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'Rather desperate' – 5 key takeaways from Putin's North Korea visit

by Chris York June 20, 2024 2:52 PM 6 min read
North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un (R) and Russian President Vladimir Putin attend a welcoming ceremony at Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang on June 19, 2024. (Gavriil Grigorov/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
by Chris York June 20, 2024 2:52 PM 6 min read
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Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un cemented their growing relationship on June 19, with a parade, a pact and a carefully stage-managed drive in a brand new limousine in Pyongyang.

Kim described Putin as the "dearest friend of the Korean people" and said his country "expresses full support and solidarity to the Russian government" over its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

The two world leaders were all smiles as Putin made his first visit to the country in 24 years, but behind the jovial atmosphere, brass bands and apparently adoring crowds is a Russian president who, according to one expert, is simply "rather desperate."

Here are five key takeaways from the visit.

The pact

The big ticket item on the agenda was the signing of a mutual defense agreement between the two countries.

"It is really a breakthrough document," Putin said at a press conference.

The exact details of the treaty were not released until after the visit, but Putin said on June 19 it covered "among other things, for mutual assistance in case of aggression against one of the parties to this treaty."

He also added that Russia "does not rule out the development of military-technical cooperation with North Korea" in connection to the newly signed agreement.

In characteristically grandiose terms, Kim said the pact "will become a driving force of a new multipolar world."

"Time has changed. The status of (North Korea) and the Russian Federation in the global geopolitical structure has also changed."

Whether the agreement lives up to the hype of its signatories is up for debate, but the move is hugely symbolic of Russia's new place in the world and has serious potential implications for the security of the Korean peninsula.

"The real concern is that the Russia and North Korea partnership upsets the strategic status quo on the Korean peninsula which may be Putin’s aim, especially if Russia starts sharing military–technology know-how with North Korea," John Foreman CBE, the U.K.'s former defense attache in Moscow from 2019 to 2022, told the Kyiv Independent.

For nearly two decades, Russia, as part of the U.N. Security Council, supported sanctions against North Korea that aimed to restrain its nuclear ambitions.

This came to an end earlier this year with Russia voting against the mandate renewal of the U.N. body set up to monitor Pyongyang.

The new pact and the possibility of Russia and North Korea sharing "military-technical cooperation" are nails in the coffin of any Kremlin opposition to Pyongyang's military capabilities.

The details

On June 20, North Korean state media released the full text of the agreement signed by Putin and Kim, and titled the "Treaty on the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership."

"In case any one of the two sides is put in a state of war by an armed invasion from an individual state or several states, the other side shall provide military and other assistance with all means in its possession without delay in accordance with Article 51 of the UN Charter and the laws of (North Korea) and the Russian Federation."

Article 51 of the U.N. Charter is the section that details the "inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs" against them.

Crucially, the pact does not specifically mention if this includes the nuclear detterent possessed by each country.

Artyom Lukin of Russia's Far Eastern Federal University, told Reuters the agreement is "for all intents and purposes... a pact of military alliance," Moscow's "first defense alliance outside the post-Soviet space."

The agreement also covers trade, investment, political and security cooperation.

The parade

"A vain man, Putin will also relish basking in the organized mass adulation," Foreman said about the lavish public parade held to mark his arrival.

The spectacle saw huge, flag-waving crowds, military bands and giant portraits of both leaders displayed on buildings and placards, in scenes reminiscent of Russia's past.

"It shows how far and how quickly Russia is regressing into neo-Stalinism," Foreman said.

People wave to the motorcade carrying North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un and and Russian President Vladimir Putin during a welcoming ceremony at Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang on June 19, 2024 (Gavril Grigorov/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un (Center-R) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) walk past children attend a welcoming ceremony at Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang on June 19, 2024 (Vladimir Smirnov/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un (L) and Russian President Vladimir Putin attend a welcoming ceremony at Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang on June 19, 2024. (Gavril Grigorov/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

In one of the more bizarre moments of the visit, the two leaders took turns driving each other around in a limousine reportedly gifted to Kim by Putin.

In a video released by Russian state media, Putin was seen jumping behind the wheel of a black armored Aurus, with Kim getting in the passenger seat before they drove through a park.

After a brief walk, Kim then drove Putin back.

The weapons

No specific arms deals were announced during the visit but Foreman said it's likely Putin "will secure more arms support for his war in Ukraine."

North Korea has been shaping up to be Russia's leading weapons supplier for a while as Russia faces reduced military stocks and production capacity simultaneously hampered by Western sanctions.

Moscow has already reportedly received extensive military packages from Pyongyang, including ballistic missiles and around 5 million artillery shells.

But with both North Korea and Russia subject to Western sanctions, Foreman is skeptical that the agreement will help Putin much on the economic front.

"I’m not sure there are any real economic benefits for Russia from one of the poorest countries in the world," he said.

The bigger picture

The carefully stage-managed visit has been studiously watched by capitals across the world.

U.S. and South Korean officials have previously raised the alarm over North Korea sending artillery and military equipment to aid Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

But while Russia and North Korea's increasingly close relationship raises concerns about the war in Ukraine, wider global security, and opposition to a Western-led global order, Foreman says it's important not to forget what the visit says about Russia's current situation on the world stage.

"From Putin’s perspective, the visit allows him to demonstrate that he still has international partners in an axis of dictatorships who share his virulent anti-Americanism," he says.

"But stepping back it all looks rather desperate from Putin. Wiser Soviet and Russian leaders kept the North Korean basket case at arm's length, while deepening economic relationships with South Korea," Foreman added.

"Putin’s visit damages the latter further, risking South Korea supplying arms to Ukraine. China may also be dismayed by Russia disturbing the security situation in south-east Asia."

On June 20, South Korea said it would reconsider its policy of not directly supplying Ukraine with arms.

Up until now, Seoul has only provided humanitarian aid to Kyiv, though it has been reported the country has indirectly supplied artillery shells via the U.S.

"The government clearly emphasizes that any cooperation that directly or indirectly helps North Korea increase its military power is a violation of UN Security Council resolutions and is subject to monitoring and sanctions by the international community," the country's president's office said in a statement reported by the Associated Press (AP).

Summing up Putin's visit to North Korea and the global reaction so far, Foreman described the trip as "potential long-term damage at the expense of limited short-term gain."

Ukraine’s peace summit falls short of engaging Global South — can Ukraine expand its coalition?
More than half of the signatories came from Europe. When counting other key Western allies outside of Europe – the U.S., Canada, and Australia – the disparity is even more stark.

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