Quick Take: North Korea Makes Unusual Military Reference on Eve of Kim-Putin Summit

(Source: KCNA)

Much of the media commentary in the lead-up to Vladimir Putin’s long-anticipated visit to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) on June 18-19 has focused on prospects of North Korea’s enhanced military and security cooperation with Russia. This is for good reason, given the more immediate, tangible security implications of the two countries’ military cooperation.

In that vein, the following paragraph in a party daily editorial published on the morning of Putin’s scheduled arrival is notable:

Hostile forces are constantly increasing the level of threats and blackmail while trying to encroach on the national security and development interests of the two countries of the DPRK and Russia. The people and the militaries of both countries have the sacred duty, together, to safeguard their country’s sovereignty and dignity and guarantee the peace and security of the region.[1] [Emphasis added.]
Pyongyang has, in the past, mentioned military cooperation between the North Korean and Russian militaries. For example, when then-Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visited Pyongyang in July 2023, he and his North Korean counterpart agreed on “expanding and developing the militant friendship and cooperation between the armies of the two countries.” The above passage, however, seems to open the door to some form of joint military action. The “people of both countries” formulation is common, but the “people and militaries of both countries” is a rare combination in the context of general bilateral cooperation and clearly implies deliberate use. This, coupled with the reference to the two militaries’ “duty” to protect national sovereignty and guarantee regional peace and security, sends a less than comforting message.[2]

This passage could have been simply referring back to the “cooperation” (details were not revealed) the two defense ministers discussed last summer. It could be along the lines of Shoigu’s alleged proposal on joint military drills, or, worse yet, it could refer to some form of military intervention. We should also recall the Russian External Intelligence Bureau chief’s rare visit to North Korea in March. Could North Korea-Russia cooperation on intelligence extend to the military domain?

The agreement (or a treaty) North Korea and Russia sign during Putin’s visit, if made public, will hopefully bring clarity to this phrase.

  1. [1]

    Translated from “로씨야련방 대통령 울라지미르 뿌찐동지를 열렬히 환영한다[We] Enthusiastically Welcome Russian Federation President Comrade Vladimir Putin],” Rodong Sinmun, June 18, 2024.

  2. [2]

    Article 1 of the 1961 DPRK-Soviet Union Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance contained an automatic intervention clause. The 2000 DPRK-Russia Treaty of Friendship, Good Neighborliness and Cooperation replaced that provision with a clause on “get[ting] in touch with each without delay” if there is danger of aggression. A North Korean Foreign Ministry “press release” on Choe Son Hui’s visit to Russia in January 2024 said the two countries “reached a consensus and satisfactory agreement in the discussion of practical issues of putting the bilateral relations on a new legal basis.” The reference to “a new legal basis,” against the backdrop of growing military ties between North Korea and Russia, fueled speculation that North Korea and Russia might revive an automatic military intervention clause, similar to the 1961 treaty, in a new accord during Putin’s visit to North Korea.

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