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North Korea says it successfully launched a spy satellite. Did Russia play a role?


North Korea claims to have successfully launched its first spy satellite. Some observers believe the North received technical assistance from Russia. And as NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Seoul, that could be part of a major shift in Pyongyang's foreign policy.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: When North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visited a Russian space port in September, his host, President Vladimir Putin, indicated Russia was willing to help North Korea with satellite technology. South Korea says that since the summit, North Korea has sent Russia more than a million artillery shells for use in Ukraine. More broadly, Kim Jong Un has called for North Korea to play a larger role in an anti-U.S. bloc of nations in what he described as a new Cold War. Lee Ho-ryung, a researcher at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, a government think tank, says this recalls the 1950-to-1953 Korean War, when Russia, China and North Korea faced off against the U.S., South Korea and Japan.

LEE HO-RYUNG: (Through interpreter) North Korea stresses this three-versus-three new Cold War structure and advancing their strategic relationships with China and Russia because that structure is advantageous to North Korea in the short term to create strategic space.

KUHN: Lee says Pyongyang also wants Russian economic aid to counter the effect of international sanctions. Park Hyeong Jung, a researcher emeritus at the Korea Institute for National Unification, a government think tank, says that for Pyongyang, that would be a windfall.

PARK HYEONG JUNG: (Through interpreter) The war between Russia and Ukraine and the intensifying competition between the U.S. and China opened up the possibilities for cooperation with China and Russia. So this is, for North Korea, a kind of coincidental salvation.

KUHN: Observers had previously assumed that Kim Jong Un was building up his arsenal just to get more leverage over the U.S. at the negotiating table. That scenario now seems unlikely. Last year, Kim told his country's parliament that the country's nuclear status is irreversible.


LEADER KIM JONG UN: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: "There will never be such a thing as our abandonment of nuclear weapons or denuclearizing first," he said. "Nor will there be any negotiations or bargaining chips to this end." Kim's shift in strategy, analysts believe, began with a walk.


DONALD TRUMP: Sometimes you have to walk, and this was just one of those times. And I'll let Mike speak to that for a couple of minutes, please.

KUHN: In 2019, then-President Donald Trump walked out of a summit with Kim Jong Un in Vietnam after rejecting Kim's proposal of sanctions relief in exchange for partial denuclearization. For Trump to not only not agree...

ROBERT CARLIN: But to leave, to walk out was an enormous blow to Kim, I think, both personally and as a symbol of his - the aura of his leadership.

KUHN: Robert Carlin is a visiting scholar at Stanford University and former State Department official. He points to the 27 letters that Kim and Trump exchanged in 2018 and 2019.

CARLIN: And this final letter he wrote really demonstrates how he thought he had been double-crossed.

KUHN: Trump shared the letters with journalist Bob Woodward. In the final letter, Kim wrote to Trump, (reading) if you do not think of our relationship as a steppingstone that only benefits you, then you would not make me look like an idiot that will only give without getting anything in return.

Robert Carlin says North Korea's leaders now seem convinced they can no longer bargain with the U.S. and must deal with Russia and China instead.

CARLIN: That's a major decision on their part. It's a strategic decision, and it's not going to be reversed anytime soon.

KUHN: Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul. 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.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.