A NATO-style defense pact and an image boost – what Putin got from North Korean visit

Vladmir Putin’s first visit to North Korea in nearly a quarter of a century has been intensely scrutinized around the world. Russia knew the West was watching and the optics were not subtle.

Putin has been left out of many global gatherings of late, and risks arrest in much of the world thanks to a warrant from the International Criminal Court over his invasion of Ukraine.

But on Wednesday, the increasingly isolated Russian president was met with a rapturous welcome in Pyongyang. Children waved Russian flags as Putin’s giant picture adorned one side of Kim Il Sung square, while footage broadcast on Russian state media showed posters of the Kremlin leader lining the streets. All of it was a signal to the world that not only is Putin is not isolated, his patronage is still prized in some parts of the globe.

And here, unlike in China, no one could accuse him of being the junior partner.

Neither the rhetoric of the two leaders, nor the so-called “comprehensive strategic partnership pact” they signed, left any doubt that the overarching goal was to band together against what Putin described as “the imperialist policy of the United States and its satellites.”

The pact apparently contains a clause similar to NATO’s Article V, providing, according to Putin, “for the provision of mutual assistance in the event of aggression against one of the parties to this agreement.”

Putin went on to accuse the West of violating its “international responsibilities” by delivering F-16s and other weapons to Ukraine, adding Russia therefore “does not rule out the development of military-technical co-operation with the DPRK in accordance with the document signed today.”

In other words, the two are promising militarily help to each other at a time of escalating face-offs with their neighbors and the West. And this raises major questions.

If this is a collective defense pact, does Russia’s nuclear deterrent now extend to North Korea’s and vice versa? Will that “military-technical cooperation” include holding joint military drills and establishing joint forces to protect their borders?  Who else could join this pact in the future?  Neither Putin nor Kim provided any concrete details.

“In a sense this is laying out what they have been already building up in the recent months and years,” said Jo Bee-yun, Associate Research Fellow at Korea Institute for Defense Analyses. “But definitely I would say this clause is very alarming.”

Russia's President Vladimir Putin was given a rapturous welcome in Pyongyang. - Vladimir Smirnov/Sputnik/Pool/Reuters
Russia's President Vladimir Putin was given a rapturous welcome in Pyongyang. - Vladimir Smirnov/Sputnik/Pool/Reuters

“Because it’s at the initial stage, depending on how things roll out, they would, if I were them, they would interpret the clause according to their needs.”

And there’s the more immediate concern that the “military-technical cooperation” could mean more shells and missiles making their way from North Korean factories to the front lines in Ukraine.

Both Moscow and Pyongyang have denied this is happening, and yet Russia, having once backed UN sanctions that explicitly prevent North Korea from exporting weapons, used this opportunity to again denounce “politically motivated sanction.”

Back in March, Russia had already used its position on the UN security council to end the mandate of a panel monitoring North Korean sanctions violations.

Russian state media did not miss the opportunity to needle the West.  “The West admits terrible concern around Putin’s visit to North Korea” read the headline in Moskovsky Komsomolets, a national daily newspaper Tuesday.

“What difference does it make to the Americans if we talk to our neighbor [North Korea], why are you getting so worked up?” taunted top Kremlin propagandist Vladimir Solovyov on his Tuesday night talk show, before adding, less reassuringly, “we are already living in a Third World War”.

That comment perhaps speaks to another part of Moscow’s strategy: Russia may now have calculated that its own nuclear saber-rattling is no longer enough to prevent the West from stepping up aid to Ukraine.

The meeting with Kim Jong UN, and this “breakthrough” pact come at the same time as long-awaited US weapons are starting to flow to Ukraine, and some restrictions are being lifted on using them to hit Russia.

Russia also needs weapons to keep up its strategy of exhausting and destroying Ukraine into surrender.

So while it still may not be in Russia’s strategic interest to provide explicit funding or technology to expand the nuclear arsenal of its unpredictable neighbor - and risk upsetting China – it may at least want the West to believe it’s willing to do it.

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