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Putin and Kim Jong Un's Show of Unity in Pyongyang: What It Means for Global Politics and China's Influence

The welcome hug on the tarmac at 03:00, the honor guard of mounted soldiers, and the massive portraits of Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin displayed side by side in the center of Pyongyang—all these elements were crafted to unsettle the West.

Putin’s first visit to Pyongyang since 2000 was a deliberate showcase of the camaraderie between Russia and North Korea. Kim Jong Un openly expressed his “full support” for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a declaration that alarms Seoul, Tokyo, Washington, and Brussels. This orchestrated display underlines a mutual dependency: Putin desperately needs ammunition to sustain his war effort, and North Korea needs financial support.

Yet, the true powerhouse in the region was absent from Pyongyang. Putin and Kim, meeting on China's doorstep, were likely cautious of provoking Beijing, which is crucial for both nations in terms of trade and influence.

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Despite Putin’s proclamation of a “firm friendship” with Kim, he is aware of its limitations, constrained by the authority of Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Beijing's Watchful Eye

Signs indicate that Xi Jinping disapproves of the growing alliance between Russia and North Korea. Reports suggest that Beijing advised Putin against visiting Pyongyang immediately after his May meeting with Xi. Chinese officials apparently disliked the optics of including North Korea in that visit.

Xi is already under substantial pressure from the US and Europe to reduce support for Moscow and cease selling components fueling Russia’s war in Ukraine. Beijing cannot ignore these pressures, as it relies on foreign tourism and investment to counteract sluggish economic growth and maintain its position as the world’s second-largest economy. In a bid to attract more visitors, China has introduced visa-free travel for certain European countries as well as Thailand and Australia, and its pandas are being sent to foreign zoos again.

Perceptions are crucial for Xi, who aims to play a more significant global role and challenge the US without becoming a pariah or facing increased Western pressure. Meanwhile, he continues to navigate his relationship with Moscow, maintaining a balance. Although Xi has not condemned the invasion of Ukraine, he has refrained from providing substantial military aid to Russia, with his rhetoric remaining measured compared to Putin’s effusive praise.

China has also provided political support for Kim’s nuclear ambitions, blocking US-led sanctions at the United Nations. However, Xi is not a fan of an emboldened Kim Jong Un. North Korea’s weapons tests have led Japan and South Korea to overcome their historical animosities and form a defense pact with the US. Rising tensions bring more US warships to the Pacific, heightening Xi’s fears of an “East Asian NATO.”

The Complex Triangular Relationship

Beijing’s disapproval may force Russia to reconsider selling advanced technology to North Korea, which is a significant concern for the US. Andrei Lankov, director of NK News, doubts Russia will provide North Korea with substantial military technology, suggesting it offers little benefit and potential future problems. While North Korean artillery could aid Putin’s war effort, exchanging missile technology for it would not be an advantageous deal, especially considering the risk of antagonizing China, a crucial buyer of Russian oil and gas.

North Korea relies heavily on China; it’s the only country Kim visits regularly. While a portion of North Korea’s oil comes from Russia, at least 80% of its trade is with China. This interdependence has been likened to an oil lamp kept burning by China.

A Transactional Partnership

Despite their united front against the “imperialist West,” the Russia-North Korea partnership is primarily transactional. Even with their recent upgrade to a “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership,” there is no guarantee that Pyongyang can continuously supply ammunition. Kim needs to maintain his own military front along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) with South Korea. Moreover, Russia and North Korea have different military systems, with North Korea’s being outdated and of lower quality.

Historically, their relationship was not prioritized. When Putin was on better terms with the West, he sanctioned Pyongyang and joined efforts with the US, China, South Korea, and Japan to denuclearize North Korea. During Kim’s diplomatic summits in 2018, he met Putin only once, focusing more on his interactions with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, former US President Donald Trump, and Xi Jinping, who was the first international leader he ever met.


The recent ostentatious display of unity between Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang is a calculated maneuver to signal their defiance against the West. However, this alliance is more about necessity than genuine camaraderie. Putin needs ammunition for his ongoing conflict in Ukraine, while North Korea requires financial support. Despite their efforts to present a strong front, their relationship is constrained by the overarching influence of China.

Beijing’s subtle disapproval of this burgeoning alliance underscores the delicate balance both Russia and North Korea must maintain. Xi Jinping’s cautious stance reflects China's strategic interests, which are focused on maintaining economic stability and avoiding further escalation with the West. The transactional nature of the Russia-North Korea partnership, underpinned by immediate wartime needs rather than long-term strategic alignment, reveals its inherent limitations.

Ultimately, both Russia and North Korea are acutely aware that their ties with China are far more significant than their mutual dealings. Beijing’s influence and economic clout are indispensable to both regimes. As such, the spectacle of Putin and Kim’s meeting, while symbolically potent, cannot overshadow the reality that their alliance is secondary to their dependence on China. This dynamic underscores the complexities of international relations in East Asia, where alliances are often fluid and driven by pragmatic considerations rather than ideological solidarity.

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