Calling Kim After Midnight: Putin in Pyongyang

By | June 20, 2024 | No Comments

Desperation in the face of global isolation often serves as the main explanation as to why Russia is developing its relationship with North Korea. Nearly a quarter century has passed since Vladimir Putin visited the DPRK, during which his North Korean counterpart has visited Russia no less than five times. The most recent summit between the North Korean and Russian leaders, during which they upgraded their bilateral relationship to the level of a “comprehensive strategic partnership”, clearly indicates the DPRK’s importance for the Russian Federation, even as Kim Jong Un and Putin may disagree on whether it constitutes an “alliance”. 

Yet for all the merit in attributing Pyongyang’s importance to Moscow to the latter’s diplomatic alienation from much of the world, this reasoning does not explain the entirety of Russia’s motives behind rapprochement with the DPRK. To be sure, Putin himself has said that upgrading North Korea-Russia relations is part of a bid to increase geopolitical multipolarity in the world. Nevertheless, beneath the bluster about global multipolarity, Russia is also likely acting in response to narrower, Northeast Asian sub-regional interests.

In addition to the much-vaunted tropes about pursuing a revisionist global agenda, Putin’s visit to North Korea is arguably also in response to recent developments specific to the Korean Peninsula, namely the worsening of inter-Korean ties and the DPRK’s self-declared nuclear status. With this, the Kremlin appears to have two primary goals at the Northeast Asia sub-regional level: to use its relationship with North Korea to push back against the US-led alliance network in Northeast Asia and to increase defense communications with the DPRK in a Korean security situation where hopes for denuclearization have all but died.

North Korea’s peripheral importance for Russia

Peripheral security – a concept all-too-familiar to Russia-watchers who understand well Russia’s longtime pursuit of geopolitical buffers – is one of the key factors driving Russia’s bid to shore up relations with North Korea. The Korean Peninsula, an area where Russia’s sense of geopolitical vulnerability dates back over a century and where it has traditionally had the least influence among territories on its periphery, constitutes an oft-neglected arena of the Kremlin’s efforts to geographically insulate Russia from its geopolitical rivals. 

Whereas the US may have had a sense of Korea’s importance in geopolitical terms for containing the Soviet Union, today’s policymakers in the US hardly view the Korean Peninsula as a key area in attempts to contain Russia. Russia, however, does not share this view, perceiving the US as deliberately trying to undermine Moscow’s influence in the Indo-Pacific. 

Kim Jong-un on a lonely but brisk path to meet visiting Russian President Vladimir Putin, on 19 June 2024. Image: Screengrab of Chosun Central Television broadcast.

Thus, North Korea is of peripheral importance to Russia in both the literal and figurative senses. Although the Kremlin wishes to strengthen ties with the DPRK in no small part for geopolitical reasons, in a situation where Russia is not as isolated as the West had hoped, North Korea is likely not a strategic priority for Russia.

The circumstances surrounding Putin’s visit to Pyongyang bear this out.

Much as with Putin’s last visit to the North Korean capital in 2000, the Russian president visited North Korea as part of a larger Asian tour. That year, Putin stopped in Pyongyang before heading to the G8 summit in Japan. His purpose for visiting the North Korean capital was to implement a new treaty between the DPRK and Russia in order to normalize ties following their sharp downturn in the mid-1990’s. Pyongyang was no doubt a convenient stopover for Putin before gathering with far more important figures.

This year, Putin’s stay did not last as long as anticipated. The Russian leader arrived in Pyongyang well after midnight on the 19th, and departed North Korea later that same day. Following his summit with Kim, Putin headed to Vietnam, also an important partner for Russia. 

The fact that Putin did not visit North Korea alone indicates that the Russian president does not yet view a trip to the DPRK as meriting a visit unless Putin can advance other aspects of his Asia-Pacific agenda, not unlike the situation 24 years ago. Indeed, Russian media report that, in light of speculation that Putin would visit Pyongyang following his 2024 trip to China, North Korea requested that Putin not come immediately after his summit with Xi Jinping, but rather pay North Korea a separate visit in contrast to his stopover visit in 2000. 

With Kim Jong Un having now visited Russia twice – even as Russia was seemingly an afterthought amid Kim’s other travels throughout 2018-2019 – Putin apparently feels confident in his relationship with Kim that he can ignore Pyongyang’s request for separate consideration, hardly the kind of treatment one would reserve for an “invincible comrade-in-arms” in efforts to upend the current global order. 

Likewise, although the realities of being a world leader may have kept the Russian president from arriving at the time originally planned, Putin’s belated arrival to Pyongyang may be but a variation of his infamous record of being fashionably late

For every action: North Korea-Russia ties in response to rising trilateralism

From a diplomatic standpoint, two developments in particular, namely the breakdown of inter-Korean ties and deepening trilateralism between Seoul, Tokyo and Washington– has given the Kremlin reason to develop ties with North Korea with the ultimate aim of using ties with the DPRK to advance its own interests.

In the post-Cold War era, the Russian Federation has traditionally pursued a policy of diplomatic “equidistance” between Pyongyang and Seoul. In contrast with China’s mutual defense pact with North Korea and the ROK-US alliance, Russia has long sought to portray its relatively balanced ties between the DPRK and the ROK as positioning Moscow to act as an inter-Korean intermediary. Yet with North Korea having jettisoned its policy of unification with the ROK, the Russian Federation has subsequently lost any real chance of pursuing an intermediary role. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin greeted at the Pyongyang airport by Kim Jong-un, 19 June 2024. Image: Screengrab of Chosun Central Television broadcast.

Nevertheless, given that Russia would likely play a critical role in any Korean unification scenario, by taking advantage of the current chill in inter-Korean ties as an opportunity to solidify relations with Pyongyang, Russia will potentially possess a carrot it can use to entice South Korea in the event of another thaw in inter-Korean relations. 

Judging by the Kremlin’s relatively sanguine approach to “unfriendly” South Korea, with Vladimir Putin seemingly keeping the door open to restored relations with Seoul, Moscow still appears to want to maintain its equidistance strategy. Nevertheless, for now Russia is taking full advantage of North Korea’s support for Russia as a chance to build up a relationship that was all but suspended during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Additionally, trilateral rapprochement between Japan, South Korea and the US is also a source of concern for Russia. Following a period of tumultuous Japan-South Korea relations, a situation that Russia duly took advantage of, the establishment of a permanent policy coordination body between Seoul, Tokyo and Washington constitutes a step toward what the Kremlin would potentially regard as the equivalent of an Asian NATO on its Asia-Pacific flank. 

By strengthening ties with North Korea, Moscow can subsequently exploit what it sees as South Korea constituting the weakest link in the US-led alliance network in Northeast Asia, using both the threat of potential military assistance to North Korea as well as its contacts with Pyongyang, depending on the state of inter-Korean ties as leverage in any attempt to diminish Seoul’s cooperation with Washington.

Two-party talks over North Korea’s missiles

From a security standpoint, the prospect of Russian support for North Korea’s weapons’ programs and in particular the newly-inked mutual defense agreement between the two countries has analysts in Seoul watching DPRK-Russia ties closely. Even so, as evocative as the ideas of a “mutual defense agreement” and “deepening military cooperation” between North Korea and Russia may be, there may not be as much substance behind this rhetoric as one may initially believe. 

Kim Jong Un’s summit with Putin in 2023, during which cooperation in space and other technical cooperation between the DPRK and Russia featured prominently, caused concern over possible missile technology transfers between the two countries. Even so, South Korea’s government has publicly stated that it believes the likelihood Russia would actually engage in such transfers is quite low. 

Mutual defense, for its part, is a rather broad term, and does not necessarily mean Russia would immediately come to North Korea’s defense in the event of armed conflict.

Whatever substance DPRK-Russia cooperation takes, it is highly likely that any North Korea-Russia defense cooperation would also include confidence-building between Moscow and Pyongyang.

Indeed, as Alexander Zhebin, one of Russia’s foremost Korea experts recently argued, because the current North Korea-Russia friendship treaty only contains provisions regarding maintaining communication over regional and global security affairs (in contrast to the Cold War-era mutual defense agreement between North Korea and the USSR), the two sides would at most likely engage in deeper discussions over rising trilateralism between Japan, South Korea and the US. 


A trilateral meeting with, left to right, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, US President Joe Biden, and Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio on the sidelines of NATO Summit in Madrid, Spain, July 2022. Image by Brendan SmialowskiAFP/Getty Images.

Aside from a common response to a strengthening Japan-ROK-US triangle, another reason from a security perspective for Russia to pursue closer ties with North Korea is the need to deepen dialogue with the DPRK over nuclear issues. 

In November 2019, when North Korea’s then-First Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui visited Moscow, she essentially declared an end to the “era of summit diplomacy”, stating that there was no point in continuing dialogue with the United States unless it abandoned its “hostile policy”. During that same meeting in Moscow, Choe declared that North Korea would deepen strategic communication with Russia over nuclear issues. 

It was shortly after Choe’s visit to Moscow, however, that North Korea went into isolation over the pandemic, which severely limited not only North Korea-Russia trade but also a great deal of in-person diplomatic communicationsbetween the two countries. 

Since that time, North Korea has essentially become a self-declared nuclear state, a reality that both senior Russian lawmakers and even Vladimir Putin himself have seemingly accepted. 

As far as Russia’s longstanding position toward a nuclear North Korea is concerned, Russia has generally been opposed to the DPRK’s possession of a nuclear deterrent, not so much because it poses a threat to Russia itself, but because it would raise tensions on Russia’s eastern border.

Today, however, Russia’s policy elites agree with the DPRK’s position that the US is a bad faith actor. In particular, analysts and policymakers in Moscow now regard Russia’s approval of multilateral sanctions against North Korea as a mistake, given that Washington did not provide sanctions relief to North Korea in spite of its 2017 moratorium on nuclear and ICBM testing

As such, one of the Kremlin’s main focal points in terms of defense cooperation will likely be maintaining mutual understanding and lines of communication over the DPRK’s nuclear activities. 

From Korea to Kyiv and Back

North Korea, deeply mistrustful even of its major patron China, will be hard-pressed to allow Russia to simply turn it into an actor that carries water for the Kremlin’s own geopolitical interests. Nevertheless, as the explosion of goodwill toward Russia coming from North Korea since 2022 shows, Pyongyang is only too happy to enhance its partnership with Russia.  

With developments in Northeast Asia’s diplomatic and security spheres developing in contrast to Russian interests, the uptick in DPRK-Russia ties provides the Kremlin with an opening to push back against these unfavorable conditions. Even as the positive trajectory of North Korea-Russia ties pose a risk to the liberal international order, Russia’s interests in North Korea also operate on a defined sub-regional level. 

By strengthening its relationship with Pyongyang on a variety of fronts, Moscow hopes to securitize its Asia-Pacific periphery against the US-led Northeast Asian alliance system as well as against North Korean adventurism. It is yet another reminder that Russia, a continental power, is responding to developments on its borders in an area where maritime and continental geopolitics converge. If Russia cannot assert its own power in a tightly-crowded geopolitical neighborhood, the next best thing it can do is engage in a type of “friendshoring” with the DPRK. 

Yet even as the Kremlin seemingly acts on a sub-regional level, the implications of the relationship will doubtlessly reverberate across Eurasia. The scope of Russia’s actions does not define the breadth of their reach, and geopolitical shockwaves reverberate from Korea and Kyiv and back. 

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