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Russia seeks Indo-Pacific reach via North Korea

Kim Jong-un made a rare visit to Russia to spruce up ties in crucial time of war.

As Russian President Valdimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un met in a crucial wartime summit, Moscow aimed at multiple targets in the Far East and Indo-Pacific. Russia’s Indo-Pacific reach also added an Indian dimension on the same day (Wednesday) as both the countries agreed to explore the possibility of using new transport corridors such as the Northern Sea Route and Eastern Maritime Corridor between Vladivostok and Chennai to widen maritime cooperation.

Russia-North Korea and Indo-Pacific

Kim’s visit to Russia was expected to be an exchange of food, fuel and cash, according to analysts, in addition to technological help for its missile and satellite programs, and parts for its old, Soviet-era military and civilian aircraft.

The North Korean leader visited several key defence facilities in Russia, including aviation factories in Komsomolsk-on-Amur and naval facilities in Vladivostok. No announcement of any deal was announced by Moscow or Pyongyang yet, but observers expect that Russia seeks naval cooperation with North Korea to consolidate its Indo-Pacific outreach to stymie Western advances.

President Putin in his interview to the state news agency gave several hints that he seeks more than what is expected from Moscow-Pyongyang’s normal partnership. He mentioned cooperation on highways, railways, port infrastructure and agricultural initiatives — and professed that even military cooperation was possible, despite United Nations Security Council sanctions on North Korea over its nuclear programme.

“There are certain restrictions, Russia abides by those restrictions,” Putin said. “But there are things we of course can talk about. We are discussing and thinking about it. There is also promise here.”

Observers have also felt that Russian advances in Ukraine and its capability to thwart Kiev’s ambitious assault have given it confidence to craft new ties in the Far East. “Intended or not, the summit delivered a pointed message to Washington, demonstrating that the West’s support for Ukraine would have consequences — in this case by pushing Moscow closer to Kim’s authoritarian regime,” wrote the New York Times in its report.

Russia for years had presented itself as a cooperative partner willing to join the rest of the United Nations Security Council in an international effort to thwart Kim’s nuclear ambitions. But that posture was gone on Wednesday, with almost no public discussion of nuclear disarmament.

The war in Ukraine has made North Korea far more relevant than in years past for Russia. The talks also underscored how the demands of the war and the resulting international sanctions against Russia are setting the diplomatic agenda for Moscow which is seeking alliance for anyone willing and given the neutrality of countries like India and many in the Global South, it is marching ahead to new destinations.

“The war is now the organising principle of Russian foreign policy,” said Alexander Gabuev, director of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, who said North Korea, a highly militarized society with one of the world’s largest armies and significant armament production facilities, had something to offer Moscow on that front.

Signalling its crisp message to the US and West on Wednesday, North Korea launched two short-range ballistic missiles off its east coast, the first time the country conducted a missile test during one of Kim’s rare trips abroad.

On his part, Putin, in a straight answer to a question from a reporter, said that Russia was ready to assist North Korea in satellite and rocket launches. The Kremlin has even planned to take a North Korean astronaut into space soon.

North Korea faces critical technical hurdles in its efforts to build intercontinental ballistic missiles, ballistic missile submarines, military reconnaissance satellites and anti missile defense systems — all areas where it could benefit immensely from Russian technology.

India-Russia and Indo-Pacific

New Delhi and Moscow are stepping up efforts to begin operations along the Eastern Maritime Corridor (EMC), a shipping route which stretches from Vladivostok in Russia’s Far East to the southern Indian port of Chennai, officials announced at the Eastern Economic Forum.

Addressing a special session on the topic in Vladivostok, Minister of Ports, Shipping and Waterways, Sarbananda Sonowal, extended an invitation for an Indo-Russian workshop on the EMC to be held in Chennai from October 30 to discuss “the smooth and swift operationalisation” of the corridor.

“India remains firmly committed towards making innovative solutions that will enhance and further foster the strong bilateral relationship between our two great nations. As our teams hedged their effort for an early operationalization of EMC, the visit to Vladivostok, Vostochny, Nakhodka and Kozmino was particularly helpful,” Sonowal said, according to an official statement.

The Russian government also expressed its desire to send a delegation to Chennai to explore opportunities with their Indian counterparts, the statement said. Shipping officials from the two countries discussed the modernization of port infrastructure and ways of ensuring cargo volumes.

According to Aleksey Chekunkov, head of the Ministry for the Development of the Russian Far East, the EMC can be used to transport coal, oil, liquefied natural gas, fertilizers, containers and other types of cargo, with the possibility of calling at other Russian and international ports. The Indian government noted that an independent study had found coking coal to be the most suitable commodity for trade using the EMC.

The agreement for the development of the Chennai-Vladivostok maritime corridor was signed by the leaders of the two countries in 2019, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi attended the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok. The route operated during Soviet times and connected Russia’s Far East with India and Southeast Asia. Ports of call included Nakhodka, Hong Kong, Singapore, Kolkata and Chennai.