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Putin and Kim's Honeymoon in Pyongyang

The Content and Consequences of the Significant Summit on June 18-19



Russian president Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un’s summit in Pyongyang on June 18-19 was widely anticipated to be a formality, a useful propaganda trip to one of the few countries willing to host the Kremlin’s pariah. In anticipation of the meeting, analysts widely downplayed its significance. 

On June 19, when both leaders signed a new “Treaty on Comprehensive Strategic Partnership,” they were proven wrong. The unprecedented agreement elevates the DPRK to one of Russia’s closest partners internationally, mandating economic cooperation, a mutual defense pact, and expanded military cooperation. The last two provisions have drawn the eye of observers.

The mutual defense pact includes a relatively flexible, but firm commitment for both nations to collaborate in case of a military threat and assist each other by all available means in case of aggression. This is a stronger commitment than the one made by Moscow and Pyongyang in 2000, only comparable to the preceding 1961 treaty between the USSR and the DPRK.

But as an invasion of either country is unlikely, provisions on military cooperation have drawn much more attention. Analysts have interpreted it as allowing for an expansion of the arms trade between the two countries, with Kim receiving advanced Russian military technology in exchange for supplying Soviet-era equipment for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

Russia, which has outproduced NATO in ammunition production this year, is less in need of equipment than its southeastern neighbor. Due to the ambiguity of the text, Kim’s neighbors worry that the deal might bolster his nuclear capabilities. Any expansion of the arms trade would be in violation of international sanctions regimes and certainly provoke an American response. Either way, the agreement is significant and unexpected.

The context is important here. On the one hand, both parties are responding to Washington’s increasing focus on Asia through the AUKUS, QUAD, and JAROKUS agreements. Cooperation might prove useful in the face of American advances in Asia, although the primary target of the aforementioned deals is China. For Kim, the legitimacy of being seen with one of the world’s most powerful statesmen might also play a role. 

However, Putin seems motivated most by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. By creating a threat in East Asia, Russia might provoke the US and its allies to spend their time far away from the war with Kyiv. Possible advances in North Korean military technology might help deter Pyongyang’s neighbors and stretch the White House thin. 

The agreement has alarmed both Japan and South Korea. Japanese prime minister Fumio Kishida has responded with extreme concern, particularly due to the possibility of strengthened North Korean nuclear capabilities. Kishida will likely choose to deepen trilateral cooperation with the ROK and the USA, and possibly even encourage more attention from NATO to East Asia.

South Korea is similarly concerned, with president Yoon Suk Yeol similarly emphasizing renewed cooperation to meet North Korean capabilities and even suggesting the possibility of sending arms to Ukraine in retaliation to Russia’s move. As the ROK has a significant NATO-compatible arsenal, this shift in policy could be significant for Kyiv’s war effort and a diplomatic failure for the Kremlin.

China has remained distant in this context, seeing both positives and negatives. On the one hand, the deal consolidates the informal, anti-American bloc that China is sympathetic to. On the other hand, it might embolden Kim beyond Beijing’s liking. Strong, direct ties to another foreign ally might reduce reliance on Chinese sponsorship, resulting in less influence for Xi Jinping in Pyongyang, and even more saber-rattling on Kim’s part. Although an ally of both Russia and the DPRK, China has made clear that this is not a trilateral alliance and is careful not to associate itself too closely with either country.

The long-term consequences of the treaty have yet to be seen.

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