Thursday briefing: What Russia wants from its alliance with North Korea

<span>Russia's President Vladimir Putin and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un arrive for a gala concert in Pyongyang.</span><span>Photograph: Gavriil Grigorov/Reuters</span>
Russia's President Vladimir Putin and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un arrive for a gala concert in Pyongyang.Photograph: Gavriil Grigorov/Reuters

Good morning.

North Korea’s Kim Jong-un rolled out the red carpet for Vladimir Putin’s first visit in 24 years but second summit with Kim in nine months. No expense was spared for the lavish reception for Putin, who was greeted with Russian military music and cheering crowds waving Russian and North Korean flags. His face was plastered across banners decorating the city streets, the images underscoring how isolated Russia has become on the world stage, as Putin courts the alliance of a pariah state. Kim said Moscow and Pyongyang’s “fiery friendship” had become closer than ever before, with the two states signing a defence pact that includes a vow of mutual aid if either country is attacked.

Even though Kim and Putin say there is nothing to see here – it’s just old friends and neighbours catching up – the burgeoning alliance has sparked concern from western countries, particularly the US, about military cooperation between the two. There have been many credible reports that North Korea is providing Russia with much-needed ammunition for the war in Ukraine, in the hope of gaining economic assistance and technological secrets.

The rare summit comes at a time when tensions between South Korea and North Korea are high. For today’s newsletter I spoke with the Guardian’s Moscow correspondent, Andrew Roth, about the latest steps towards a closer alliance between North Korea and Russia, and the material and geopolitical benefits they seek to gain. That’s right after the headlines.

Five big stories

  1. General election 2024 | One of Rishi Sunak’s close protection officers has been arrested over alleged bets about the timing of the election. The officer was arrested on Monday on suspicion of misconduct in public office, the Metropolitan police said in a statement.

  2. Prisons | Prison governors have been warned that jails will be so overcrowded by the second week of July that they will struggle to accept any more inmates, plunging an incoming government into an immediate crisis.

  3. Saudi Arabia | Friends and family of missing hajj pilgrims have been searching hospitals after at least 550 died as temperatures reached 51.8C in Mecca, Islam’s holiest city.

  4. Espionage | A leading businesswoman who is married to the policing minister, Chris Philp, has been reported to the Crown Prosecution Service and is being sued in the high court over allegations of corporate espionage. Elizabeth Philp is accused of data-handling offences and unlawfully using confidential information.

  5. Stonehenge | Two people have been arrested after Just Stop Oil activists sprayed orange powder paint over Stonehenge. Rishi Sunak condemned the action, saying: “This is a disgraceful act of vandalism to one of the UK’s and the world’s oldest and most important monuments.”

In depth: ‘It’s striking to see Putin now going to Pyongyang’

For a long time, UN and US sanctions restrained Russia from deepening ties with North Korea. Putin did not want to be locked out of the international economy by violating these rules.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine changed everything. Russia is now one of the most sanctioned economies in the world. “They don’t have access to international banking markets, they don’t have direct flights to much of the world, companies have stepped in to cut ordinary Russian citizens off from using their bank cards in Europe or elsewhere around the world,” Andrew says. All of a sudden, there was a lot less to lose from working with North Korea. In the context of both countries remaining heavily sanctioned states, fostering a long-term partnership with Kim makes a lot of strategic sense.

It may seem like summits and pacts like this happen all the time among world leaders, but this is likely more than a political spectacle, Andrew says. “I think that Russia does think formalistically and legalistically sometimes and, to them, this is Moscow saying that alliance is going to be a longer-term relationship between the two countries on a military and security level.”


Mutual distrust and dysfunction

Underlying all this, the driving force behind the closer ties between Russia and North Korea is “need and desperation” Andrew says, with a healthy dose of mutual distrust of the US. North Korea is one of the world’s most isolated and impoverished countries and the pandemic has only exacerbated its position. Human Rights Watch has said that cross-border movement of people, formal and informal commercial trade, and humanitarian aid have nearly completely stopped since 2020. 90% of North Korea’s trade is with China, so Kim is desperate for another trading partner like Russia to alleviate significant pressure for a country where basic necessities are scarce. According to reports from South Korea, North Korea has already received food and energy to address shortages.

Aside from trade, Kim wants advanced military technology, satellite wares, nuclear submarine technology, and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) from Russia. North Korea has struggled over the years to get spy satellites into orbit. Andrew was invited to North Korea over a decade ago as part of a group of foreign press for the 100th anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s birth and to report on a satellite launch, which ultimately failed. “North Korea do not have a super successful history of getting these things up into space,” he says. “Russia can help them a lot with high-end military and spy technology that they couldn’t have imagined before because of sanctions.”


The war in Ukraine

On the surface, it is not immediately clear what use such a small and poor state like North Korea is to Russia but it does have one thing the Kremlin really needs: munitions.

The war in Ukraine is an “artillery war and the North Koreans have an enormous stockpile of Soviet-era artillery shells,” Andrew says. According to South Korea, North Korea has sent containers that hold up to 5m shells to the Russian military, which has given Moscow time to ramp up domestic production. For context the EU promised Ukraine 1m shells between March 2023 and March 2024 – in the end they only managed to send half.

“Very often the question of whether or not either side can advance is determined by how many shells they can fire per hour to either push the other side back or to prevent them from advancing,” Andrew adds. Russia has had a competitive edge over Ukraine because, for a period of time, Kyiv was very short on ammunition. The Kremlin will probably not rely on North Korean weapons in the medium to long term, but it does provide a highly effective stopgap in the meantime.


International concern

The US has been the most vocal in expressing its concern and alarm at the growing closeness between Kim and Putin. North Korea has a nuclear weapons programme, and though it is unlikely that Putin wants to help Kim develop a more robust nuclear supply, the threat is always there – especially as Russia has been providing political cover for Kim’s desire to advance his nuclear arsenal by blocking UN sanctions on North Korea over its weapons tests. Andrew says China is also keeping an eye on the budding alliance as it wants to “maximise control over the relationship with North Korea, and Russia building closer ties with North Korea undermines that control”.

The other glaring issue is that this alliance could weaken the effectiveness of future sanctions as a restraint, if sanctioned countries have the option to join new alliances that in turn could help to prop them up.

Although Putin is a political outcast on the world stage, it should be remembered this was not always the case. “This is a man who was in the G8, he was at the UN general assembly, and has had lots of high-level meetings with various western leaders,” Andrew says. “It’s quite striking to see Putin now going to Pyongyang to secure military aid for the war in Ukraine. This summit is quite symbolic.”

What else we’ve been reading

  • “Crowning this doll as Barbie was telling the world that Black is beautiful”: Susan Smith Richardson has written this excellent piece on a new documentary about an African American Mattel employee who changed toy history. Hannah J Davies, deputy editor, newsletters

  • The news that 25-year-old Aaron Bushnell self-immolated to protest against the war in Gaza shocked the world. For New York magazine Simon van Zuylen-Wood finds out what led him to such an extreme act. Nimo

  • Only a few decades ago, supermarkets were introducing hummus to the unacquainted. Now, writes Clare Finney, dips are everywhere – and Brits can’t get enough of them. Hannah

  • A decade ago an online misogynist harassment campaign called Gamergate took the internet by storm. In this week’s Pushing Buttons newsletter Keza Macdonald writes that she has noticed disturbing themes emerging again in the gaming community – and that it’s time the industry did something about it. Nimo

  • Hurrah! Guardian writer and editor Chris Godfrey has finally kicked his smoking habit. Here’s how he did it. Hannah


Euro 2024 | Scotland took the lead through Scott McTominay’s deflected shot but Switzerland’s Xherdan Shaqiri scored a stunning equaliser as the sides drew 1-1. Now a win against Hungary would take Scotland to the four‑point tally that should be sufficient for a tournament knockout place for the first time.

Cricket | Phil Salt and Jonny Bairstow laid down a serious statement of intent at the T20 World Cup as England thrashed the West Indies in front of their own fans in St Lucia. England celebrated a commanding eight-wicket win in the battle of the big hitters.

Tennis | Emma Raducanu is one of four grand slam champions to have been awarded wildcards for Wimbledon. Raducanu will return to the All England Club, where she made her breakthrough by reaching the fourth round in 2021, for the first time in two years following wrist and ankle surgery last year.

The front pages

“Reeves pledges to close gender pay gap ‘once and for all’ if Labour wins” – that’s in the Guardian while the i has “Tories despair as poll signals worst defeat in 200 years”. The Times has a different chronology: “Tories set to suffer worst poll defeat for 100 years” while the Daily Telegraph puts a huge banner headline – “Tory wipeout” – above its own opinion poll findings. “Sunak claims credit as inflation hits BoE’s target for first time in 3 years” says the Financial Times. “Is nothing sacred to the eco clowns?” asks the Daily Mail after Stonehenge was vandalised while “Just lock them up” the Daily Express demands. “Kane the Danes” – the Euro 2024 build-up continues over at the Daily Mirror. “Brave Leah fought to the end” – the Metro reports on an inquest over a suspected unlawful killing case.

Today in Focus

The Lib Dems’ surprising strategy to breach the blue wall

The Liberal Democrats began their campaign with eye-catching stunts, but it’s tactical voting that may help them breach the blue wall. Peter Walker reports

Cartoon of the day | Ella Baron

The Upside

A bit of good news to remind you that the world’s not all bad

For the latest A moment that changed me column, Sarah Brooks wrote about how a trip to Mongolia and Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway kickstarted a love of “chaotic, joyful, unexpected encounters with other places and lives”.

At home, she had been “terrified of making mistakes” and avoided talking to strangers. A year studying in Beijing had improved her confidence, but her Chinese wasn’t much use on the onward journey, where most other train passengers were Mongolian. Even so, it proved a transformative experience, with Brooks and her two friends making connections despite the language barrier.

When her friends departed by plane, she made the journey home alone, travelling through six different countries, “staying in cheap hostels, speaking to countless strangers, getting by with a few words from a phrase book and a reliance on the kindness of others … I began to enjoy speaking to new people and started asking questions rather than attempt to fade into the background and hope nobody noticed me. I felt the world opening up.”

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Bored at work?

And finally, the Guardian’s puzzles are here to keep you entertained throughout the day. Until tomorrow.