As Putin heads to Pyongyang, differing interests may make for difficult deals

Posted on : 2024-06-17 17:12 KST Modified on : 2024-06-17 17:12 KST
North Korea would like to restore a bloc with Russia and China, but Putin is on the PR path to resuscitate Russia’s waning international influence
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un during the latter’s visit to the Russian Far East for a summit on Sept. 19, 2023. (KCNA/Yonhap)
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un during the latter’s visit to the Russian Far East for a summit on Sept. 19, 2023. (KCNA/Yonhap)

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s anticipated visit to North Korea this week is expected to serve as a launch pad for strategic cooperation between the two sides on several fronts. While Pyongyang and Moscow have been rapidly growing closer since the start of the war in Ukraine, observers have been keen to note the different strategies and points of emphasis for each side.
North Korea’s top priority is to use Putin’s visit to strengthen ties between North Korea and Russia as well as bolster the neo-Cold War bloc of North Korea, Russia and China. With that in consideration, North Korea reportedly asked that Russia schedule the state visit for June 25, which marks the day the Korean War broke out in 1950.
By highlighting the fact that North Korea, China and Russia were allies during the Korean War, North Korea hopes to raise its strategic position in what North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has underscored as the neo-Cold War blocs of North Korea, China and Russia on one side and South Korea, the US and Japan on the other.
However, diplomatic sources revealed that Putin is expected to travel to Pyongyang on Tuesday or Wednesday, as initially planned. Experts claim that Putin’s trip is not meant to merely focus on Russia’s relations with North Korea, but is part of Russia’s bigger strategic picture.
Since Putin began his fifth term as president in May, he has traveled to China, Belarus and Uzbekistan. His upcoming trips to North Korea and Vietnam are intended to restore his international reputation, which has taken a hit due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the warrant for his arrest issued by the International Criminal Court.
“With Russia gaining the upper hand in the Ukraine war, Putin is deliberately trying to restore Russia’s international influence,” assessed Doo Jin-ho, the chief of the global strategy division at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses. “Much like how the US is making a latticework of relations that brings multilateral alliances together, Russia is striving to make a Russian version of such a network.”
Putin needs to secure strategic latitude in Northeast Asia and the Pacific to compensate for Russia’s over-reliance on China, which was triggered by the war in Ukraine, as well as in response to the cooperation among the US, South Korea and Japan.
This explains why Russia, while reinforcing its ties with North Korea, is also signaling its desire to restore relations with South Korea. Putin’s decision not to accept North Korea’s request for him to attend the ceremony commemorating the outbreak of the Korean War on June 25 could be seen as an attempt to avoid further souring of relations with Seoul.
Considering Putin’s strategy of managing relations with both South Korea and North Korea, many experts think that it is unlikely that Putin will agree to North Korea’s push for the reinstatement of a clause stipulating immediate military intervention on behalf of the other in the case of an outside attack, which had been included in the treaty signed between North Korea and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
“Seeing how Armenia is the only remaining country that Russia has a mutual defense treaty with, it is highly unlikely that Putin will agree to reinstate such a clause in a treaty with North Korea, as he also has to consider the serious ramifications that signing a mutual defense treaty with North Korea will bring to Northeast Asia and the international political climate,” analyzed Kim Sung-bae and Kim Jong-won, researchers at the Institute for National Security Strategy, in an issue brief on the implications of Putin’s visit to North Korea. 

“Russia will not want to restore a mutual defense treaty and institutionalize military cooperation with North Korea, not when it wants to stabilize its relations with South Korea,” they went on.
Instead, Russia is expected to gradually increase its security cooperation with North Korea. Doo emphasized that Russia is concentrating on two big pictures.
One is the signing of a new treaty between North Korea and Russia that would stipulate that, in the event of a contingency, the two countries will immediately consult and cooperate; an upgraded version of an article in the 2000 Treaty of Friendship, Good-neighborliness, and Cooperation, which stated that the two countries would immediately contact each other when facing a crisis. This shows Russia’s wish to form a permanent national security consultative group with North Korea.
The other involves the inclusion of North Korea as an observer at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit on July 3-4, or prompting North Korea’s participation in the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization. This, in particular, would greatly strengthen North Korea’s position diplomatically.

By Park Min-hee, senior staff writer

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