[Column] The significance of closer Pyongyang-Moscow ties missed by Western media

Posted on : 2023-10-04 16:32 KST Modified on : 2023-10-04 16:32 KST
Three implications of the meeting of Kim Jong-un and Vladimir Putin
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un sits with Russian President Vladimir Putin during their summit at the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia’s Far East on Sept. 13. (Reuters/Yonhap)
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un sits with Russian President Vladimir Putin during their summit at the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia’s Far East on Sept. 13. (Reuters/Yonhap)

By Pak Noja (Vladimir Tikhonov), professor of Korean Studies at the University of Oslo

The recent summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and Russian President Vladimir Putin attracted much public attention not only in South Korea but also in Europe. In truth, the fact that the two leaders met isn’t surprising in and of itself. After all, expressing his intent to balance Russia’s Korean Peninsula policy, Putin visited Pyongyang soon after his rise to power and even met with Kim four years ago.

What surprised me more than the two leaders’ summit was the reaction from European and US news outlets. Most outlets accepted the possibility of an arms deal between Russia and North Korea as a fait accompli. To be sure, North Korea does mass-produce shells of the same caliber as the ones manufactured in Russia, and Russia does currently need them. Moreover, considering North Korea has earned foreign currency by exporting weapons, the probability of the country making such a transaction with Russia cannot be understated.

However, presuming something probable as established is well outside the framework of media reportage, which should be based on fact. Additionally, Western media failed to properly answer a key question regarding the North Korea-Russia summit: If the two countries were carrying out a simple arms deal, what need would there be for their leaders to meet in person? Furthermore, wouldn’t it have been more logical for the countries to carry out their transaction in secret instead of flaunting it through a summit, as it would be a violation of UN sanctions?

While evidence regarding whether an arms deal was actually discussed during the summit is few and far between, the meeting seems to have at least three implications.

Most certainly, the meeting between Kim and Putin was a warning directed at South Korea. If North Korea took stronger military ties among South Korea, the US and Japan as a challenge, Russia likely took the possibility of weapons made in South Korea already having made their way to battlefields in Ukraine, not to mention the likelihood of their being provided to Ukraine in the future, as real threats.

Although the specific reasons for their grievances are different, North Korea and Russia are both extremely critical of the Yoon Suk-yeol administration’s blind commitment to the South Korea-US alliance, as well as its uncritical obedience to the US concerning weapons provision to Ukraine. Hence, the recent North Korea-Russia summit, which spurred countless speculations regarding the possibility of an arms deal and even the transfer of advanced weapons technology from Russia to North Korea, should be interpreted as a warning that the continuation of the Yoon administration’s current foreign policy line will result in joint responses from Pyongyang and Moscow.

Secondly, the meeting was a display of sorts of “values-based diplomacy.” “Values-based diplomacy” is an expression South Korean conservatives often use to refer to the alliance between Seoul and Washington. Having said that, conservative party bureaucrats and security agents-cum-bureaucrats that each rule North Korea and Russia also share a certain set of values.

Some of the most important values shared between South Korea and the US may include private property, the individual right to enjoy private property, and periodic changes of power between the ruling and opposition camps that both “agree to systemic rules in the larger framework” that ensures the stability of the entire system. While these values allow opponents of the system to speak up to a certain extent, they primarily center “propertied individuals” such as by reducing the risks for the wealthy.

On the other hand, for Russia, a peripheral empire that has historically been in conflict with the West or has tried to “catch up” with it, and for North Korea, a postcolonial state that has been up against the world system, their central value is state sovereignty, or the very survival of their systems. Not only do opponents of the system have no ground to stand on (North Korea) or are steadily losing their foothold (Russia), but even the wealthy have to unconditionally submit to the rule of officialdom that supposedly assures the continuance of state sovereignty, an operational principle and value that the North Korean and Russian systems actually share.

While the US is a competitor stronger than itself that threatens its imperial sphere of influence for Russia, for North Korea, the country is a potential threat to its survival itself. In other words, both North Korea and Russia yearn for the relativization of US global hegemony and the dawn of a new international order that allows for greater maneuverability for fringe actors like themselves, though for different reasons. Kim’s declaration of his support for Putin’s “sacred fight” should thus be interpreted as a reflection of these fundamental common aims rather than as simple diplomatic rhetoric.

Thirdly, the summit was likely an attempt to reduce North Korea’s excessive reliance on China. Due to international sanctions and a halt in inter-Korean exchange, China’s share of North Korea’s total trade shot up to 96.7% as of 2022. At this point, North Korea’s position vis-à-vis China could as well be described as one of absolute subordination. Although political figures of speech like “blood alliance” are often brought up between Beijing and Pyongyang, actual relations between the two countries are nothing but.

While North Korea, whose top priority is its own survival, gave absolute meaning to its development of nuclear weapons and missiles, China has actually been opposing North Korea’s nuclear program from the get-go, cautioning against fissures in the regional security order that North Korea’s nuclear program can cause as well as US interference that can intensify because of it. As a matter of fact, sanctions resolutions against North Korea that were approved by the UN Security Council ever since Pyongyang’s nuclear tests from 2016 to 2017 were led by China together with the US, which prompted moments of overt conflict between Beijing and Pyongyang.

Bogged down by its war in Ukraine that has been slow to progress, Russia cannot keep up its unprecedently heavy reliance on China either. Ultimately, Putin and Kim met in order to send a message not just to South Korea but also to China as well as to make a public statement about their two countries’ shared values and aims.

Of course, just as the extreme capitalism represented by South Korea and the US has little to do with a bright future for humanity, the values and aims of the leaders of North Korea and Russia have no relation to the universal liberation of humankind or climate justice. However, as the chances of the two countries’ political structures changing in the near future are close to none, the concerns of these northern neighbors of ours should at least be considered when determining our diplomatic line instead of being disregarded.

As the Yoon administration’s blind obedience to the US, uncritical faith in the South Korea-US alliance, and reckless antagonization of North Korea played a big part in bringing Pyongyang and Moscow together today, Yoon’s diplomacy should be critically reflected upon and course-corrected before anything else.

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

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