Russian President Vladimir Putin is urging foreign leaders to keep a cool head on North Korea.
Speaking in China, Putin condemned North Korea’s latest missile launch as “dangerous.” But he also cautioned against “intimidating” the country, comments almost certainly directed at Washington.
“I would like to confirm that we are categorically against the expansion of the club of nuclear states, including through the Korean Peninsula,” Putin told reporters. “We are against it and consider it counterproductive, damaging, dangerous.”
The comments came just days after North Korea fired a ballistic missile; it flew about 450 miles and for 30 minutes. Aerospace expert John Schilling told the news agency Reuters that the test “represents a level of performance never before seen from a North Korean missile.”
According to the Associated Press, North Korea chose a high angle for the launch to “avoid neighboring countries.” If shot at a standard trajectory, experts say, the missile would have traveled about 2,500 miles, far enough to hit the U.S. Air Force base in Guam. It’s part of the Pyongyang government’s broader strategy to develop a long-range missile (armed with a nuclear warhead) that could strike the United States, a flight of about 4,800 miles.
Although Moscow has expressed concern about Pyongyang’s ever-broadening nuclear capabilities, it’s one of the few countries with diplomatic ties to North Korea.
In 2014, Moscow wrote off 90 percent of Pyongyang’s $11 billion Soviet-era debt. More recently, Russia and North Korea have considered a slew of economic deals, including an expansion of railway links between the two countries, a new ferry service that will cart people and cargo, and advanced training opportunities for North Korean engineers at Russian universities.
Despite international sanctions, Siberian oil companies have sold fuel to North Korea. According to a report by the private intelligence firm Stratfor, “When China recently threatened to cut off fuel exports to North Korea if it conducted its sixth nuclear weapons test, Russia hinted it could replace at least some of that supply.”
Pyongyang has returned the favor. In a February Lunar New Year greeting card, leader Kim Jong Un listed Russia as the country most friendly toward North Korea. North Koreans frequently travel (or are shipped off) to Siberia to help with construction projects.
But it’s not just about the money. The ties have geopolitical benefits for both countries. North Korea gains an ally at a time when economic sanctions make getting just about everything harder.
“The idea that Russia is once again superseding China as North Korea’s major international patron bodes well when viewed through the prism of North Korea’s Cold War-era tactics of playing China and the USSR off of each other,” Russia-Korea analyst Anthony Rinna wrote in a note at the Institute of Asia and Pacific Studies at the University of Nottingham.
Russia hopes to use its cozier ties with North Korea to exert influence on the world stage. “If Russia can be instrumental in resolving a key international dispute like North Korea, they will want to parry that into something else, to use it as a bargaining chip,” said the chief of CNN’s Moscow bureau, Matthew Chance.