East Asia Compass

Alliance-Making: The Meaning of Putin’s Visit to North Korea

27 Jun, 2024    ·   5877

Dr. Sandip Kumar Mishra analyses the bilateral, regional, and national implications of greater Russia-North Korea alignment

Russian President Vladimir Putin visited North Korea after a gap of 24 years, on 19 June 2024. On his last historic visit in 2000, Russia and North Korea signed a Treaty of Friendship, Good Neighbourliness and Cooperation, which was a version of their 1961 treaty but without a military clause. This recent visit is once again historic. It took place after a long gap and the two countries also signed a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership Treaty (CSPT), which includes a commitment to mutual assistance. While Putin claimed the treaty to be ‘‘a truly breakthrough document’,’ Kim Jong-un went to extent of saying that bilateral relations have now ‘‘risen to a new high level of alliance.’

We can expect debate about whether terms such as ‘‘assistance or aid’’ and ‘‘all possible means’’ that are mentioned in the document mean sending military personnel to defend each other or if the aid will be limited to providing arms, equipment, and technical support but no boots on the ground. Whether the two countries can be called military allies is also doubtful. However, it is nevertheless a big development not only for the Russia-North Korea relationship but also for strategic equations in the region.

This meeting and the resultant CSPT mean Russia and North Korea are going to roll out cooperation in all possible areas, whether economic, military, or other domains—despite being under sanctions imposed by the UN. In their joint statement, Putin said that bilateral trade has increased nine times in 2023, and in the first five months of 2024, it has grown by another 54 per cent. Although the volume of trade is still not substantial, the treaty indicates that the two countries are committed to increasing it, and the “illegal unilateral” Western sanctions are going to be further overlooked. This defiance has already taken place in the military domain. North Korea has provided ballistic missiles, more than 11,000 containers of munitions, and troops to Russia to support its invasion of Ukraine. In return, Russia reportedly provided technical assistance to North Korea in November 2023, to successfully launch a spy satellite. Earlier in 2024, “a large number of Russian experts” had apparently gone to North Korea to assist the launch of three more satellites. North Korea seeks energy and technical know-how in space technology from Russia, and the CSPT will definitely make this easier.

For decades, the international community has sanctioned and isolated North Korea because of its pursuit of nuclear weapons, which led to even its friendly neighbours, China and Russia, to distance themselves a little. After coming to power in late 2011, Kim Jong-un was therefore not immediately able to hold summit-level meetings with either China or Russia. A few years later, over 2018 and 2019, Kim Jong-un had the opportunity of five meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping. This included Xi’s visit to North Korea in June 2019. The pandemic period once again contributed to a pause. Since then, the Ukraine crisis has been used by both Pyongyang and Moscow to forge a mutually beneficial partnership. This is borne out by their mutual high-level visits to each other’s countries, such as Kim Jong-un’s to Russia in September 2023. During this time, President Alexander Lukashenko of Russia also suggested a three-way dialogue between Russia, North Korea, and Belarus, which shows Pyongyang’s growing links with other like-minded countries. Putin’s recent visit to North Korea is a next step in the same direction.

Putin's visit to North Korea is thus important for at least two reasons. One, it is symbolic of the fact that the international community, and more specifically US policy, to isolate and sanction rival regimes is going to be challenged and defied. Two, North Korea has an open mutual defence treaty with Russia and any military action against it is simply no longer a choice. The fundamental problem here is that the western policy of isolating and sanctioning any challenger is so blindly and even lazily followed that the number of challengers have increased. The challengers are in fact so numerous that they are now trying to create an alternate space of their own. The law of diminishing returns is at play. Developments between Pyongyang and Russia clearly indicate that this policy must be revisited and revised.

Dr. Sandip Kumar Mishra is Professor, Centre for East Asian Studies, SIS, JNU, & Distinguished Fellow, IPCS.