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The Kim Jong Un-Putin Summit: Optics, Speculation, and Implications

Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin’s recent meeting in Russia’s far east drew significant attention, largely due to the optics surrounding the event. The two leaders were seen strolling side by side through a gleaming space center, followed by their respective aides. They stood together overlooking a launchpad, adding to the spectacle. Later that day, they shared a banquet, raising toasts, and the imagery of the encounter was widely publicized.

The lead-up to the meeting had been shrouded in anticipation, with global media closely tracking Kim Jong Un’s journey via his armored train across the border. He kept the Western world guessing for nearly 40 hours before arriving at the Vostochny Cosmodrome, a remote space base in Russia’s eastern region. The agenda for their meeting remained uncertain, causing some concern, especially after White House warnings about potential arms deals between North Korea and Russia.

As Kim arrived at the space center, Vladimir Putin was there to greet him, with a red-carpeted staircase erected mid-air for his grand entrance. The two leaders exchanged handshakes, an image promptly disseminated by state media. Both leaders understand the importance of showmanship, but Kim, known as the Supreme Leader of North Korea, values ceremony as it helps maintain his image as a significant global player.

Kim’s diplomatic meetings with world leaders serve not only to assert North Korea’s presence on the global stage but also to generate domestic support. Despite stringent sanctions, Russia’s need for arms offers an opportunity for both countries, providing income for North Korea and showcasing Kim’s international significance.

Amid the spectacle, questions remain about whether concrete deals were reached during the meeting. Very little information was made public, and there were no details about the feared arms deal that raised concerns in the West. The only clear outcome seemed to be Putin hinting at possible assistance with Kim’s space and satellite ambitions.

The choice of venue was strategic. Both leaders traveled long distances to advanced spaceports, emphasizing Putin’s modest offer of space assistance within Russia’s technological capabilities. While this might help North Korea launch satellites for monitoring purposes, it does not signify support for their banned nuclear and missile programs, and it challenges UN Security Council resolutions.

Observers speculate that Putin’s choice of location may also serve as leverage against South Korea, which had severed ties with Russia after the Ukraine invasion and adopted Western sanctions. Nevertheless, it remains unclear if Russia would share its advanced space technology with North Korea, given the minimal economic ties between the two countries, compared to North Korea’s reliance on China for over 95% of its trade income.

This rare international trip by Kim, his first in four years, shouldn’t be underestimated, as North Korea gradually reopens to the world after the pandemic. Putin’s lavish treatment of Kim reflects respect and aims to elevate their relationship in the global eye, even when details are scarce.

In the complex dynamics between these leaders, actions speak louder than words. Both are skilled in deception, emphasizing the need to scrutinize their concrete actions rather than their rhetoric.