[News analysis] N. Korea’s new pact with Russia is ‘mirror image’ of Yoon’s alliance with US

Posted on : 2024-06-21 16:54 KST Modified on : 2024-06-21 17:05 KST
Two buffers in the provision about mutual defense obligations and language about a “channel of bilateral negotiations” mark a departure from previous treaties between the two sides
President Vladimir Putin of Russia embraces North Korean leader Kim Jong-un upon arriving at Pyongyang Sunan International Airport on June 19, 2024. (Sputnik/Yonhap)
President Vladimir Putin of Russia embraces North Korean leader Kim Jong-un upon arriving at Pyongyang Sunan International Airport on June 19, 2024. (Sputnik/Yonhap)

The treaty that was signed by the leaders of North Korea and Russia in Pyongyang on Wednesday institutes protocols that enable the Russian military to intervene in a crisis on the Korean Peninsula. By the same token, the treaty would enable North Korea to provide military support or even to intervene if the Russia-Ukraine war were to escalate into an all-out war with the West.

The treaty, formally titled the “DPRK-Russia Treaty on Comprehensive Strategic Partnership,” is composed of a preamble and 23 articles and reflects North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s desire to develop their two countries’ relationship into a comprehensive strategic alliance of shared values that would also encompass a military alliance. 

The problem is that this treaty will inevitably bring major changes to the security balance in Northeast Asia and the triangular relationship between South Korea, North Korea and Russia that have been in place since Seoul and Moscow normalized diplomatic relations on Sept. 30, 1990.

Quite a few experts cite the treaty provision that enables Russian military intervention in a war on the Korean Peninsula as grounds for regarding the 2024 treaty as a restoration of the “automatic military intervention” that was part of the 1961 defense pact between North Korea and the Soviet Union. But while the 1961 treaty stipulated that the two countries should “immediately extend military and other assistance with all the means at its disposal” without any caveats, Articles 3 and 4 of the 2024 treaty contain two “buffers.” So the two treaties are similar in that they both provide grounds for military intervention, but there are qualitative differences in terms of automatic intervention.

First of all, Article 4 of the 2024 treaty states that “in case any one of the two sides is put in a state of war by an armed invasion [. . .], the other side shall provide military and other assistance with all means in its possession without delay,” but adds the precondition that this must be “in accordance with Article 51 of the UN Charter and the laws of the DPRK and the Russian Federation.” That sets it apart from the automatic intervention provision in the 1961 treaty.

“It can be inferred that this doesn’t mean automatic military intervention,” said a high-ranking official in Korea’s presidential office.

Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations states that member states who have suffered “an armed attack” have the “inherent right of individual or collective self-defense.” But Article 51 places some conditions on self-defense, requiring that it be “immediately reported to the Security Council” and authorizing the Security Council “to take at any time such action as it deems necessary in order to maintain or restore international peace and security.”

In effect, Article 51 gives the UN Security Council authority to adjust how member states exercise self-defense. The right to self-defense under Article 51 of the UN Charter is acknowledged by international law, including Article 5 of the NATO treaty (which deals with collective defense) and Article 5 of the US-Japan Mutual Cooperation and Security Treaty.

The phrase about “in accordance with [. . .] the laws of the DPRK and the Russian Federation” is comparable to language about “in accordance with its constitutional processes” in Article 3 of the US-ROK Mutual Defense Treaty and “in accordance with their respective constitutional processes” in Article 11 of the North Atlantic Treaty.

This is an escape clause designed to provide the signatories with options under international and domestic law to prevent or avoid automatic military intervention. The question is how seriously North Korea and Russia will attempt to uphold the spirit of a safety mechanism for preventing the military clashes that occur so frequently on the pretext of exercising self-defense.

If Article 4 of the 2024 treaty is intended for the contingency of war, Article 3 responds to a peacetime crisis. (That is why Article 3 precedes Article 4 in the treaty.)

Article 3 states that “In case a direct threat of armed invasion is created [. . .], the two sides shall immediately operate the channel of bilateral negotiations for the purpose of adjusting their [stances . . .] and discussing feasible practical measures.”

While this is reminiscent of the provision about immediately making contact when deliberations and cooperation are made necessary by the risk of invasion or threats to peace and safety in the friendship treaty that Russia and North Korea concluded in February 2000, one decisive difference in the 2024 treaty is the stipulation about “the channel of bilateral negotiations.”

Whereas the 2000 treaty merely mentioned “making contact,” the new treaty adopts an institutional approach to creating and activating a new framework for strategic dialogue with the goal of preliminary coordination and decision-making between the two countries during a crisis situation.

“During the Cold War, China and the Soviet Union were frustrated with North Korea for making trouble without any advance notice and then leaving them to clean up the mess, so they asked the North Koreas to engage in preliminary strategic dialogue. While China continues to want that, the Chinese and North Koreans have never instituted a preliminary deliberative body. Article 4 ought to be examined in that context,” a former high-ranking official in the government who is familiar with relations between North Korea, China and Russia in the Cold War told the Hankyoreh on Thursday.

Experts are criticizing South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol’s “values diplomacy,” which led to Russia and North Korea forming a de facto alliance in the 2024 treaty, and calling on Yoon to change his policy.

“Since the essence of an alliance is stipulating the duty of providing mutual military assistance, it’s correct to regard the relationship between North Korea and Russia as an alliance in the broad sense of the term,” remarked Kim Jung-sup, the vice president of research and education at the Sejong Institute.

“The treaty between North Korea and Russia is the mirror image of South Korea and the US’ comprehensive strategic values-based alliance that the Yoon administration is always touting. It’s awful to see how the seeds we have sown are ending up endangering our own peace and security,” remarked a veteran figure in the field of foreign affairs and national security.

“The upgrade of North Korea and Russia’s relationship to a comprehensive alliance makes it clear that the Yoon administration’s policy of ‘peace through strength’ is far from being functional — in fact, it’s having the opposite effect. This calls for a fundamental rethink of our foreign strategy,” said a former high-ranking government official.

By Lee Je-hun, senior staff writer

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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