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Putin's meeting with Kim Jong Un is about getting weapons and ammunition, experts say


Earlier today, a dark green train with yellow trim rolled slowly down a track at the border where Russia, China and North Korea meet. Inside one of its 90 or so cars was believed to be the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Un.


Kim is assumed to be on his way to Russia for a summit with Vladimir Putin, his first known trip outside North Korea in more than four years. And he's traveling in his preferred mode of transportation - a custom-built armored train, just as his father and grandfather before him traveled.


KELLY: That's the sound of pageantry there as Kim boarded the train back in 2019 for the journey to Vietnam to meet with then-president Trump.

SHAPIRO: The train is gargantuan. It has conference rooms and bedrooms weighted down by thick, bulletproof siding. It moves at a glacial pace. Its top speed for that 2019 trip was estimated at around 37 miles per hour, and it took two and a half days to arrive in Vietnam.


KELLY: So I will tell you, Ari, I have seen this train or at least its predecessor. This was a reporting trip to North Korea back in 2018, and they drove us to this vast museum about 70 miles north of Pyongyang. There are thousands of gifts on display that have been given to North Korea's leaders over the years, like a bulletproof car from Joseph Stalin or a crocodile suitcase from Fidel Castro and a train car that looks very much like the one that is apparently carrying Kim Jong Un today.

SHAPIRO: I cannot match that story.

KELLY: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: But I can tell you that Kim rarely leaves North Korea. And when he does, he rarely flies. His father, Kim Jong Il, was reportedly terrified of being shot out of the sky by one of his enemies.

KELLY: Well, I can tell you that the younger Kim inherited his father's railroad travel habit, also the paranoia and the extreme security measures. There are two other trains that tend to accompany the main one. One goes ahead, checks the tracks, the other behind to carry more security and supplies.

SHAPIRO: This week the destination for that locomotive entourage is believed to be the Russian city of Vladivostok, where Kim and Putin are expected to meet. So when that train pulls into the station, what is each side hoping to get from the other? To help us answer that question, we're joined by Jean Lee, the former Pyongyang bureau chief for the Associated Press, and Angela Stent, director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies at Georgetown University - good to have you both here.


ANGELA STENT: Good to be on the show.

SHAPIRO: This meeting comes with President Putin in a tight spot. The war in Ukraine is grinding on, and it's unclear who has the upper hand right now. So, Angela, let's begin with you. What does Putin want from Kim in this meeting?

STENT: Well, this is quite a reversal of fortune for Russia. You know, the great superpower is now more or less the supplicant to one of the most isolated countries in the world. I think what Putin needs immediately from Kim Jong Un is weapons. It's ammunition. But I think Putin is also elevating North Korea's position and really changing - Russia's changing its policy toward North Korea because of the Ukraine war. And I think Kim is the beneficiary of this.

SHAPIRO: Jean, can you speak to that power shift, that reversal and the opportunity that it presents for Kim and for North Korea?

LEE: There isn't often a time when North Korea has something to offer anyone. So this is a perfect moment for Kim Jong Un to step in and say, look. I have something you need for a change. North Korea was a country that did invest in its conventional weaponry with Soviet support for decades. So they've got what Russia needs. And what North Korea needs, what Kim Jong Un needs, is a platform, a stage. He is coming out of four years of isolation. And so with this visit, there are, of course, those promises that he and Putin may make about their partnership, but he also gets this chance to send a message to his foes about the role that he can still play as a disrupter. And he'll have this incredibly valuable propaganda that he'll be able to take back home to the North Korean people.

SHAPIRO: So it has the potential to change the narrative of North Korea as a purely isolated rogue state. And this is not the first time the two men have met. In 2019, Kim took a train to Vladivostok, and the two countries didn't reach any major agreements then. But what do we know about their ongoing relationship since then?

STENT: So from the Russian point of view, you know, the relationship with North Korea really deteriorated after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But under Putin, gradually, the relationship with North Korea has improved. Very recently you had the Russian defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, going to North Korea - the first time a Russian defense minister had been there since the collapse of the Soviet Union - touring factories, admiring the munitions, the things that Russia needs to buy, participating in celebrations. That was already a signal that things were really going to change.

SHAPIRO: Jean, how farfetched is it to imagine that this meeting could open the door to North Korea becoming part of an alliance that stands counter to NATO? I mean, whether you include Iran, whether you include China, is there a scenario in which North Korea starts to become, if not a full-fledged, at least sort of, you know, a corollary to that alternative grouping of countries?

LEE: I think one thing that we have to confront is that even though North Korea has been in isolation over the past four years, they have been continuing to expand and build their nuclear program. And that does mean that they play - they're going to play a bigger role despite the fact that it's a poor country, despite that it has very few friends. It has the potential and the power to play a role in changing the global order in terms of proliferation.

STENT: Paradoxically, the Russia-Ukraine war has given a number of, I would say, middle-level countries but also including even a country like North Korea the opportunity to say, hey; here you have the great powers arrayed against each other, all this competition. We want to use this to kind of assert our importance regionally and to have more say in the global order. And, you know, we think about countries like Brazil or India, but even a country like North Korea now can be a more important regional player because of this war.

LEE: And that's why I say Kim Jong Un also wants to insert himself as a disrupter. I mean, the Koreans have always seen themselves as - what they say a shrimp among whales, a tiny country that has always had to fend off these larger neighbors. And North Korea has really embraced this idea that, in order to stay relevant, in order to survive, you have to be somewhat of a disrupter. They really embrace that. Unfortunately, we're starting to see how they've managed to use that to their advantage.

SHAPIRO: That's Jean Lee, a former Pyongyang bureau chief at the Associated Press. She hosts a podcast called "The Lazarus Heist" about North Korea's cyber theft. And Angela Stent is director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies at Georgetown University. Thank you both so much.

LEE: Thank you so much.

STENT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
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