July 24th, 2024


Does the alliance between Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un spell doom for the US?

Daniel DePetris

By Daniel DePetris

Published July 10, 2024


Even before Russian President Vladimir Putin landed in Pyongyang for his first trip to North Korea in nearly a quarter century, foreign policy observers were pontificating about what Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un might have up their sleeves. Was the Putin-Kim summit an inflection point in the world order? Did the signing of the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership Agreement mean that Moscow and Pyongyang were now officially allies? And if so, how should the United States react?

The commentary thus far has taken on an almost hysterical turn. Victor Cha, a former National Security Council director for Asian affairs, has alleged that Russia and North Korea are now embarking on " a full-fledged military alliance" similar to what both countries had during the Cold War. President Joe Biden's administration views the renewed Russia-North Korea partnership as an extremely dangerous arrangement that should be of concern to anybody who cares about stability on the Korean Peninsula or about saving Ukraine from Russian revanchism.

Some of these comments are justifiable. U.S. officials are right to raise concerns. But to be perfectly blunt, the sky isn't falling.

First, it's vital to understand why Putin and Kim have chosen the path they're now on. For Russia, the calculations are relatively straightforward: Russian foreign policy is now dictated entirely by the ongoing war in Ukraine. Every move made on the international scene is motivated by one question: Does it help or hurt the war effort? With respect to North Korea, the answer is lopsidedly in the "helps" column. North Korea has proved indispensable for Moscow at a time when the Russian army needs all the military aid it can get to maintain its lines during the upcoming summer fighting season. According to the U.S. State Department, North Korea has delivered 11,000 containers of munitions to Russia since September, a huge supplement to Russia's own domestic military production. To the extent Putin can formalize this military-to-military cooperation, he is going to do it.

For North Korea, institutionalizing the strategic relationship with Russia offers several dividends. First, the North Koreans receive items, such as food aid, crude oil and natural gas that Kim needs in the immediate term or, in the case of Russian military technology, covets in order to ensure his military satellite program isn't a bust. Second, by signing a deal with Moscow, the North Koreans are communicating to Washington, Seoul and Tokyo that their emerging trilateral relationship — one Pyongyang suspects is designed to stifle what little power it has — will have consequences.

Third and most notable over the long term, getting closer to Russia gives the Kim dynasty greater flexibility in the region by lessening its dependence on China. It's no surprise that Beijing has been quite muted on the whole arrangement since it was consummated last month.

Much has been made about the mutual defense provision in Putin and Kim's partnership accord. Article 4 stresses that if either Russia or North Korea is subjected to armed aggression and finds itself in a state of war, "the other party shall immediately provide military and other assistance by all means at its disposal" to counteract it. Some have pointed out that this mutual aid declaration is inspired at least in part by the 1953 U.S.-South Korea Mutual Defense Treaty.

Yet while military-to-military cooperation between Moscow and Pyongyang certainly sounds frightening, it isn't a new development and shouldn't be treated as such. The two had a similar arrangement during much of the Cold War. The good news is that last month's deal is weaker than the 1961 Treaty of Friendship. Unlike that Cold War-era treaty, the 2024 comprehensive strategic partnership uses ambiguous wording to ensure neither state is forced to automatically intervene. This wasn't by accident — Russia and North Korea don't want to die for one another's interests or put themselves in a position in which one has to mindlessly go to war on behalf of the other.

Indeed, there is a question as to whether Russia and North Korea would even go through with such a scheme. Stuck in the muddy trenches of Ukraine and sustaining a high rate of casualties every week — in April, the United Kingdom Ministry of Defense claimed that approximately 450,000 Russian troops have been killed or injured, a number that has risen since then — Russia isn't in any position to bail out another country. The Russian army and the entire Russian military-industrial complex is tied up serving the Ukraine front, which means that if a crisis erupted on the Korean Peninsula in the next several years, there isn't much Moscow could do to mitigate it.

In fact, North Korea likely wouldn't trust a Russian defense guarantee even if it were offered. Pyongyang is notoriously distrustful of outsiders, whether it be Japan, South Korea, China or Russia, and would never outsource its national security needs to a foreign power. Juche, or self-reliance, is still the heart and soul of the Kim dynasty: Ultimately, the one you can trust is yourself. This is in part why North Korea has invested so much in its nuclear weapons program and is highly unlikely to trade it away, regardless of what Washington offers in return.

To date, the U.S. and its East Asian allies have responded with a combination of panic and fury. South Korea called Russia's ambassador in Seoul to task on June 21. And two days later, senior U.S., South Korean and Japanese officials released a joint statement condemning strengthening Russia-North Korea relations and redoubling their commitment to boosting trilateral cooperation.

All three capitals, however, would be smart to take a deep breath and stop pretending East Asia is markedly more dangerous today than it was a few weeks ago.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities, a foreign policy think tank based in Washington, D.C., and a syndicated foreign affairs columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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Daniel DePetris
Chicago Tribune/(TNS)