russia could certainly use North Korean artillery shells and other munitions in its war against Ukraine, Wi says. And Russia helping North Korea with its nuclear and missile programs would certainly be a game changer. But Wi says that won't necessarily happen.

WI: Up until now, Russia has been cautious in sharing sensitive technologies, like nuclear and missile technologies, with North Korea.

KUHN: Wi says that Russia has never been happy about North Korea getting the bomb.

WI: They don't like it because Russia still commits to nuclear nonproliferation. But still, they have another consideration, which is strategic and geopolitical.

KUHN: And the more the U.S. beefs up its military presence in Asia, he says, the more Russia considers the geopolitical side. Professor Yang Moo-jin at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul says that even if North Korea can't get Russia's help with advanced weapons, there are still other things it needs.

YANG MOO-JIN: (Through interpreter) What North Korea needs most urgently are surveillance satellites and economic cooperation.

KUHN: If Russia does give North Korea technology or fuel aid, that could undermine sanctions. And while the U.S. showed the strength of its alliances with Japan and South Korea in a three-way summit at Camp David last month, that could nudge Russia, China and North Korea into closer cooperation again. Again, Yang Moo-jin.

YANG: (Through interpreter) For Kim Jong Un, the focus is on a socialist coalition as the broader picture and on economic cooperation with Russia and China in a more concrete sense.

KUHN: But Russia could face some downsides of its own if it helps North Korea in exchange for weapons to use in Ukraine, says Wi Sung-lac.

WI: Depending upon what will happen afterward, South Korea's engagement in Ukraine's situation will get deeper and deeper.

KUHN: For example, South Korea could start to arm Ukraine, as the U.S. and NATO have argued it should. All these unintended consequences, Wi says, are just the opportunity costs both sides may have to pay for their choices. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.