Russia might provide military tech assistance to N. Korea if S. Korea crosses red lines, says expert

Posted on : 2024-06-24 17:45 KST Modified on : 2024-06-24 17:45 KST
Frank Aum of the US Institute of Peace said that it could have the exact effect Seoul hopes to prevent: Russia could start providing advanced military and satellite technology assistance to Pyongyang
Russian President Vladimir Putin is welcomed to North Korea by leader Kim Jong-un at the Pyongyang Sunan International Airport in the early hours of June 19, 2024. (EPA/Yonhap)
Russian President Vladimir Putin is welcomed to North Korea by leader Kim Jong-un at the Pyongyang Sunan International Airport in the early hours of June 19, 2024. (EPA/Yonhap)

If the US is not successful in creating distance between Pyongyang and Moscow, the world will have to accept the unavoidable reality that military cooperation between the two will escalate, according to an expert on Northeast Asia.

Frank Aum, a senior expert on Northeast Asia at the US Institute of Peace, answered questions about the recent summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in a written interview with the Hankyoreh on Friday,
Aum predicted that Washington will adopt a strategy that blends both isolation and pressure when it comes to dealing with the Pyongyang-Moscow alliance going forward. He also said that if South Korea sends lethal weapons to Ukraine, that would be crossing a red line, resulting in Russia providing high-grade military technology to North Korea. 

Frank Aum, a senior expert on Northeast Asia at the US Institute of Peace. 
Frank Aum, a senior expert on Northeast Asia at the US Institute of Peace. 

Hankyoreh: There is an understanding that North Korea has shifted its policy away from establishing relations with the United States. What does the North Korea-Russia summit mean in this context?

Frank Aum: This summit suggests that North Korea has less urgency to reengage with the United States. The US needs to do more to create a wedge between Russia and North Korea or else it will have to accept all the outcomes of renewed Russia-North Korea tie, like greater military cooperation.

Hankyoreh: What is the United States most concerned about regarding the outcomes of the North Korea-Russia summit?

Aum: The US is likely concerned about how continuing North Korean assistance to Russia might prolong the Ukraine war and how Russian assistance to North Korea will increase North Korean military capabilities and reduce the leverage of the global pressure campaign against North Korea.

Hankyoreh: There are also concerns that Russia could hand over ICBM reentry technology or nuclear submarine technology to North Korea. To what extent are there direct concerns about US security, and how will this affect America’s future response? 

Aum: There are considerable concerns about US security, but the US has not changed its response or strategy. It is instead seemingly relying on the same containment and pressure policy that may have helped drive North Korea into Russia’s arms in the first place. There have been some signs of a more flexible US approach to engaging with North Korea over the last year, but this is probably too little, too late for North Korea. A more aggressive engagement approach should have been tried back in 2021 at the beginning of the Biden administration.

Hankyoreh: How will the US respond? Do you think the US will increase pressure? 

Aum:  The US had already been seeking to institutionalize trilateral cooperation among South Korea and Japan as well as multilateral cooperation across like-minded countries. The new comprehensive strategic partnership between Putin and Kim will provide the US with greater impetus to push Seoul and Tokyo in this direction, perhaps as soon as the NATO summit next month. It’s not clear what more the three countries can do, beyond a trilateral alliance, since they already agreed to consult during crises and conduct trilateral military exercises and meetings.

Hankyoreh: Vladimir Putin said it would be a “big mistake” for South Korea to provide weapons to Ukraine. How would Russia respond if Korea crosses that red line?

Aum: If Seoul crosses any red lines, Russia might provide the type of advanced military and satellite technology assistance that Seoul was trying to prevent in the first place. Existing Russia-South Korea economic and energy cooperation would erode as well.

Hankyoreh: The US State Department continues to reiterate its position that whether or not South Korea provides weapons to Ukraine is up to the South Korean government. However, it's generally understood that the US is in favor of South Korea providing lethal weapons to Ukraine. What do you expect the US will think of Korea’s announcement that it will be reconsidering whether to supply lethal weapons to Ukraine? 

Aum: The US would support greater efforts from allies to aid Ukraine’s fight against Russia. The question is whether South Korea will take this additional step when it is already providing weapons support indirectly to Ukraine through third countries, which seems to be a safer position vis-à-vis Russia. I think Seoul might want to wait until there is more definitive evidence of direct Russian military assistance to North Korea.

Hankyoreh: How serious of an impact do you think the North Korea-Russia summit and the ROK-US response will have on the so-called new Cold War and the confrontation between the two sides?

Aum: It’s hard to tell if this new Cold War will endure or if it’s just a temporary move based on the current security environment. But I don’t think Moscow and Pyongyang would establish this type of partnership in such an open and unequivocal way for tactical purposes. This summit and partnership seem to be crystallizing an explicit front against the US-led international order.

By Lee Bon-young, Washington correspondent

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