Moving Past the Kim-Putin Summit: Eyes on the Party Plenary Meeting for Cues

Source: KCNA

Vladimir Putin’s less-than-24-hour visit to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) last week spawned a whirlwind of pre-summit media speculation about exactly how far and deep their relationship might stretch, particularly in the military realm. One week after the Kim-Putin summit, we are faced with new questions about the 23-article DPRK-Russia Treaty on Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, the highlight of the recent Kim-Putin talks that formalizes bilateral cooperation across a full spectrum of issues including political, military, economic, social, cultural, and science and technology.

The treaty itself, and even its scope, including military, should have come as no surprise to North Korea watchers: North Korea in January 2024 said its relations with Russia would be placed “on a new legal basis in…an all-round way.” Yet, the details of the treaty, once revealed, have aroused concern about it apparently giving a legal framework for continued violations of sanctions, as well as what it might mean for Russian participation in a potential conflict on the Korean Peninsula.

However, the latest summit and the treaty are not the end state but merely milestones along a continuum of relations between the two neighbors’ long history. There is still so much we do not know, such as what the treaty means in practice or what deals Pyongyang and Moscow may have struck that were not made public. The real test begins now, as the two countries take steps to implement the treaty.

As stated in my earlier piece, the important question is what Pyongyang ultimately seeks from an improved relationship with Russia. If Kim sees Russia as a viable longer-term economic and political partner, it could have major implications for North Korea’s foreign and economic policy. The best we can do for now is to closely monitor the next moves by Pyongyang and Moscow. North Korea seems to have started already by issuing back-to-back high-level official statements and media commentary on Ukraine, including a “press statement” attributed to Pak Jong Chon—notable for using his Central Military Commission vice chairman title in lieu of the party secretary title he typically employs for public statements. The imminent party plenary meeting will likely be the first best indicator of what all this means.

North Korea’s Messaging: Cementing Longer-term Ties

The new treaty reflects the two countries’ increasingly aligning interests in the international arena and their commitment to long-term cooperation, a big political win for Kim Jong Un, as demonstrated by North Korean media’s positive coverage of the Pyongyang summit. Overshadowed by the glitz and pageantry was what looked to be North Korea taking additional steps to ensure longer-term ties with Russia, further reinforcing its policy of alignment with the country.

First, North Korean media cited Kim Jong Un’s interpretation that the treaty put bilateral relations “on a new higher stage called the relations of alliance” and have since described Pyongyang-Moscow relations as a “strategic partnership and alliance relations.” The Kim leader’s utterance of “alliance,” a term North Korea rarely uses even in connection to China, seems to have been meant to underscore the long-term, strategic nature of the relationship that Kim deemed was not sufficiently expressed by “strategic partnership.” By now, the North Korean domestic public should be well versed in Kim’s foreign policy direction. Kim’s remarks denoting major policy shifts with the United States and South Korea, as well as the highly unusual frequency of exchange with Russia since Kim’s last summit with Putin, have all been covered in both North Korea’s internally and externally focused outlets. Yet, state media’s coverage of Kim’s “alliance” reference for both domestic and external audiences still seems like a significant gesture, as a domestic announcement leaves the regime with little policy flexibility.[1]

Second, North Korean media’s readout of the Kim-Putin summit reaffirmed that Pyongyang-Moscow relations had “anti-imperialist independence as their ideological basis.” This appears to be aimed at solidifying the foundation of the relationship by giving it an ideological underpinning, similar to China-DPRK relations, which Pyongyang habitually says are rooted in “anti-imperialist independence” and socialism. North Korea has characterized anti-imperialism as a common cause between itself and Russia since former Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s visit to Pyongyang in July 2023. In September of that year, after the Putin-Kim Summit in the Russian Far East, the party used the formulation “independence against imperialism as an ideological basis” for the first time in reference to North Korea-Russia relations. The motto of “anti-imperialist independence” in North Korea-Russia relations seems to have added significance when viewed in the context of Kim Jong Un’s instructions during a parliamentary session earlier this year. He proclaimed that “anti-imperialist independence” was North Korea’s “immutable and consistent first national policy” and called for “launch[ing] a courageous anti-imperialist joint action and joint struggle on an international scale.”

Looking Ahead to the Party Plenary Meeting

We may start to see implications of the Kim-Putin summit as early as this week, when a Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) Central Committee (CC) plenary meeting is set to convene to review the work of each sector in the first half of the year. Party plenary meetings discuss and decide on key domestic and foreign policy issues. North Korea has held a plenary meeting every June since 2021 to review the first half of the year, and the June plenary meetings have always addressed foreign policy and military issues.

In the wake of Kim’s 2023 summit with Putin, the WPK CC Political Bureau (Politburo) held a meeting to receive a summit readout and discuss the next steps. If that precedent is followed, the plenary will likely be used to review the recent Kim-Putin summit and follow-on measures. It is possible that North Korea may reach a significant policy decision as a follow-up to the summit and the treaty, although on what aspect of various lines of effort put forward is hard to say.

As a point of reference, during a late May 2024 Politburo meeting, the party leadership received a Korean People’s Army General Staff briefing on the “recent military situation” and put forward “immediate tasks for military activities.” The Politburo rarely discusses military issues, and when it does, its meetings have resulted in a major action or change in policy. For example, a Politburo meeting in January 2022 signaled that North Korea would be lifting its moratorium on longer-range missile and nuclear testing. Pyongyang resumed intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) testing two months later. It is possible that the “immediate tasks for military activities” led to North Korea’s trash-filled balloon operations from late May to early June and meant nothing more, but even so, it shows a trend. It should be noted that North Korea suspended those operations in the lead-up to and during the summit, and resumed them following Putin’s departure from Pyongyang.

Potential Next Steps for Pyongyang

While the extent of military and technical cooperation has been the main focus of much of the summit analysis, the more tangible benefits may be on the economic side, starting with Russia’s gas and oil supplies and, as stipulated in the treaty, trade and investment opportunities. Though not mentioned during the summit or in the treaty, Putin’s article published in the North Korean Party daily on the day of his scheduled arrival said North Korea and Russia would develop a “trade and mutual settlement system that is not controlled by the West.”

Politically, the two countries have emphasized joining hands on regional and global issues. In that vein, it would be worth noting that the North Korean Foreign Ministry in May mentioned building a “new mechanical structure in the region,” which seemed to echo Putin’s reference in his article to building a “security structure in Eurasia” with North Korea.

  1. [1]

    For more information on the distinction between North Korea’s domestic and external audiences, see Rachel Minyoung Lee, “Understanding North Korea’s Public Messaging: An Introduction,” National Committee on North Korea, May 6, 2022,

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