Takeaways From the Kim-Putin Summit

Stimson experts weigh in on the recent Putin-Kim summit and the implications of this partnership for both regional and global security

These takeaways are also available on the Stimson Center website.

Russia and North Korea Upgrade Relations

By Jenny Town
Director, Korea Program and 38 North

Source: Korean Central News Agency

On June 19, 2024, Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un were all smiles during Putin’s whirlwind state visit to Pyongyang. Amid fanfare and pageantry (as well as some lavish gift giving, including a joy ride in a second luxury car gifted to Kim), the two leaders signed a Treaty upgrading their relationship to a “comprehensive strategic partnership”—the highest level of bilateral relations for Russia.

Among the 23 articles of the treaty was a clause that brought back language from the 1961 Treaty between the Soviet Union and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea), pledging mutual immediate “military and other assistance by all means at its disposal” in case of armed aggression on either of the parties. This biggest divergence from the past formulation was a new reference to the United Nations (UN) Charter’s Article 51, which invokes the “inherent right of individual or collective self-defense if an armed attack occurs,” a rather ironic clause given Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine in violation of the UN Charter itself. It does beg the question of what either believes constitutes an armed attack or armed aggression and what all “military assistance” entails.

While the international community contemplates the scope and meaning of this mutual defense clause, the treaty serves to create the basis of long-term cooperation across military, economic, socio-cultural, and political aspects of the relationship, including in a number of sanctioned areas such as military and technology cooperation. A strong theme throughout the treaty focused on the collective efforts to resist coercive measures and promote a multipolar world order.

The collective aim of the treaty may have been to send a strong signal of defiance to the international community and discourage countries like the Republic of Korea (ROK or South Korea) from getting further involved in the war in Ukraine, but it was likely a miscalculation. With all illusions about either Russia’s or North Korea’s willingness to uphold international law dashed, South Korean officials have already announced a willingness to reconsider the country’s policy against sending lethal military assistance directly to Ukraine. Russia-South Korea relations were strained from Seoul’s signing on to sanctions against Russia for its war in Ukraine; this upgrade in relations with Pyongyang may cause South Korea to reevaluate its relations with Russia altogether. At the very least, formalizing the trends in Russia-North Korea relations seen in recent years will only add to the momentum and will for the US and South Korea to bolster their bilateral ties and trilateral security cooperation with Japan, and for Seoul to continue building ties to NATO and European states, as Transatlantic and Indo-Pacific security become more intimately intertwined.

China’s Reaction to Putin’s North Korea Visit

By Yun Sun
Director, China Program

Source: Thomas.fanghaenel

On the official level, China’s reaction to Putin’s North Korea visit has been so reserved that it borders aloof. During the China-ROK 2+2 meeting that took place around the same time as Putin’s visit, China maintained the position that Russia and DPRK have normal needs to conduct exchanges, cooperation, and develop their relations as friendly neighbors; and their senior visits are a bilateral arrangement between two sovereign states. The implied message is that this is a bilateral matter between Russia and DPRK, and China does not have a position or a role in it.

Based on available information, Putin’s visit to DPRK does not have a direct impact on China yet. After all, Putin visited China one month before he visited Pyongyang, which, more than anything else, demonstrated Russia’s prioritization of China over any other country in its current diplomatic playbook. Regardless of the economic or political consensus reached during Putin’s trip to North Korea, neither Russia nor DPRK could replace China in the critical role it plays in both economies. That’s reassuring for China.

The potential troubling aspects for China are also obvious. China has had a monopoly of influence over both, and if it had the option, China would have preferred to maintain it. The warming ties between Russia and DPRK do not necessarily equate to their desire to alienate or antagonize China, but they could embolden Moscow and Pyongyang, who otherwise would need to be more prudent.

But it’s not all bad news for China. Russia-DPRK ties bolster the anti-US coalition and further distract the US from the strategic competition with China on top of the Ukraine War and the Middle East Crisis. Last but not least, China does not need to appear to be the sole patron and supporter of both pariahs or be the only one to carry the water for them diplomatically.

What China has been very careful and clear about is to frame the relationships among the three countries as three bilateral relations rather than one trilateral relation. China wishes to keep its options open rather than being bogged down by Russia and DPRK in a bipolar arrangement in Northeast Asia and the broader regional, or even global power equilibrium. That would eliminate China’s chance to maintain a good relationship with the West, especially with Europe, Japan, and ROK. China has been working hard to influence the external alignment choices of these US allies and trying to pull them into the Chinese orbit. A trilateral coalition with Russia and DPRK will bury that prospect.

From the trip, the most tangible outcome that potentially antagonizes China is the ostensible “mutual defense” agreement Russia and DPRK signed. Given that China has maintained a mutual defense treaty with DPRK since 1961, the Russia-DPRK pact could potentially drag China into conflict against its preference. The language of the “mutual assistance” clause carries a lot of ambiguity, and China has always maximized its own flexibility in interpreting the language of its own treaty with North Korea. Therefore, the Russia-DPRK pact does not have China cornered, but the discomfort for China would be understandable and obvious.

Cooperation and Conflict for Russia and North Korea

By Rachel Minyoung Lee
Senior Fellow, Korea Program and 38 North

Source: Korean Central News Agency

As expected, Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin signed a legally binding “treaty” on expanding bilateral cooperation across the gamut of areas during Putin’s June 19 visit to Pyongyang. This treaty was a culmination of the highly unusual scope and pace of exchange between North Korea and Russia since Kim’s summit with Putin in September 2023.

Putin’s visit to North Korea was a huge win for Kim in a number of ways: 1) North Korea is only the fourth country Putin visited after his reelection in March 2024; 2) the new treaty formally puts the bilateral relationship on a strategic, long-term footing; and 3) the visit underscored Kim as an equal to the president of a major power, working shoulder-to-shoulder to defy global norms led by the West, such as sanctions. That cannot be bad for propaganda at home and abroad.

Article 4 of the new treaty, which stipulates “military and other assistance” in case of “armed aggression,” closely resembles Article 1 of the 1961 treaty between North Korea and the Soviet Union. The practical implications of this clause are questionable, as Article 1 of the 1961 treaty was not once invoked between 1961 and 1996 when the treaty ceased to be in effect. However, the very fact that the 1961 DPRK-USSR treaty was revived is symbolic enough: the document puts in writing the possibility of Russia’s military involvement in the Korean Peninsula, which itself gives North Korea an extra cover against what it views as external threats, such as South Korea and the US.

There are some clauses throughout the treaty that could have a more immediate and substantial impact on the security of the Korean Peninsula and the region. For example, Article 10 stipulates advancing cooperation and exchange “in the fields of science and technology, including space, biology, peaceful atomic energy.” Cooperation in “space” and “peaceful atomic energy” could open the way for Russia’s cooperation with North Korea on satellites, missiles, and nuclear weapons, respectively. Putin said he did “not exclude developing military-technical cooperation” with North Korea. Article 8 refers to “mechanisms for taking joint measures with the aim of strengthening the defense capabilities for preventing war and ensuring regional and global peace and security.” This sounds like it could be an institutionalized military arrangement, possibly regular North Korea-Russia joint military drills.

The treaty also includes provisions (Articles 10 and 11) on exploring investment and economic cooperation opportunities. This is concerning not only for their potential violations of UN Security Council sanctions but also for their implications for North Korea’s longer-term economic policy. The more successful North Korea’s economy can be despite the sanctions still in place, the less of an incentive Pyongyang has to try to improve relations with the United States.

Kim has declared that the treaty placed the bilateral relationship in a “stage of relations of alliance,” a term that Putin avoided using, at least in public. This raises questions about whether the countries are completely on the same page with regard to the longer-term prospects of their relations. This treaty is a milestone in North Korea-Russia bilateral relations, but its feasibility and sustainability will depend on the follow-on measures that both countries take in the months and years to come.

Russia-North Korea Alignment Renews Tokyo’s Geopolitical Concerns

By Yuki Tatsumi
Director, Japan Program

The “Treaty on Comprehensive Strategic Partnership between the DPRK and the Russian Federation,” signed between Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un on June 19, attracted the world’s attention to the revitalization of the relationship that Moscow and Pyongyang enjoyed, particularly in the years following Kim Il-Sung’s visit to Moscow in 1984. One of the key features of this agreement is a ”win-win” bargain between Russia and North Korea—Russia gains access to North Korea’s Soviet-era-made weapons while North Korea gains access to Russia’s missile and nuclear technologies.

From Japan’s perspective, this new honeymoon period between Russia and North Korea—particularly with their newly announced Comprehensive Strategic Partnership treaty, including languages about mutual defense obligations that are akin to any military alliance—renews Tokyo’s concerns about the further worsening security environment that it finds itself in.

Already driven by “an unprecedented and the greatest strategic challenge in ensuring the peace and security of Japan” posed by China as articulated in its 2022 National Security Strategy, the revitalization of the Russia-North Korea partnership demonstrated by Putin’s Pyongyang visit further aggravates Tokyo’s sense of urgency of taking measures to safegufard its national security.

Of particular concern for Tokyo is the type of technology that might be transferred from Russia to North Korea. Should Pyongyang be able to leverage the technology transfer from Russia to finally gain the capability to build nuclear bombs that can be used operationally, this will drastically change Tokyo’s threat perception because it will elevate the sense of priority in its ongoing effort to acquire counterstrike capabilities.

This likely further motivates Tokyo to continue to double down on moving forward with the initiatives that Prime Minister Kishida and US President Biden announced during Kishida’s visit to Washington DC in April, particularly those aimed at further realigning the bilateral defense relationship. Furthermore, it will incentivize Tokyo to continue to explore ways to revitalize its defense relationship with the Republic of Korea, as announced by the two countries’ defense ministers on June 1, as well as continue to invest in trilateral cooperation among the US, Japan, and ROK.

More broadly, the Russia-Pyongyang partnership reconfirmed the argument that Japan, spearheaded by Prime Minister Kishida, has been making about the connectivity between Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific theaters. Kishida, scheduled to attend the upcoming NATO summit in Washington DC next month, should use the occasion to put the recent Russia-North Korea summit in the context of this intra-region connectivity, reinforcing his message of why NATO allies need to sustain its strategic attention to Indo-Pacific, and vice versa.

What Putin’s Visit to Pyongyang Says About the Kremlin’s Unfolding Foreign Policy

By Vladimir Ivanov
Adjunct Senior Fellow

Source: Korean Central News Agency

Most international commentators of Vladimir Putin’s visit focus on the immediate implications of the emerging Russia—DPRK alliance: military-technical cooperation in the framework of the Russia-Ukraine conflict and North Korea’s strategic missile buildup, prospects for Russia’s space technologies, food, and fuel supplies to Pyongyang, possible North Korea’s support to Russia with its labor and potentially combat force, and general political messages both leaders are sending to their global and regional foes—to US, the West in general, including its allies in Asia, ROK, and Japan in the first place.

Signing the Treaty on Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with a mutual security assistance clause provides a solid long-term framework for the Russia-DPRK relationship. Seemingly, it plays in the hands of the widely spread Western media cliche of a forming “axis of evil” between Russia, DPRK, and Iran, with China’s ambiguous positioning looming behind. It gives Moscow, Pyongyang, and Beijing (having a similar agreement with DPRK) a stronger, however flexible, deterrence capability.  At the same time, the treaty highlights a belated response to the US-led consolidation of alliances in the Indo-Pacific: QUAD, AUKUS, and JAROKUS, as well as growing NATO’s interest in the region (See the latest statements by NATO Secretary General J. Stoltenberg).

Crystallizing its security alliances in the Middle East and East Asia ostensibly indicates Russia’s escalatory strategy in these regions helping to distract Western resources from supporting Ukraine. It naturally leads to increasing tensions and risks of military escalation in North East Asia inspiring China and DPRK in their anti-American posturing, particularly over Taiwan and South Korea, provoking respective retaliatory policies by ROK, Japan, and other US allies in the region.

But does it mean that Russia’s intentions go as far as instigating hostilities in the proximity of its Far Eastern borders with a risk of nuclear confrontation and the actual start of WW III?

In a broader geopolitical context, the Kremlin’s major underlying priority is securing and extending where possible its traditional spheres of influence, and grabbing as many power resources (starting with natural, infrastructural, cognitive, and diplomatic) in the emerging new world order, primarily in Eurasia, the “heartland”, but also relying on the Soviet Union global legacies (in Asia, Africa, Latin America). Having failed to engage Ukraine in the Eurasian Economic Union by 2014 and blitzkrieg it militarily in 2022, Vladimir Putin seems to be ready to accept the “realities on the ground” in Europe, turning the bulk of his efforts to Global South and Global East (a new notion becoming popular in the Kremlin’s foreign policy lexicon – See Putin’s meeting with the senior staff of the Russian MFA, June 14, 2024). North Korea is one of the natural targets in this strategy, a hot potato to pick, sharing it with China before the US managed to spread its might in East Asia with an eventual Korean unification under ROK leadership. Securing the DMZ as a buffer zone, the Kremlin might feel more confident in negotiating a ceasefire in Ukraine to freeze the conflict around the actual line of demarcation.

Economic agreements with DPRK, congruent with those signed with China during the Putin-Xi summit in May 2024 (e.g., resumption of trilateral cooperation in the Tumen River estuary), are outspoken: Russia perceives North Korea as another alternative source for its economic development in these difficult transitory times (the loss of European markets), and a platform to jointly circumvent Western unilateral sanctions (where North Korea has a particularly vast experience).

Escalation strategy contradicts these goals. Neither Russia, nor China are interested in being directly involved in a major military, even more so nuclear, conflict in East Asia, and they will have to coordinate their policies to contain Kim’s missile saber rattling. In the longer term, maneuvering through the transitory framework of a “Cold War II” may open new opportunities for a trilateral US-Russia-China consultation on security risk management in the region, unless an inadvertent spark provokes a big fire.

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