Russia Struck a Defense Pact With North Korea. What Does It Mean?
from Asia Program and Europe Program

Russia Struck a Defense Pact With North Korea. What Does It Mean?

Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un meet in Pyongyang.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un meet in Pyongyang. Sputnik/Gavriil Grigorov/Pool/Reuters

The new defense treaty demonstrates a growing closeness between the two pariah states that is likely to make the rest of the world uneasy.

June 19, 2024 5:02 pm (EST)

Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un meet in Pyongyang.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un meet in Pyongyang. Sputnik/Gavriil Grigorov/Pool/Reuters
Expert Brief
CFR scholars provide expert analysis and commentary on international issues.

Editor’s Note: On July 16, 2024, the U.S. Department of Justice unsealed the indictment of Sue Mi Terry on charges of violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). CFR has a rigorous FARA compliance policy, and Dr. Terry is no longer a CFR employee as of July 18, 2024.

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This Expert Brief combines interviews with Sue Mi Terry, senior fellow for Korea studies, and Stephen Sestanovich, George F. Kennan senior fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies. Terry was a deputy national intelligence officer for East Asia at the National Intelligence Council from 2009 to 2010. Sestanovich was the U.S. State Department’s ambassador-at-large for the former Soviet Union from 1997 to 2001.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un just signed a new defense pact. Why now?  

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SUE MI TERRY: Putin capped off his two-day trip to North Korea today with the surprise signing of a new comprehensive strategic partnership pact. The actual text of the document has yet to be released, so the details are uncertain, but the treaty is said to include a mutual defense provision, calling for each country to provide military assistance should the other be attacked. 

STEPHEN SESTANOVICH: “Why now?” This is the easy question. North Korea has been supplying Russia with arms for its war in Ukraine, and Putin is paying them off with a great big thank you. 

TERRY: Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022 forced Moscow to look to North Korea for munitions—and Pyongyang has delivered, providing artillery ammunition and short-range rockets that Russia has used against Ukraine. In return, Russia is likely to provide not only economic aid, as North Korea desperately needs cheap oil from Russia, but also military aid to help improve North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) program.  

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The new treaty is a sign of the growing closeness between these two pariah states. As Putin said, “This is a truly breakthrough document, reflecting the desire of the two countries not to rest on their laurels, but to raise our relations to a new qualitative level.”

SESTANOVICH: But let’s also remember to ask, “Why ever?”  

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North Korea

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For years, North Korea has not been part of international polite society. All major powers—and the entire UN Security Council—stood against its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. Putin hadn’t visited North Korea since 2000, for a reason. But he's now cast his lot more irrevocably with the world’s rogues, and even if he claims it’s part of building an anti-U.S. “world majority,” the result in Japan and South Korea—in virtually all countries that Russia used to treat as more important than North Korea—has to be shock. There’s probably even some cringing within the Russian elite, asking themselves if they really want to be Kim Jong Un’s “dearest friend.” 

What does this pact commit the two countries to do?  

SESTANOVICH: Even after the text is made public, important questions will likely remain unanswered. Russian diplomats will likely be telling other governments not to worry and that they won’t do anything stupid—that Putin is just paying Kim off with a show, with meaningless gestures. What we don’t know is what’s been promised in secret—or will be promised over time. Kim has learned he’s got Putin where he wants him. So don’t be surprised if, before the next delivery of artillery shells, North Korean officials say, “you know, we were wondering whether you could help us out with X or Y.” 

What does the treaty say about North Korean and Russian intentions?  

TERRY: This treaty makes clear that Putin has abandoned all hopes of joining the West and is instead intent on bringing down the U.S.-led international order by making common cause with China, Iran, and North Korea. In the process, he is throwing a vital lifeline to a North Korean regime that remains weak and impoverished despite the success of its WMD program. Having failed to reach a deal with the United States under former President Donald Trump, North Korea has now broken out of its diplomatic isolation by making a deal with Russia.

What is the significance of the treaty?  

TERRY: Because neither country is likely to be attacked by an aggressor, the mutual defense provision is unlikely to be invoked—unless North Korea chooses to pretend that the Russian “special military operation” in Ukraine is not an unprovoked invasion, but rather (as Putin pretends) a defensive measure against aggression by Ukraine and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).  

If that were to happen, it’s possible that North Korea could send soldiers to fight in the Russian army—a military version of the “guest workers” that Pyongyang has sent around the world for years as a way of earning hard currency. Russia could certainly use more manpower given the heavy losses it is suffering in Ukraine and its own demographic woes in recent decades.  

The more likely consequence of the treaty is simply closer cooperation in weapons production, with North Korea manufacturing more munitions for Russia and Russia providing more high-end help for North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, likely including aid in developing submarines capable of launching ballistic nuclear missiles. Both countries will become more dangerous as a result of this new partnership.  

North Korea and Russia are both nuclear powers. Does this mean Russia will provide help to improve North Korean WMD capabilities? 

TERRY: The likelihood is that, yes, this will lead Russia to improve North Korean WMD capabilities. There is some evidence of this already happening, with Russia possibly providing help to North Korea with its successful satellite launch last November, just two months after the last Putin-Kim meeting. This is deeply concerning because of the substantial overlap between the technologies used for space launches and intercontinental ballistic missiles. Russia can also provide North Korea with critical help in areas where its capabilities are still nascent, such as submarine-launched ballistic missiles. There is no way to tell how much assistance Russia will provide—and Moscow will always be wary of parting with its most cutting-edge technology—but there is no doubt that Russia has the capability, if it so desires, to substantially increase the threat that North Korea poses to its neighbors.

Is this new pact a revival of the now defunct 1961 treaty between North Korea and Russia? 

TERRY: The mutual defense provision in the new Russia-North Korea treaty recalls the 1961 Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance [PDF] between North Korea and the Soviet Union that was voided by the collapse of the latter in 1991. The mutual defense clause was notably missing when the two countries signed a Treaty of Friendship, Good Neighborliness, and Cooperation in 2000 at the beginning of Putin’s reign.  

In subsequent years, Russia cooperated with the United States to try and limit North Korea’s WMD program by imposing sanctions at the United Nations. Those days have clearly passed—and are unlikely to return. This year, on March 28, Russia actually vetoed the UN Security Council resolution reauthorizing an independent panel of experts to monitor North Korean sanctions compliance. The new treaty symbolizes the growing closeness between Moscow and Pyongyang. 

SESTANOVICH: This new pact may or may not fall short of the one signed in 1961, but the wording isn’t the only interesting comparison.  

In 1961, Soviet policy was on a tear. Premier Nikita Khrushchev revived nuclear testing, exploding the biggest bombs ever; built the wall between East and West Berlin; had a famously confrontational meeting with U.S. President John F. Kennedy; was waging a fierce rhetorical war with Chinese leader Mao Zedong; and was probably starting to think about missiles in Cuba, which he deployed a year later. The question for Western policymakers now is whether Putin is becoming comparably reckless. His language in North Korea—where he denounced the United States as a “worldwide neocolonialist dictatorship”—might make you think so.    

What does the pact mean for Ukraine?  

SESTANOVICH: Ukraine, has, of course, been feeling the impact of North Korean supplies for some time. It’s not clear to me whether there’s anything that Kim has been holding back from the Russian war effort, so there may not be much change in that respect. But we probably ought to look at the impact of this alliance in broader terms.  

On the one hand, Ukraine can say to its Western friends that Putin has made absolutely clear that he poses a threat to Western allies everywhere. In conversation with their counterparts in Japan and South Korea, Ukrainian leaders will have even less trouble saying we’re all in this together. On the other hand, Putin has also telegraphed a readiness for escalation that will surely unsettle some Western governments. We don’t know yet how this will play out.   

What is China’s view of this pact? 

TERRY: The Chinese are conflicted. They are North Korea’s biggest supporters, but they also have an uneasy relationship characterized by suspicion on both sides. Chinese President Xi Jinping didn’t even meet with Kim Jong Un until Trump decided to meet with him.

From the Chinese perspective, close ties between Russia and North Korea are a welcome distraction for Washington. But China is also wary of having Russia dilute its sway over North Korea by offering itself as an alternative source of support. North Korea’s increasing military collaboration with Russia undermines Beijing’s almost exclusive geopolitical influence over Pyongyang. Beijing may also be concerned that the Russia-North Korea axis could bring the United States, Japan, and South Korea closer together and increase the U.S. military footprint near China.

Given that there are some overlapping concerns in Beijing and Washington, it would make sense for the Joe Biden administration to reach out to the Chinese government and try to foster greater unease about closer Russia-North Korea alignment.

What should the United States do in response?  

TERRY: The Biden administration has extremely limited options for responding. The best that it can do would be to double down on sanctions on both North Korea and Russia while strengthening the trilateral relationship between the United States, Japan, and South Korea.

At the same time, the Biden administration should also continue to pursue efforts to bring together U.S. allies in Asia with those in Europe—an effort that has already borne fruit with the leaders of Australia, Japan, and South Korea attending NATO summits. South Korea has also reportedly provided artillery ammunition to the United States to enable U.S. ammunition transfers to Ukraine. Washington’s Asian allies need to double down on their support for Ukraine because of the growing links between Russia and the countries that threaten them in Asia—namely China and North Korea. If the world’s dictators are uniting against the U.S.-led international order, the world’s democracies need to unite in its defense.

SESTANOVICH: The Putin-Kim alliance further adds to the importance of “helping Ukraine win the war”—that exact phrase is directly from the new U.S.-Ukraine bilateral security agreement announced last week. There’s no better way to show the limits of North Korean arms supplies than to associate them with a losing cause. And there’s no better way to give Putin (or his successor) second thoughts about his foolish opening to Pyongyang than to show its futility. Fortunately, the shock of Putin’s visit is great enough that policymakers—in Washington and elsewhere—may understand what they need to do. 

This Expert Brief was compiled and edited by Diana Roy and Asher Ross.

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