Are the upgraded Russia-North Korea ties just skin-deep?

North Korea and Russia seem to align closely with each other escalating a level of threat in East Asia (Image: KCNA)

Russia and North Korea last week upgraded their relationship from “friendly” to a strategic partnership with a mutual defense commitment that has prompted concerns about war in South Korea.

With Russia now isolated in the world following its invasion of Ukraine, a fellow United Nations member state, it is rebuilding old ties with the North that fizzled a generation ago with the end of the Cold War.

What this means for North Korea itself and its possible impact on the peninsula remains to be seen. 

But, given that, before the war in Ukraine, the Russians had more varied exchanges and felt more comfortable with South Koreans than the North Koreans, who even in the communist era they saw as extreme and alien, their partnership appears to be a marriage of convenience. 

The two sides are drawn together by their common status as pariah states. This is a status that the Russians would want to change, which suggests their commitment to the North Koreans may not go that far.

When Vladimir Putin flew into North Korea this week for the first time in 24 years, he was repaying Kim Jong-un’s visit to Moscow last year.

The two leaders signed a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership Agreement that represented a landmark reset of the Treaty of Friendship, Good-Neighborliness, and Cooperation that Putin signed with Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, in Pyongyang in July 2000.

The Russians once considered North Korea a client state. In its previous incarnation as the Soviet Union, it controlled North Korea after World War Two and installed Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il-sung, as a puppet leader. Kim proved to be a difficult client and developed his juche (self-reliance) philosophy as an expression of independence from Moscow (as well as Beijing). Despite this, they remained formal allies. Then relations soured in the early 1990s when the Russians rejected communism.

A clause in the new agreement that commits mutual support in the event of war is raising concern, particularly in Seoul and Washington.

According to Article 4, if one party is subjected to military invasion and enters a state of war with another country or a coalition of countries, the other party will provide military and other assistance without delay using all available means, in accordance with the UN Charter Article 51 and the laws of North Korea and Russia.

The relevant article in the UN Charter allows for the support of member states when they are attacked but is somewhat ambiguous in that it does not specify how to manage a case when one member state attacks another. It simply states, “If an armed attack occurs against a member of the United Nations, the right of individual or collective self-defense can be exercised.” 

The ambiguity recalls the circumstances in Korea in 1950. When North Korea invaded the South, it claimed it was repelling an invasion by South Korea and the United States. The former Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China used this fiction to support North Korea.

The South Korean presidential office last week strongly condemned the Russia-North Korea agreement as “absurd” and said it would reconsider its policy of limiting support for Ukraine to non-lethal supplies. Seoul’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs also declared, “We will respond firmly and resolutely to any actions threatening our security.”

Back in Moscow, Putin was asked by a reporter from the daily Izvestia at a press conference for his response to the South Korean stance.

“The treaty states ‘in case of a military invasion’ so if the South Korean government has no plans to attack North Korea, why would this be considered a threat?” Putin said. 

“If the South Korean government were to actually provide weapons to Ukraine, this would not help resolve issues on the Korean Peninsula at all,” he added.

Zane Han

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