(Bloomberg) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin made his first trip to North Korea in 24 years to warm up a newfound bond with its leader, Kim Jong Un, that has helped boost Russia’s firepower in its grinding war on Ukraine. As the US and its partners have tried to put Russia and North Korea deeper into isolation, the two countries have stepped up their trade in commodities and arms. Russia’s forces have been able to blast thousands of artillery shells a day at Ukraine thanks to supplies sent by Kim. North Korea has likely received military aid in return that has increased the threat it poses to the US and its allies in East Asia. 

Why was Putin meeting Kim in Pyongyang?

Putin still needs North Korea’s help and to show gratitude to the leader who’s provided weapons for his war on Ukraine — beyond the top-of-the line luxury sedan he gave the limousine-loving Kim earlier this year. Kim invited Putin to North Korea when the two met in Russia in September. Satellite imagery shows arms transfers from North Korea to Russia took off after that. North Korea holds some of the largest stores of munitions and spare parts that are interoperable with weapons Russia has on the front lines in Ukraine. The two can trade with almost no threat of interdiction on a rail link across their border and through nearby ports between which ships can shuttle without leaving either’s territorial waters. 

What does Russia want?

Artillery shells, artillery rockets, short-range ballistic missiles and spare parts for some of the Soviet-era weapons systems employed by Russia in Ukraine such as the T-54 and T-62 tanks. Russia is especially motivated to seek more weapons from North Korea given that Ukraine is now taking delivery of billions of dollars worth of fresh arms from its US and European partners. 

What does North Korea want?

A lot. It needs cash, commodities and technology to help with such endeavors as submarine and spy satellite projects. Small infusions of aid take on large significance in North Korea. Its economy was estimated to have been worth about $24.5 billion in 2022, with per capita income about 3.4% that of South Korea. Russia has so far provided North Korea with food, raw materials and parts used in weapons manufacturing, South Korean Defense Minister Shin Wonsik has said. 

If the arms transfers grow, Russia will likely send more military technology, increasing Pyongyang’s threat to the region, Shin added. The value of munitions so far supplied to Russia could be worth billions of dollars, and the aid Kim has received likely represents one of the biggest boosts to the North Korean economy since he took power in 2011 upon the death of his father and predecessor. Putin’s visit also has “political value to Kim, demonstrating a strong global standing” to his domestic audience, said Jenny Town, a senior fellow at the Stimson Center, a foreign affairs think tank.

How might the meeting affect the war on Ukraine?

In recent months, Kim has visited plants making munitions, while overseeing tests of weapons that South Korea has said he could send to Russia. These include a 240 millimeter multiple rocket launcher, which weapons experts said is a guided missile system with an estimated range of up to 70 kilometers (44 miles). North Korea has also tested a close-range ballistic missile with an estimated range of about 110 kms, with one flying as far as 235 kms. Ukraine’s military is being bolstered by resumed aid from the US that includes longer-range Army Tactical Missile Systems, or ATACMS. Weapons expert Joost Oliemans, co-author of The Armed Forces of North Korea, said the North Korean systems could compensate for Ukraine’s increased use of ATACMS and Guided Multiple Launch Rocket Systems (GMLRS), “which have been exacting a heavy toll.” But he adds that the North Korean weapons may not be as robust as some US systems. 

There have been questions generally about the quality of North Korea’s arms. Still, just having a large volume of artillery shells allows Russian forces to pin the Ukrainians down while North Korean ballistic missiles allow the Russians to deplete stores of US interceptors meant to protect Ukraine’s biggest cities.

What are the implications for the US?

More North Korean arms transfers to Russia would increase Ukraine’s need for US as well as European military assistance. And the more aid Kim receives from Russia, the easier it becomes for him to keep ignoring US requests to sit down for nuclear disarmament talks. Any weapons technology North Korea receives increases its ability to deliver lethal strikes on Japan and South Korea, which host the bulk of US troops in the region, and perhaps successfully deliver a nuclear warhead to the US mainland. Putin and Kim may also sign a pact for military intervention in the case of emergencies, South Korean broadcaster YTN reported. This could complicate contingency planning for Washington by increasing the risks for military action.


--With assistance from Tony Halpin and Shinhye Kang.

(Updates with Putin arriving in North Korea, new missile ranges.)

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