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Opinion: It’s no mystery what Putin wants from Kim

Opinion by Frida Ghitis

(CNN) — When North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un arrived in Russia’s Far East region on Tuesday in his grandfather’s armored green train on his way to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin, he helped underscore two important facts about Putin’s unprovoked war against Ukraine.

First, Putin has turned what was once a mighty and respected army — and country — into one that is reduced to seeking help from an impoverished state that can hardly feed its own people. It’s a humiliating exercise for a diminished Putin, who vaingloriously compares himself to the 18th century Czar Peter the Great, and not a great look for a deeply tarnished Russia.

Second, Russia’s war on Ukraine is making the entire world more dangerous. More than 18 months in, Russia is now courting a regime that has assaulted its neighbor multiple times, and regularly fires all manner of dangerous missiles in the region, most recently just a few days ago; an outcast nation now likely to emerge even more menacing after negotiating with Putin.

The Kremlin has worked to dust off and revive its old Cold War relationship with Pyongyang’s totalitarian dynasty ever since its plans to conquer Ukraine in a few days failed. Already last year North Korea was providing artillery shells and rockets to Russia, according to US officials.

But, as the war drags on, it will continue depleting Russia’s stockpiles while international sanctions against Ukraine’s invader make it harder to ramp up production. And that is excellent news for Kim.

The increasingly isolated Putin has been rummaging for weaponry among other pariah nations. Iran became a key supplier of the drones that routinely kill Ukrainian civilians. (Iran has denied supplying weapons to Russia despite evidence to the contrary.) Now, North Korea may be about to play a larger role, potentially aiding Russia in its illegal war.

Putin, it seems, is building something of a team of tyrants, an ad hoc association of repressive regimes, governments of countries where citizens are deprived of many of the rights that much of the world takes for granted. Places where real and perceived regime critics die in mysterious circumstances — reaching out to other dictators one by one as he searches for help to crush Ukraine’s independence.

China, incidentally, another repressive regime, is generally siding with this fledgling bloc, but has played a reluctant role. It has remained supportive but has not handed mass quantities of arms to Moscow. For North Korea, the growing links with the Kremlin afford the opportunity to tacitly pressure Beijing — its one other friend — for more support.

What Moscow wants from Pyongyang is not a mystery. When Defense Secretary Sergei Shoigu traveled to North Korea in July, the first visit by a Russian defense secretary in more than 30 years, he toured a weapons exhibition and said the two countries would hold joint war games. “These are our neighbors,” he said, adding “it’s better to live with your neighbors in peace and harmony.” (Perhaps he was unaware of what his forces have been doing in Ukraine.)

Shoigu laid the ground for this week’s visit, and for a grand military bargain — or so the participants hope.

Hyper-militarized North Korea has a large arsenal. Russia reportedly primarily wants artillery shells and antitank missiles; more firepower to assault Ukraine.

But what’s in it for Kim? Why is he venturing out of the country for the first time in four years, only the 10th time since he inherited power in 2011?

The real upside of this meeting, as it happens, is for Pyongyang, and that makes the encounter a troubling one for South Korea, for the region and for the rest of world.

The meeting itself grants Kim the kind of global spotlight he craves, which strengthens him at home and raises his standing abroad. But there’s more than symbolism and a message to China that Pyongyang has options beyond Beijing.

Kim is the third ruler from the dynasty that has ruled North Korea since World War II, when his grandfather was installed under Stalin-era Soviet auspices. The Kims have systematically tightened their hold on their country to become one of the world’s most repressive regimes, with massive prison camps where forced labor, torture and starvation take place. The regime denies its well-documented brutality.

While the country’s economy and ability to support itself shriveled, the Kims lavished massive spending on the military, working obsessively to build up the country’s nuclear arsenal, along with the capabilities to use atomic weapons.

In addition to what it did to its own population, the regime established a track record of relentless aggression, repeatedly attacking and threatening South Korea. Just a few weeks ago, North Korea said it had launched a “scorched earth” simulation of a nuclear attack and was rehearsing an occupation of South Korea. Its military maneuvers have not always been rehearsals.

International sanctions — including UN sanctions that Russia itself has backed — and military alliances have curtailed Kim’s ability to attack his neighbors. But now Putin seems to need him and it’s unclear how much the Russian leader is willing to help him circumvent those restrictions, now that the two foes of the West have even more in common, standing at the sharp end of international sanctions.

Last week, when US intelligence revealed a meeting was in the works between the two leaders, and national security adviser Jake Sullivan described Russia’s discussions with Pyongyang as “imbued…with an increased intensity,” US officials warned North Korea against arming Russia. Sullivan said North Korea will “pay a price” if it makes an arms deal with Moscow. But it’s hard to imagine what additional leverage Washington has to pressure a country already subjected to stiff sanctions.

Kim is said to be looking for satellite and nuclear submarine technology and may also want Russian technology to help accelerate North Korea’s ballistic missile program, which could allow North Korea to launch nuclear warheads as far as the United States.

In short, the harmful repercussions of Putin’s desperate quest to win his wholly unnecessary war against Ukraine — which has already aggravated a food crisis in poor countries — have now reached East Asia, and could well make one of the world’s most dangerous countries even more of a threat to its neighbors and the rest of the globe.

For countries that believe the war in Ukraine is just another faraway problem, this is a useful reminder of the growing consequences of Putin’s war.

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