July 25th, 2024

Russia and North Korea sign partnership deal that appears to be the strongest since the Cold War

By Kim Tong-hyung, The Associated Press on June 19, 2024.

CORRECTS DATE TO EARLY WEDNESDAY, JUNE 19 - A motorcade with Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un rolls from the Pyongyang Sunan International Airport outside Pyongyang, North Korea, early Wednesday, June 19, 2024. (Gavriil Grigorov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) – Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Wednesday signed a new partnership that includes a vow of mutual aid if either country faces “aggression,” in a pact that came as both face escalating standoffs with the West.

Details of the deal were not immediately clear, but it could mark the strongest connection between Moscow and Pyongyang since the end of the Cold War. Both leaders described it as a major upgrade of their relations, covering security, trade, investment and cultural and humanitarian ties.

The two met as Putin visited North Korea for the first time in 24 years. The summit came as the U.S. and its allies express growing concerns over a possible arms arrangement in which the country provides Moscow with badly needed munitions for its war in Ukraine in exchange for economic assistance and technology transfers that could enhance the threat posed by Kim’s nuclear weapons and missile program.

Kim said the two countries had a “fiery friendship,” and that the deal was the “strongest ever treaty” between them, putting the relationship at the level of an alliance. He vowed full support for Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Putin said that it was a “breakthrough document” reflecting shared desire to move relations to a higher level.

North Korea and the former Soviet Union signed a treaty in 1961, which experts say necessitated Moscow’s military intervention if the North came under an attack. The deal was discarded after the collapse of the USSR, replaced by a pact in 2000 that offered weaker security assurances. It wasn’t immediately clear if the new deal provides a similar level of protection as the 1961 treaty.

Kim gave Putin a lavish welcome, meeting him at the airport, where the two shook hands, hugged twice and rode together in a limousine. The huge motorcade rolled through the capital’s brightly lit streets, where buildings were decorated with giant Russian flags and portraits of Putin.

After spending the night at a state guest house, Putin was welcomed in a ceremony at the city’s main square, filled with what appeared to be tens of thousands of spectators, including children with balloons and people wearing coordinated T-shirts in the red, white and blue national colors of both countries. Huge crowds lined the streets, chanting “Welcome Putin” and waving flowers and North Korean and Russian flags.

Putin and Kim saluted an honor guard and walked across a red carpet. Kim introduced key members of his leadership including Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui; top aide and ruling party secretary Jo Yong Won; and the leader’s powerful sister, Kim Yo Jong.

As the talks began, Putin thanked Kim for North Korea’s support in Ukraine, part of what he said was a “fight against the imperialist hegemonistic policies of the U.S. and its satellites against the Russian Federation.”

Putin hailed ties that he traced back to the Soviet army fighting the Japanese military on the Korean Peninsula at the end of World War II, and Moscow’s support for Pyongyang during the Korean War.

What kind of support was promised in the agreement was not spelled out. Kim has used similar language in the past, consistently saying North Korea supports what he describes as a just action to protect Russia’s interests and blaming the crisis on the U.S.-led West’s “hegemonic policy.”

North Korea is under heavy U.N. Security Council sanctions over its weapons program, while Russia also faces sanctions by the United States and its Western partners over its aggression in Ukraine.

U.S. and South Korean officials accuse the North of providing Russia with artillery, missiles and other military equipment for use in Ukraine, possibly in return for key military technologies and aid. On Tuesday, a U.S. State Department spokesman said that in recent months, Washington has seen North Korea “unlawfully transfer dozens of ballistic missiles and over 11,000 containers of munitions to aid Russia’s war effort.”

Both Pyongyang and Moscow deny accusations of weapons transfers, which would violate multiple U.N. Security Council sanctions that Russia previously endorsed.

Along with China, Russia has provided political cover for Kim’s efforts to advance his nuclear arsenal, repeatedly blocking U.S.-led efforts to impose fresh U.N. sanctions on the North over its weapons tests.

In March, a Russian veto at the United Nations ended monitoring of U.N. sanctions against North Korea over its nuclear program, prompting Western accusations that Moscow is seeking to avoid scrutiny as it buys weapons from Pyongyang.

Putin’s foreign affairs adviser Yuri Ushakov told reporters in Pyongyang that the leaders exchanged gifts after the talks. Putin presented Kim with a Russian-made Aurus limousine and other gifts, including a tea set and a naval officer’s dagger. Ushakov said Kim’s presents to Putin included artwork depicting the Russian leader.

Russia media said Kim would give a reception for Putin before he leaves for Vietnam.

In addition to security, Putin said the partnership includes cooperation in political, trade, investment, cultural and humanitarian fields. He added that Russia would not rule out developing military-technical cooperation with North Korea under the deal.

According to the Kremlin’s website, they also signed an agreement on building a road bridge on their border, and another on cooperation in health care, medical education and science.

Kim was quoted as saying the agreement “will become a driving force accelerating the creation of a new multipolar world.”

In Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Putin’s visit to North Korea illustrates how Russia tries, “in desperation, to develop and to strengthen relations with countries that can provide it with what it needs to continue the war of aggression that it started against Ukraine.”

Koo Byoungsam, spokesperson of South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs, said the Seoul government was still interpreting the results of the summit, including what Russia’s response might be if the North comes under attack.

China is North Korea’s biggest ally and economic lifeline, accounting for most of the country’s trade. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lin Jian said high-level exchanges between Moscow and Pyongyang are “bilateral arrangements between two sovereign states,” without giving a specific assessment of the agreements.

Sam Greene of the Center for European Policy Analysis said Putin’s trip to Pyongyang is an indication of how beholden he is to some other countries since invading Ukraine. Previously, “it was always the North Koreans coming to Russia. It wasn’t the other way around,” he said.

The trip is a good way to make “the West nervous” by demonstrating Moscow has interests and clout beyond Ukraine, Greene added.

The North could also seek to increase labor exports to Russia and other activities to get foreign currency in defiance of U.N. sanctions, according to a report by the Institute for National Security Strategy, a think tank run by South Korea’s main spy agency. There will likely be talks about expanding cooperation in agriculture, fisheries and mining and further promoting Russian tourism to North Korea, the institute said.

Tensions on the Korean Peninsula are at their highest point in years, with the pace of both Kim’s weapons tests and combined military exercises involving the U.S., South Korea and Japan intensifying in a tit-for-tat cycle.

The Koreas also have engaged in Cold War-style psychological warfare that involved North Korea dropping tons of trash on the South with balloons, and the South broadcasting anti-North Korean propaganda with its loudspeakers.

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