This week’s summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is widely seen as an act of desperation by the two regimes. Putin’s forces seem to be so depleted in Ukraine—and the Kremlin so short of allies—that Russia needs to ask North Korea for ammunition and missiles. Kim, in turn, likely has a shopping list of items he wants from Putin. In this reading, the summit and the warming of Russian-North Korean relations that preceded it are not much more than tactical moves: a calculated effort by Kim to use Putin’s predicament to gain diplomatic leverage, access to Russian military technology, and an economic lifeline for his repressive regime.
But we should be clear that Kim’s move toward Russia is neither tactical nor desperate. Rather, it is the result of a fundamental shift in North Korean policy, finally abandoning a 30-year effort to normalize relations with the United States. Without understanding how persistent Pyongyang was in pursuit of normalization from 1990 through 2019, there is no way of understanding the profundity of the current shift and what it portends.