Kim–Putin ‘strategic partnership’ leaves US and allies with multi-pronged problem

A growing arms trade between Moscow and Pyongyang together with North Korea’s nuclear ambitions are increasingly urgent issues for the United States, South Korea, and Japan.

Expert comment Updated 27 June 2024 Published 21 June 2024 3 minute READ

The much-anticipated visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin to Pyongyang on 17–18 June emphasized how relations between North Korea and Russia have now reached new levels. The two states signed a ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’ agreement, including a mutual defence clause.

This was far from an insignificant manoeuvre, even if the lack of detail raises questions about the agreement’s practical implications. What is more, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un surprisingly termed the two states’ relationship an ‘alliance’, underlining its lasting nature.

The meeting underscores the importance that the US and its allies – not least South Korea and Japan – address not just the North Korean nuclear problem, but an arguably more concerning issue, namely the brewing arms trade between Moscow and Pyongyang.

Assertion of mutual defence – and China’s influence

Putin’s meeting with Kim Jong Un was hardly unexpected, given the North Korean leader’s visit to Russia in September 2023. In Pyongyang, the two leaders engaged in talks lasting several hours. 

Kim affirmed his support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and pledged North Korea’s unconditional support for all of Russia’s policies. Putin gifted his counterpart with an admiral’s dagger, a tea set, and a Russian-made Aurus limousine, in clear contravention of existing sanctions.

The idea of a ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’ between North Korea and Russia is nothing new. 

Russia’s relations with North Korea have gained notable traction following Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and his resultant need for large quantities of munitions, whether artillery or even ballistic missiles.

Yet, Putin’s reception in Pyongyang, together with the two leaders’ pledges to create a ‘new multipolar’ global order resolutely against US hegemony, indicate how these relations are likely to strengthen over time and extend beyond the duration of the war in Ukraine.

The idea of a ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’ between North Korea and Russia is nothing new. This agreement will likely replace previous agreements, including that signed between the Soviet Union and North Korea in 1961 during the Cold War, and another in 2000, the latter which did not contain any security assurances.

A statement from North Korean state media, released hours after the meeting, made clear how the two states would ‘immediately provide military and other assistance by all available means’ in the event of any attack on either party from ‘an individual state or multiple states’.  

The fact that both sides are yet to define the idea of an ‘attack’, as mentioned in the mutual defence clause, is also cause for concern.

This is a significant assertion that goes beyond a mere affirmation of political and ideological values. Its potency could be weakened in the event that relations between Moscow and Pyongyang become bumpier over time, as occurred during the Cold War. Although this seems unlikely for now, it should not be ruled out.

Questions remain, however, as to when this clause would ever be invoked, given the slim chance of Russia or North Korea being attacked by external parties. The fact that both sides are yet to define the idea of an ‘attack’, as mentioned in the mutual defence clause, is also cause for concern, broadening the possible scope for retaliatory measures on the part of North Korea and Russia.

Whether this upgraded Russia–North Korea relationship will be without limits depends upon China, which will be watching events closely.

Beijing will have taken stern note of Kim Jong Un’s claim that Russia is North Korea’s ‘most honest friend’. Despite the likely increase in cooperation in advanced military technology between Moscow and Pyongyang, China remains North Korea’s largest economic partner.

As one of the signatories to the Korean War Armistice Agreement of 1953, China will want to ensure that it continues to exert an influence over North Korea’s foreign policies. At the same time, China will also want to maintain robust economic ties with South Korea and seek to fray Seoul’s security relationship with Washington. A meeting between the Chinese President, Xi Jinping, and Kim Jong Un, later this year, should not be discounted.

The urgent need for trilateral coordination

Despite these questions, the Kim–Putin meeting made clear how both Russia and North Korea seek to position themselves in staunch opposition to the US and its allies. 

In May South Korean President, Yoon Suk Yeol, affirmed how Seoul would seek ‘amicable’ relations with Moscow…the new ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’ …may cause South Korea to re-evaluate its position.

Through their actions and words, the two leaders have now emphasized that both states have little desire to be part of the US-led liberal international order and will actively continue to undermine it and its core institutions, such as the United Nations Security Council. Moreover, mutual military cooperation and sanctions-violating behaviour will continue apace.

These actions will undoubtedly cause concern in South Korea, which has hitherto been reluctant to provide lethal aid in support of Ukraine, given the potential repercussions on economic relations with Russia. 

In May this year, the South Korean President, Yoon Suk Yeol, affirmed how Seoul would seek ‘amicable’ relations with Moscow and evaluate their ties on a ‘case-by-case basis’. Nevertheless, the new ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’ announced in Pyongyang may cause South Korea to re-evaluate its position.

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Thus, the need for the US to strengthen bilateral and trilateral coordination with its northeast Asian allies, South Korea and Japan, is more urgent than ever. 

The Kim–Putin summit underscored how the US and its allies now must combat a multi-pronged problem: deterring North Korea’s ever-growing nuclear and missile development, while also disrupting the concerning arms trade between North Korea and Russia, and any other third parties, not least Iran.

Next month’s NATO Summit in Washington will offer a useful opportunity for the three countries to bolster this alignment. 

With South Korea and Japan attending the summit for the third consecutive year, the three countries should seek to reaffirm, in the strongest terms possible, both their respective alliances and their commitment towards defending against the individual and concerted threats from illiberal non-democracies.