Russia, North Korea and the East Asian Security Order

Last Updated on July 11, 2024 4:34 pm


On June 12, Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader, penned a special message for President Putin for Russia Day, characterising their bilateral relations as a ‘far-reaching strategic relationship’. This description of ties between Pyongyang and Moscow symbolised a new bonhomie between the two leaders and marked a paradigm shift in Northeast Asian geopolitics. The exchange was soon followed by President Putin’s visit to Pyongyang, marking his first state visit to North Korea in 24 years. During the visit, the leaders signed a Treaty on Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. This treaty lists new areas of cooperation in North Korean and Russian ties. Most importantly, the treaty emphasises mutual security guarantees in the event of an attack, increasing the threat perceptions in Northeast Asia, especially in the security calculus of the United States (US), Japan, and South Korea.

Comprehensive Strategic Partnership Treaty: What changes after the Treaty?

The recent signing of a Treaty on Comprehensive Strategic Partnership between the two countries replaces the 1961 and 2000 treaties and the 2000 and 2001 Moscow and Pyongyang declarations. The 2024 Treaty marks a crucial moment in the diplomatic ties between both states, reflecting a rapprochement in the relations and re-emergence of DPRK from its strategic isolation phase. In addition, this treaty elevates the relations between the two countries beyond the earlier areas of engagement (as seen in Table 1 below). Following the meeting, Kim Jong Un called it a ‘great event’ and said that ‘the conclusion of the treaty puts the relations of the two countries on a new higher stage.’ For Moscow, this treaty is the manifestation of the evolution of Russian foreign policy and a clear portrayal of its defence ties with Pyongyang.

Along with security guarantees as mentioned in Article 8 of the treaty, Russia is open to a military-technical partnership, which is a radical move, as it formalises Russia’s ammunition imports from North Korea, which the former has been denying. If it happens, that would clearly violate the UNSC sanctions regime on DPRK. Further, the comprehensive treaty calls for heightened cooperation between Russia and North Korea in various spheres such as education, science, technology, connectivity, health, and labour. Apart from the security sphere, the formalisation of labour mobility from North Korea to Russia is also a significant step, as mentioned in Articles 11 and 13 of the treaty. Due to high labour demand in Russia and pending vacancies for 4.3 million jobs in 2023, it desperately needs labour from North Korea. Since the war in Ukraine, the number of North Korean workers in Russia has been increasing. Before this agreement, both Pyongyang and Russia had denied two things: North Korean workers working in Russia, and Moscow importing ammunition from North Korea. Now, Article 14 of the treaty includes a framework for labour mobility. The alteration of the security configuration of Northeast Asia is also reflected in the changing character of the Russian Far East, with connectivity being a crucial factor between North Korea and the Russian region of Primorsky Krai. This will replace Japanese and South Korean influence in the Russian Far East which has been waning since the sanctions were first imposed on Russia with that of North Korea and China.

Treaty’s implications

Russia perceives the DPRK as a partner that can supply Moscow with ammunition and labour. Considering the balance of power tilted against Moscow’s interests in the Asia-Pacific, rapprochement with Pyongyang was inevitable. However, this rapprochement for Moscow is not aimed at altering the status quo in the broader framework of the Indo-Pacific; it’s more of a defensive move. This is because Moscow had good relations with Japan and South Korea leading up to the war in Ukraine; although relations with Japan have gone southwards, there are still functional ties with South Korea. Thus, Moscow is moving cautiously. But this may soon change as Seoul is willing to reconsider its position on sending lethal arms to Ukraine, although a final announcement is still awaited. For Moscow, this treaty with DPRK is largely symbolic: A message to the West, formalising Russia’s ties with North Korea by adding pillars to their partnership and bringing the hermit kingdom out of its isolation. The conclusion of this treaty also symbolises the changing reality in Northeast Asia, where two strategic triangles are emerging: the US, South Korea, and Japan, as well as Russia, North Korea, and China, raising concerns for the former countries over this new bonhomie.

A win-win

While the scope and implications of this treaty are too early to uncover, it can be said that the visit and the treaty reflect the alteration of the status quo in Northeast Asia. It also manifests a further tilt in Russian foreign policy towards the Asia Pacific, aiming to boost connectivity with the Russian Far Eastern regions and North Korea. Secondly, upon concluding this visit, Putin left for Vietnam, a major partner for Russia in Southeast Asia, symbolising the rising profile of Asia-Pacific in Moscow’s strategic calculus. In the Indo-Pacific region, the treaty alters the status quo. The added caveat of a ‘military-technical partnership’ between Russia-North Korea will further securitise, leading to the militarisation of an already securitised region.

With the treaty now in place, Pyongyang has attained most of its objectives: circumventing the sanctions regime and establishing a strategic partnership with Russia. Apart from strategic prerogatives, with security guarantees from two major powers in the Asia Pacific region, Russia and China, North Korea will now be more emboldened to pursue its military modernisation plans. On the other hand, Moscow has reinvested in old partnerships with expectations of secured future strategic returns in the Asia Pacific region. With the treaty now intact, Kim Jong Un is left with a package to sell domestically and an elevated strategic stature, giving North Korea more weightage in any possible negotiations in the future Meanwhile, Russia has secured a deal for its immediate needs, while keeping its strategic interests in Far East protected. All in all, it is a win-win for both parties.

Abhishek Sharma is a Research Assistant at the Observer Research Foundation and  Rajoli Siddharth Jayaprakash is a Research Assistant at the Observer Research Foundation

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