Russia-North Korea defense pact moves military cooperation out of shadows

washington — A new defense pact signed between Russia and North Korea this week publicly laid out Moscow’s willingness to engage in full-fledged military cooperation with Pyongyang, in contrast to their denials prior to the summit, analysts said.

Before Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Pyongyang for a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Wednesday, it was already widely believed that Moscow was transferring military technology to Pyongyang for weapons upgrades.

In 2023, North Korea launched the solid-fuel Hwasong-18 missile for the first time. After analyzing the shape and color of the smoke at the tail of the missile, experts said these technologies appeared to have come from Russia.

At the same time, U.S. and other officials have accused North Korea of providing Russia with large quantities of conventional munitions for its war in Ukraine.

In September, Kim showed an interest in various military assets during his tour of Russia’s satellite launch site, fighter jet factory, and Pacific Fleet equipped with nuclear-capable bombers and hypersonic missiles.

Both Russia and North Korea denied any arms dealings between them prior to Putin’s visit to Pyongyang.

It is still uncertain exactly what types of military technology Moscow could provide Pyongyang.

But at the summit, Moscow made explicit its willingness to prop up Pyongyang’s military in return for continued flow of munitions to use against Ukraine, according to Bruce Bechtol Jr., a former intelligence officer at the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency and now a professor at Angelo State University in Texas.

In the Treaty of Comprehensive Strategic Partnership signed between Putin and Kim at their summit, the two agreed to set up “mechanisms” for undertaking “measures” for “strengthening the defense capabilities.”

They also agreed to develop and cooperate in the areas of science and technology, including space.

At a joint press conference following their summit, Putin said Moscow “does not rule out developing military and technical cooperation” with Pyongyang as agreed on in the pact in response to the U.S. and other NATO countries’ allowing weapons that they supplied to Ukraine being used against targets inside Russia.

Kim and Putin also agreed in the treaty to intervene militarily if either North Korea or Russia is invaded. But Bechtol said the most significant part of the treaty “is military cooperation.”

“We’re not going to invade North Korea. We’re not going to invade Russia. It’s all about the military cooperation, the arms deals” that have “no limits” and will be made in a “barter” form rather than in a “cash and carry” arrangement, he said.

Any arms exports or imports by North Korea would violate U.N. Security Council resolutions.

Putin trade proposal

In an article by Putin published by North Korea’s state-run newspaper Rodong Sinmun on Tuesday ahead of his arrival in Pyongyang, Putin said Russia and North Korea would develop a trade and payment system not controlled by the West. This would make it easier to circumvent international sanctions on both countries.

Joshua Stanton, a Washington-based attorney who helped draft the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enforcement Act of 2016, said, “Russia and North Korea have been talking about setting up ruble-based and renminbi-based payment systems for at least a decade.”

He continued: “It never worked before. It would probably violate U.N. sanctions, and if our Treasury Department is willing to impose secondary sanctions on the banks that facilitate it, it will fail again.”

Moscow and Pyongyang are likely to exchange military hardware using railways rather than sea routes to avoid “any kind of interdiction,” said David Maxwell, vice president of the Center for Asia Pacific Strategy. He said the idea of interdiction could be discussed when Washington, Seoul and Tokyo meet on the sidelines of a NATO summit in July.

Putin said at a press conference in Pyongyang this week that Russian Railways will participate in the upgrade of the Khasan-Rajin railway crossing between the two countries.

‘High intensity of commitment’

Even without the treaty, military cooperation — including arms transfers from Russia to North Korea — was likely to have gone forward, according to Bechtol and other analysts.

“I frankly don’t think that the treaty makes a huge difference,” said Michael Kimmage, who from 2014 to 2016 served on the Secretary’s Policy Planning Staff at the U.S. State Department, where he held the Russia-Ukraine portfolio.

“It’s signaling a high intensity of commitment” and “a longevity of commitment,” which “in and of itself is quite significant,” but “I don’t think the treaty itself is that dramatic of a turning point,” he said.

Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation, said, “It is hard to imagine this new agreement makes it easier for Russia to transfer military technologies to North Korea, given the transfers in recent years of Iskander missile technology, liquid oxygen and petroleum fuel for satellite launchers, repair of satellite launcher problems, GPS jammers, and 24 mm MRL precision guidance.”

He continued: “I think the bottom line is not the greater feasibility of weapons technology transfers but the Russian government’s greater political willingness to make the transfers.”

Putin’s outspoken willingness to cooperate militarily with Pyongyang has prompted deep concerns in both Seoul and Washington.

A senior South Korean presidential official said on Thursday that Seoul will now consider sending arms directly to Ukraine. Seoul has withheld providing lethal weapons to Ukraine since Russia invaded the country in February 2022.

A spokesperson for the South Korean foreign ministry told VOA’s Korean Service on Thursday that Seoul is “gravely concerned” about the treaty and the declaration of military technology cooperation “that outrightly violates U.N. Security Council resolutions.”

A State Department spokesperson told VOA Korean on Wednesday that “deepening cooperation between Russia and the DPRK is a trend that should be of great concern.” The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is North Korea’s official name.

In contrast, Liu Pengyu, a spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, told VOA on Thursday that Moscow and Pyongyang have “a normal need for exchanges, cooperation and a closer relationship.”

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