Following Kim Jong-un’s visit to Russia, perhaps hundreds of articles have been written in the Western and South Korean press, and dozens of experts have given their opinions. In this author’s view, the reactions have been quite revealing, and they can be categorized in several ways.
The first category largely corresponds to the official reaction of the West and the ROK. Despite the fact that there is still no sign of manifestation of the arms deal reached between North Korea and Russia, Washington and Seoul issued a series of condemnatory statements and began discussing what measures should be taken on this matter.
Let’s start with reactions from various officials. On September 13, John Kirby, Coordinator for the US National Security Council, said that possible Russian support for North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs would cause “serious concern” in the United States. On the same day, Secretary of State Antony Blinken emphasized that any arms purchase or sales between Russia and North Korea would violate UN Security Council resolutions. State Department Spokesman Matthew Miller also said that the US would “keep an eye on what’s going on and will not hesitate to take action to hold those responsible accountable if necessary.”
On September 14, South Korea’s Unification Minister Kim Yung-ho expressed “deep concern” over the possible restoration of military cooperation between North Korea and Russia: “We once again call on North Korea and Russia to stop illegal and reckless actions that only exacerbate their isolation and to abide by international norms, including UNSC resolutions.”
Such rhetoric caught even the ROK president, who, judging from his September 20 speech in New York at the 78th session of the UN General Assembly, was ready to start believing. According to Yoon Seok-yeol, if, in exchange for providing Russia with conventional weapons, North Korea acquires the information and technology needed to expand its WMD capabilities, this would be a “direct provocation that threatens the ROK’s peace and security.” “It is a paradox that a permanent member of the UN Security Council, which is entrusted with the role of chief guardian of world peace, is waging war by invading another sovereign country and receiving arms and ammunition from a regime that blatantly violates UN Security Council resolutions,” Yoon Seok-yeol said, adding that the ROK, along with its allies and partners, “will not simply stand by.”
The ROK Foreign Ministry announced its intention to cooperate with relevant international organizations to respond. At the same time, the representative of the ROK Foreign Ministry emphasized that in case of actions that flagrantly violate UN Security Council resolutions and seriously threaten the security of South Korea, Seoul will issue a strong warning, strengthen cooperation with the US and allies, and consider retaliatory measures (possibly unilateral sanctions against Russia). However, the Korean side noted that there are obvious difficulties in sanctioning Russia for this in view of its status as a permanent member of the UN Security Council.
Expert discussions on this issue are largely confined to repeating well-known mantras. Yes, supplying North Korean shells to Russia or transferring Russian military technology to North Korea violates UN Security Council sanctions, and this is very bad, especially when it is done by a permanent member of the Security Council who previously voted in favor of these sanctions. Added to this are emotional responses about how North Korean shells will kill unfortunate Ukrainians. Thus, Ukrainian Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Oleksandra Matviychuk said that the summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un could be a serious challenge to the universal values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
The ROK media (and conservative ones at that, but in opposition to Yoon and with a more pro-Ukrainian stance) also published texts that “by providing lethal weapons for the unjustified war unleashed by Russia, the North will worsen and prolong the plight of the Ukrainian people.” If Russia were to transfer to North Korea technologies for launching satellites and reentry of intercontinental ballistic missiles, or technologies related to nuclear submarines, “these weapons would become a serious threat not only to the Korean Peninsula but also to the international community.”
Many commentaries discuss the details of exactly what might be supplied to one side or the other. As John Kirby explained in an interview with the US’ National Public Radio network, the Russian side’s priority is artillery, but it also needs components to produce higher-quality munitions – particularly electronic chips. To Patrick Cronin, chair of the Asia-Pacific Security Division at the Hudson Institute, “it’s clear that Russia is willing to provide the modernization of the space program that Kim wants. And there are undoubtedly other benefits that we will learn about in the coming weeks and months.”
Thomas Shinkin, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank and former US State Department official, sees no clarity on how deep Russian-North Korean cooperation will go, while acknowledging that Russia “has a lot to give the North.”
However, the Russian Federation has also demonstrated a strict approach to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, so a gross violation of international law seems doubtful (but possible) to Shinkin; the two sides have “windows of opportunity” for technological interaction without violating the international sanctions regime.
Terence Roehrig, a professor at the US Naval War College, sees Russian-North Korean cooperative relations as short-term due to limited capabilities and supply on the part of North Korea: modernization of the DPRK Navy and Air Force with a focus on improving weaponry, limited cooperation in space and satellite programs, and military exchanges.
Against this background, the position of Andrei Lankov, a Russian-speaking expert on the DPRK and professor at Kunming University, stands out quite sharply. Lankov argues that the unprecedented level of coverage of Kim Jong-un’s trip to military facilities is rather demonstrative in nature, and addressed to Seoul. Moscow is concerned about the surge in military-technical cooperation between Seoul and Warsaw, and the possibility that the ROK will start supplying actual weapons to Ukraine. Therefore, “South Korea is being made to understand: if it decides to sell ammunition to Ukraine, Russia will transfer a number of technologies to the DPRK that could significantly complicate life for the South Korean military.”
Chung Jae-won, a professor at Kunming University, also thinks that showing Kim key elements of Russia’s nuclear forces does not necessarily indicate Moscow’s willingness to share the relevant technologies. The arguments against this include violation of the NPT, as well as a negative reaction from China; in addition, in the long term, Russia itself is not interested in a nuclear-armed DPRK.
IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi, who told the Yonhap News Agency on September 15 that he believes Russia will not transfer military nuclear technology to North Korea, is close to this view. He said he did not believe that a nuclear-armed state such as Russia, a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, “would sell or transfer to another state any technology related to the production of nuclear weapons.”
We should also note the opinion of Mark Milley, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, that deliveries of North Korean munitions (152-mm shells are the priority) are unlikely to have much significance or influence on the course of the conflict in Ukraine.
The second line of discussion concerned the “alliance of two dictatorships” in general and the fact that against the backdrop of the rapprochement between Moscow and Pyongyang, Washington, Tokyo and Seoul should develop adequate countermeasures.
Cho Han-bum, a senior researcher at the state-run Korea Institute for National Unification, speaks of a “new normal” in relations between the two countries, which, “spurred by the war in Ukraine and hostility toward the West, are deepening their relations to a level not seen since the collapse of the Soviet Union.” However, “if Russia becomes less in need of munitions, relations with North Korea will no longer be a priority for Putin.”
Sung Hoon Jeh, a professor of Russian studies at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, also thinks that “Russia and the DPRK – two countries the US wants to isolate – are joining forces. Now the chances of Russia joining the pressure on the DPRK have become zero.”
Victor Cha, a professor at Georgetown University, chair of the Korea Department at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a noted geopolitical hawk, believes that after the summit with Putin, the chances of the DPRK returning to dialogue with the United States have gone even lower.
Some experts even believe that the Russian leader may later regret his decision to establish closer ties with Pyongyang, as “the summit only emphasized Putin’s deepening international isolation.” According to Victor Cha, Kim Jong-un got “more than he really wanted” (where this expert got his mind-reading skills from, we will not speculate), but if Putin gets ammunition from the DPRK, Russia cannot say anything if the ROK sells ammunition to Ukraine.
Ramon Pacheco Pardo, a professor of international relations at King’s College London, said Putin did not attend the annual BRICS summit in South Africa and the G20 summit in India, which Professor Pardo believes was due to the indictment against him by the International Criminal Court, and, “instead of attending meetings with other world leaders, he turned to someone like Kim Jong-un.”
The thesis that Pyongyang’s military-technical cooperation with Moscow can lead to the failure of all attempts to limit the DPRK’s technological and military potential, including through sanctions pressure, is commonplace. Thanks to the changed position of the Russian Federation and China, “the era of sanctions by the UN Security Council under the leadership of the United States has actually ended.” This is a serious blow to the reputation and effectiveness of the UNSC mechanisms, since now even in the event of Pyongyang conducting another nuclear test it is doubtful that a solidarity response will be developed.
John Merrill, a renowned historian and Visiting Scholar at the Institute of Korean Studies at George Washington University, believes that the Cold War has returned to the Korean Peninsula: “And it’s colder now than it’s ever been.” Just a few years ago, Moscow supported UN sanctions banning arms shipments, and today Putin’s evasiveness is an important sign in itself.
That said, Merrill acknowledges that “Seoul is indirectly supplying artillery and ammunition to Ukraine via Poland,” and that Pyongyang’s refusal to normalize relations with Washington “demonstrates the bankruptcy of current US policy, which has relied more on coercion than diplomacy.” In terms of political realism, action begets opposition, and Moscow and Beijing have made it clear that they will not support future UN sanctions against Pyongyang, and this brings the situation back to the early 1990s, before Russia and China began supporting Western efforts by participating in the Six-Party Talks and supporting international sanctions. “But now that era has come to an end. North Korea is better armed than ever, and opposing military alliances in the region are once again strengthening.”
Here again we can note the position of Russian international journalist Artyom Lukin, who believes Pyongyang is “shifting” into Moscow’s embrace realizing its vulnerability to the “southern triangle.” Even South Korea is superior to North Korea in terms of conventional weapons, and the deployment of US strategic assets there essentially levels Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons advantage. Kim is going to modernize his aviation and navy, and he needs Russian assistance to do this.
The DPRK commented on the results of the visit in the same way, but in a bravura manner. Kim Jong-un’s successful visit to Russia brought the relations between the two countries to a “new strategic height” in accordance with the “requirements of the new times” and “fundamentally changed the world political situation.” Kim Sung-nam, head of the department of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of [North] Korea, made this assessment at the Politburo meeting on behalf of the Presidium of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of [North] Korea.
On the other hand, Chung Jae-won thinks that Moscow-Pyongyang relations are not among the top priorities for the Russian president. Allegedly, Vladimir Putin took less time than expected to meet with Kim Jong-un in person and also left the region after the talks, indicating that Russia’s benefit and interest in the DPRK is mainly limited to obtaining ammunition, which acts as a deterrent to military-technical cooperation between the two countries (in terms of transferring advanced technology to the North).
The next category of responses centers on the Chinese reaction to the rapprochement between Russia and the DPRK. South Koreans think that Beijing is keeping aloof, and they so interpret the statement of Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Mao Ning that “the visit of the DPRK leader to Russia is an agreement between the two countries.”
They also note that a full-fledged “Northern Triangle” is not forming. As Park Won Gon, a professor of North Korean studies, points out, “the connection between the two countries and China may weaken because some of the common interests shared by North Korea and Russia are not of interest to China, especially the issue of the war in Ukraine.”
Patrick Cronin thinks that “China is very concerned about Russia and North Korea destabilizing Ukraine or China’s periphery, especially the Korean Peninsula.” According to Thomas Shinkin, it is unlikely that China will openly announce trilateral military cooperation with Russia and the DPRK in the future, as it views the latter as “toxic” for too much public interaction.
Forbes journalist Melik Kailan generally believes China is the main addressee of the visit. “The ultra-public demonstration of Russia’s renewed alliance” with Pyongyang “tells Beijing that things are changing from now on – you are not supplying us with the weapons we need, and we are challenging your shaky supremacy over Pyongyang… This could prompt the Chinese to act, for otherwise Moscow could become North Korea’s new big brother and help improve that nation’s military capabilities.”
A further category of responses concerns the ROK’s domestic policies. Here, both classical democrats and conservatives in opposition to Yoon Seok-yeol accuse the president of being an indirect sponsor of the rapprochement between Moscow and Pyongyang because of Seoul’s policy.
Thus, on September 14, the leader of the parliamentary faction of the opposition Democratic Party Park Kwang On said that the rapprochement between Russia and the DPRK in the military sphere was provoked by the unbalanced foreign policy of Yoon Seok-yeol. A similar statement was made by party spokesman Kwon Chil Seung: “The military cooperation between Russia and the North was triggered by the policy of Yoon Seok-yeol’s government based on ideology and division into blocs.” Apparently, Yoon Seok-yeol openly provoked Russia on diplomatic platforms (when and how is unclear), which quickly alienated Russia toward North Korea.
The ROK’s leftist media noted that the rapprochement between Moscow and Pyongyang could undermine the Yoon Seok-yeol administration’s strategy to increase pressure on the DPRK. “As early as a few months ago, experts warned that increased security cooperation between South Korea, the US and Japan could strengthen relations between the DPRK, China and Russia. This is what happened.” This position is especially actively voiced by the former (from the times of the Moon administration) South Korean ambassador to Russia, Wi Sung Lak. From his point of view, if South Korea used to balance between China and the US, now it does not and this policy threatens national interests.
According to Wi, Yoon Seok-yeol is moving in the right direction regarding trilateral cooperation with the United States and Japan, but it seems that South Korea is ill-prepared for the emerging trilateral cooperation between China, Russia, and North Korea. Meanwhile, “issues such as North Korea’s denuclearization, peace and unification of the Korean Peninsula cannot move forward if we cut ourselves off from China and Russia because they are stakeholders and they have their own roles.”
As a result, Wi Sung Lak believes that cooperation will nullify the West’s economic sanctions against the DPRK and Russia; in response, South Korea, the US and Japan will impose tougher sanctions, which in turn will trigger retaliation from China and Russia.
However, John Merrill, who is not a leftist, also writes that the Camp David agreement could be seen as an incentive for closer military cooperation between North Korea and Russia (and possibly China), signs of which were evident as early as July, when high-ranking delegations from Russia and China attended North Korean celebrations of the 1953 armistice. Thomas Shinkin also points out that the meeting between Kim and Putin was a kind of reaction to the trilateral summit of Biden, Yoon, and Kishida.
The leading leftist newspaper, the Hanger Shinmun, accused the Yoon Seok-yeol administration of destroying cooperation and friendship with Moscow. The publication notes that Russia violated international law and invaded another country, but notes that the reaction of the current ROK political leadership to these events is excessive and too pro-American and pro-Japanese.
What might be the practical conclusions from the experts’ points of view? What should be done? Terence Roehrig, professor of national security affairs at the US Naval War College, said that while the immediate US priority in deterring North Korea’s nuclear threats is extended deterrence, in the long term there should be discussions of ways to reduce tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
Thomas Shinkin thinks that in order to prevent the DPRK from acquiring Russian military technology, achieve deterrence and consolidate the international community, the US may “leak” information regarding the two countries’ operations.
According to Troy Stagnarone, South Korea “should discreetly signal to Moscow that if it continues to transfer classified military technology to North Korea, it will have to reconsider its support for Ukraine. This is unlikely to change Russia’s course, but it would open the door for South Korea to more directly support Ukraine.”
The ROK media believe that the US will probably use the so-called “secondary sanctions” mechanism to target entities and individuals involved in illegal trade transactions between Russia and North Korea. South Korea, on the other hand, should increase its military readiness by renegotiating the Korea-US nuclear agreement and missile range agreements (i.e., move toward nuclear status), as well as supporting the development of nuclear submarines. “Transferring military technology is not only a violation of UN resolutions. It would mean Russia crossing the line between Seoul and Moscow. South Korea’s self-defense measures would be inevitable.”
On the other hand (as the authors around the Korea Times point out), Seoul’s policy should be more flexible – it should maintain its friendship with China (and try to implement Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Seoul), and maintain an open channel of dialog with Moscow to dissuade Russia from getting too close to the North. South Korea should try to prevent an escalation of confrontation between North Korea, China and Russia on the one hand, and South Korea, Japan and the United States on the other. “A strategic and flexible response is required.”
Meanwhile, media outlets of all types write that “some conservative politicians here were wrong to call for sending lethal weapons to Ukraine in retaliation. This will only justify the inhumane actions of rogue nations.”
As can be seen, opinions differ, and this author’s next piece will focus on the implications of the visit for relations between Moscow and Seoul.
Konstantin Asmolov, Candidate of Historical Sciences, Leading Researcher of the Center for Korean Studies at the Institute of China and Modern Asia of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.