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The Threat of Red Ideology: North Korea and Russia Revive Their Military Alliance

Meeting between the President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin and the Chairman of the State Council of the DPRK Kim Jong Un in Vladivostok, 2019.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

What is happening?

We continue to witness the institutionalization of the revisionist authoritarian axis spanning from Moscow to Pyongyang. Vladimir Putin embarked on a junket trip to North Korea, where, together with Kim Jong Un, he signed a treaty upgrading Russia-DPRK relations and introducing a mutual defense pledge. Mirroring the 1961 North Korea-Soviet Union Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance, Article 4 of the new Treaty on Comprehensive Strategic Partnership stipulates that if one party is invaded, the other will provide military and other assistance according to Article 51 of the UN Charter and their respective domestic laws. Moreover, the full-fledged military cooperation enabled by the treaty paves the way for autocrats’ cooperation in evading the international sanctions regime imposed by the West – any arms exports or imports by North Korea would violate UN Security Council resolutions. Before the onset of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, Moscow – a United Nations Security Council permanent member with its own nuclear weapons – had participated in international efforts to stop Pyongyang from developing nuclear and missile technology. Consequently, the growing cooperation between Russia and the DPRK fundamentally undermines the global security architecture.


What is the broader picture?

The “Comprehensive Strategic Partner Relationship Treaty” aims to restore bilateral relations to a level reminiscent of the 1961 Sino-Soviet Mutual Defense Treaty. It formalizes broad-based cooperation across various sectors, purportedly enhancing mutual military assistance akin to that under the Sino-Soviet pact yet raising concerns about facilitating illicit activities in new areas, including sharing satellite imagery and transfers of nuclear-powered submarine technologies for North Korea.

The treaty extends beyond military security to encompass economic and technological exchanges. Article 10 mentions specific fields such as trade, investment, science and technology, space, biology, peaceful nuclear cooperation, artificial intelligence, and information technology. However, many of these areas, crucial to North Korea’s belligerent ambitions diminished due to international sanctions, may hinge on Russia’s compliance with UN Security Council resolutions.

Critics suggest the treaty expands areas of cooperation to evade sanctions that have strained both nations, enabling potential advancements in strategic and tactical weapon systems for North Korea if cooperation proceeds smoothly. Additionally, it establishes frameworks for Russian support in sectors vital for North Korea’s socio-economic development, such as agriculture, education, healthcare, sports, culture, and tourism. Education, culture, and tourism could also facilitate the deployment of North Korean laborers abroad, a crucial source of foreign currency. In turn, the prospect of labor cooperation between Moscow and Pyongyang aligns with Russia’s unmet labor supply in its Far Eastern region.

Professor Eul-Chul Lim from the Institute of Far Eastern Studies at Kyungnam University noted, “The treaty’s broad coverage across areas like trade, economics, and science and technology appears aimed at achieving relative ease of agreement and avoiding harsh scrutiny from the international community.” He added, “If cooperation proceeds smoothly from North Korea’s perspective, it could advance strategic and tactical weapon systems beyond previous levels.”

In conclusion, North Korea has laid the groundwork for receiving Russian support in various sectors essential for economic and humanitarian needs, potentially mitigating the impact of international sanctions and expanding its foreign labor deployment opportunities. This partnership signifies a strategic maneuver amid geopolitical challenges, although it also invites scrutiny regarding compliance with international norms and sanctions enforcement.


Why does it matter?

Since the onset of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, North Korea has used Russia’s growing tensions with the collective West and international institutions to strengthen cooperation with Moscow against their main common enemy: Washington.

Firstly, the ongoing Russian war in Ukraine allowed North Korea to review its diplomatic posture. North Korea has entirely abandoned its quest for rapprochement with South Korea and the U.S. and instead bandwagons with Russia. By supplying Russia with large quantities of ammunition, rockets, old tank parts, and ballistic missiles, North Korea has become a crucial military supply base for Russia amid the war. This move has enhanced North Korea’s international standing and earned it Russia’s trust and support.

Secondly, leveraging the Ukraine war, North Korea has intensified its cooperation with Russia, culminating in the signing of a comprehensive strategic partnership treaty. This treaty signifies the institutionalization of political will to pursue extensive collaboration in military, economic, and diplomatic fields. For North Korea, it means access to robust support from Russia when facing pressure from the U.S. and its allies, creating a diplomatic and military safeguard system comparable to that of Seoul and Washington.

From Russia’s perspective, President Putin’s visit to Pyongyang and meeting with Kim Jong-un further solidified the friendly relations between the two countries. Putin’s gift of a Russian-made luxury limousine to Kim Jong-un, despite violating UN sanctions against North Korea, symbolically demonstrated Russia’s firm support to the authoritarian neighbor even if it challenges the global security architecture. Moreover, the treaty’s Article 4 stipulates that if one party is attacked, the other will provide military and other assistance in accordance with Article 51 of the UN Charter, reinforcing their military cooperation, which essentially amounts to an alliance.

However, this diplomatic strategy also faces future challenges and risks. After the Ukraine war ends, Russia may no longer need North Korea’s outdated weapons, which would deprive Pyongyang of crucial diplomatic leverage. Further, despite the signing of the treaty, its implementation will depend on Russia’s strategic decisions and remains subject to Putin’s volatility.