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Foreign Policy

Visit Nudges Putin Closer to North Korea

Jul 04, 2024
  • Zhang Yun

    Associate Professor at National Niigata University in Japan, Nonresident Senior Fellow at University of Hong Kong

Putin North Korea.png

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un exchange documents during a signing ceremony of the new partnership in Pyongyang, North Korea, June 19, 2024.

Russian President Vladimir Putin recently paid a state visit to North Korea, the first in 24 years, during which the leaders of the two countries signed a pact for a comprehensive strategic partnership. The pact includes “the provision of mutual assistance in the event of aggression against one of the parties to this agreement.”

In recent days, Washington has persistently accused Pyongyang of ​​providing ammunition to Moscow, and Moscow of supplying advanced military technology to Pyongyang. But as the Russia-North Korea relationship edges closer to an alliance against the United States, international analysts are more concerned about the implications of Putin’s visit for China. There are two prevailing views. First, closer military cooperation between Russia and North Korea will diminish China’s influence on the peninsula; second, their cooperation will serve as a pretext for the United States to strengthen its alliances across East Asia, potentially further straining its relations with China. I believe, however, that these views stem from a misunderstanding of China-Russia-U.S. relations and the broader security issues in the region.

First, Russia is not one of the major stakeholders on the Korean Peninsula, and can only exert influence on issues in the region through strategic coordination with China and multilateral dialogue mechanisms. During the Korean War (1950-53), Russia was officially not a belligerent; therefore, it did not participate in the armistice negotiations or sign the final agreement. The signatories are North Korea, China and the United States, which means that the most important external stakeholders on the peninsula are China and the United States.

In the 1990s, North Korea, South Korea, China and the United States participated in the so-called Four-Party Talks. In the early days of the 21st century, China took the lead in establishing the Six-Party Talks; and then Russia and Japan were invited to join the multilateral mechanism. In April 2018, the Panmunjom Declaration was issued after the inter-Korean summit, stating both nations’ agreement to promote trilateral meetings involving themselves and the United States; or quadrilateral meetings — involving the two sides, the U.S. and China — with a view toward replacing the armistice with a peace agreement and establishing a permanent and solid peace regime.

Today, Russia focuses more on its strategic interests in East Asia out of concern for security issues in Europe. Its strategic focus has long been in Europe, but the security of Asia and Europe are intertwined. Regarding Ukraine, Russia asserts that the serious imbalance in the European security architecture after the Cold War has created security crises and conflicts. Therefore, building a balanced, inclusive and sustainable security architecture in Northeast Asia will help bolster the impact of its proposals on European security. On the day he landed in North Korea, Putin published an article in Rodong Sinmun, an official newspaper in North Korea, in which he emphasized the need to “build an architecture of equal and indivisible Eurasian security.”

To this end, Russia has lent generous support to China’s proposals on the peninsula. For example, the foreign ministers of the two nations issued a joint statement in Moscow on July 4, 2017. They also presented a joint initiative based on China’s “double suspension” initiative (wherein North Korea could suspend its nuclear and missile activities in exchange for the suspension of large-scale U.S.-South Korea military exercises). It also offered a dual-track approach of denuclearizing the peninsula while establishing a peace mechanism, as well as Russia’s step-by-step vision for a resolution. In their joint statement issued during Putin’s visit to China in May, the two nations once again called on the international community to support their joint initiative.

Second, the comprehensive strategic partnership pact between Russia and North Korea is not a military alliance unlike those built by the United States, Japan and South Korea, and it has not upset the balance of power in the region. Yet Washington has created many small multilateral security mechanisms on the basis of bilateral alliances in recent years, demonstrating a trend toward building military alliances. This approach has    undermined the balance of power and strategic stability across the region. 

By 2018, China, Russia and the United States had engaged in active cooperation at the United Nations and adopted a number of Security Council resolutions designed to restrict North Korea’s nuclear and missile development and impose economic sanctions on Pyongyang. Diplomatic activities on the Korean Peninsula reached a milestone, as China and Russia created enabling conditions for the resumption of the Six-Party Talks in accordance with the dual-track approach.

However, since the Hanoi summit in 2019, relations between the U.S. and North Korea have stagnated on all fronts. Why? The United States has insisted on the complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula as a precondition for its lifting sanctions and discussing the normalization of relations. To break the deadlock, China and Russia submitted a draft resolution to the Security Council at the end of 2019 arguing for the adjustment of sanctions because the nation had suspended its nuclear and missile programs and fulfilled some of its obligations under Security Council resolutions. In the face of firm opposition from the United States and its allies, however, an important window of opportunity for diplomatic success on the Korean Peninsula was once again closed.

Since the 2020 U.S. elections, however, the Biden administration has continued to strengthen military deterrence and economic sanctions on Pyongyang. And Pyongyang has responded by expanding its military power, adding to tensions. From China’s perspective, Washington’s tough stance is driven by its goal of expanding its military presence in Northeast Asia and maintaining its dominant position by using North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs as a pretext.

At present, Russia and North Korea are moving closer, primarily at the political level, signaling that regional security must be based on an architecture of equal security. To achieve enduring peace on the Korean Peninsula, it is imperative that communication resumes under the multilateral framework of the Six-Party Talks.

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