NZ PM on track for heavy defeat. UK–China spy allegations strain relations. Thousands die in Libya floods. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Kim travels to Russia in show of support for Putin

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un surrounded by bodyguards.
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un visit the Vostochny Cosmodrome in far-eastern Russia on Wednesday.
Credit: Mikhail Metzel / AFP

Great power rivalry

Ukraine: On Tuesday, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un travelled in a bulletproof train to Russia to meet Vladimir Putin, who is thought to have turned to the dictatorship to seek weapons for his protracted invasion of Ukraine.

Kim, making his first trip abroad since 2019, met Putin at a space base in Russia’s far east. “I am glad to see you,” Putin told Kim.

United States officials said Putin sought the meeting to secure munitions to replenish Russia’s supplies.

Russia is believed to be firing at least 20,000 artillery shells a day in Ukraine, but its access to weapons and materials is limited due to international sanctions. It has turned to countries such as Iran, which has provided armed drones and other equipment, and North Korea, whose weapons are notoriously unreliable but are based on Soviet designs and compatible with Russian systems. Russia is set to produce 2.5 million shells this year, but this is well short of the seven million it is expected to fire. Ukraine is believed to be firing up to 7000 shells a day but receives widespread international military aid.

Putin is thought to be willing to provide Kim with much-needed food and energy, and possibly with technology that could be used to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles and satellites.

The US said the meeting showed Putin was desperate for weapons and was “begging for assistance”. Department of State spokesperson Matthew Miller said Putin had been forced to “travel across the length of his own country to meet with an international pariah to ask for assistance in a war that he expected to win in the opening month”.

For the past three months, Russia and Ukraine have been engaged in intensive ground fighting as a Ukrainian counteroffensive has made slow gains. Ukraine’s deputy defence minister, Hanna Maliar, said this week it had recaptured small parcels of land in the south and the east as well as Black Sea gas and oil drilling platforms that were seized by Russia in 2015. 

The neighbourhood

New Zealand: Chris Hipkins, New Zealand’s prime minister, is on track for a heavy defeat at an election next month as inflation, high interest rates and ministerial scandals take a toll on the ruling Labour Party.

A Newshub-Reid Research poll this week found Labour was supported by 27 per cent of voters, its worst result in six years, compared with 41 per cent support for the centre-right opposition National Party, 12 per cent for the Greens and 10 per cent for the libertarian-right ACT party.

The polls reflect a dramatic turnaround for Labour, which won the 2020 election with an outright majority – a rarity in New Zealand politics.

The party was then led by Jacinda Ardern, whose handling of the Covid-19 pandemic helped her to build on her surprising election win in 2017. Ardern resigned in January.

On Tuesday, Hipkins told reporters he acknowledged there was a “mood for change”.

The National Party leader, Christopher Luxon, a former head of Air New Zealand, has drawn level with Hipkins as preferred prime minister. Luxon has promised to cut income taxes, reduce debt and boost childcare spending.

Hipkins has promised to increase benefits for low-income families, remove the GST from fruit and vegetables, and provide free dental care to those under 30.

New Zealand’s interest rate has surged to 5.5 per cent as the central bank has tried to counter high inflation, though unemployment is low. But Labour has experienced a series of political scandals, including a customs minister who switched parties, a transport minister who failed to sell shares in Auckland Airport and a justice minister who was charged with refusing to accompany a police officer after a car crash.

Democracy in retreat

Britain: The arrest of a British parliamentary researcher who was allegedly a spy for China has strained relations between the two countries and raised concerns about the extent of Beijing’s infiltration of Westminster.

Chris Cash, a 28-year-old who worked for Conservative MP Alicia Kearns, the chair of the House of Commons foreign affairs committee, this week denied he was a Chinese operative. His statement followed a report in The Sunday Times that said he attended a private school in Britain and then studied in China, where he was recruited to spy. It was only revealed last weekend that Cash had been arrested in March.

“I am completely innocent,” Cash said in a statement. “I have spent my career to date trying to educate others about the challenge and threats presented by the Chinese Communist Party.”

Pro-democracy advocates and China hawks have questioned whether the government knew about the alleged espionage as it pressed ahead with its recent efforts to reset ties with China.

Adding to the anxieties about China’s alleged covert activities in Westminster, The Times reported this week that the ruling Conservative Party dropped two potential candidates to become MPs in 2021 and 2022 after MI5 – Britain’s domestic intelligence agency – warned they could be Chinese spies.

On Monday, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak told MPs he was “appalled” by reports of espionage in Westminster and vowed to “defend our democracy and our security”.

“The sanctity of this place must be protected,” he said.

A spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in London said the espionage allegations were “malicious slander”.

Spotlight: Floods in Libya

Last Sunday night, a relentless downpour during a heavy storm caused a dam to burst on a hillside outside Derna, a coastal city in Libya that has about 90,000 residents.

The water swept down a valley towards a second dam, which also burst. The water then gushed along a river towards the city, toppling apartment buildings and destroying entire neighbourhoods in a disaster that – as of Wednesday – had killed more than 5200 people and left 8000 missing.

An official in the administration that controls the east of Libya, Hichem Abu Chkiouat, told Reuters on Monday: “Bodies are lying everywhere – in the sea, in the valleys, under the buildings. I am not exaggerating when I say that 25 per cent of the city has disappeared.”

Other towns and cities in the east, including Benghazi, also suffered damage.

Libya has endured years of unrest since a NATO-backed popular uprising in 2011 that toppled autocratic ruler Muammar Gaddafi. The country now has rival administrations in the east and west. This instability has left the nation with crumbling infrastructure, which is believed to have contributed to the weakness of the dams at Derna. The city had no warning system or evacuation plan.

On Tuesday, Margaret Harris, a spokesperson for the World Health Organization, said the flooding was of “epic proportions”.

“There’s not been a storm like this in the region in living memory,” she said in a statement. 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 15, 2023 as "Kim travels to Russia in show of support for Putin".

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