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How the Travis King Saga Relates to the North Korea-Russia Summit 

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How the Travis King Saga Relates to the North Korea-Russia Summit 

There are shifting dynamics in North Korea’s diplomatic strategy, particularly concerning its relationships with the U.S. and Russia. 

How the Travis King Saga Relates to the North Korea-Russia Summit 

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (left) shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a meeting at the Vostochny Cosmodrome, Sep. 13, 2023.

Credit: Russian Presidential Press and Information Office

North Korea is reported to have treated the United States as if it were “invisible” during the process of releasing Travis King, an American soldier who was detained in North Korea. Unlike in the past, North Korea did not demand a visit by high-ranking U.S. officials as a condition for King’s release, nor did it attempt to leverage the situation under the pretext of discussing “the method of expulsion.” This stark contrast from its past behavior underscores what could be a profound shift in North Korea’s diplomatic strategy.

Some speculate that there must have been backdoor discussions between the United States and North Korea regarding the American soldier’s release. The most optimistic wondered if these presumed diplomatic contacts might lead to a thaw in North-U.S. relations. Yet North Korea reportedly navigated the issue of King’s release solely through the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang and the Chinese authorities, eschewing any direct contact with Washington. 

King, an enlisted cavalry scout stationed in South Korea, crossed into North Korea after joining a tour group at the Joint Security Area in Panmunjom, which is located within the Demilitarized Zone. Since the United States does not have formal diplomatic relations with North Korea, whenever an American citizen is detained, the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang mediates communication between the U.S. and North Korea. 

King’s journey back home took him from Pyongyang to the Chinese border city of Dandong, where U.S. Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns awaited. From Dandong, King was whisked away to Shenyang, a major regional air traffic hub in northeastern China. A U.S. military aircraft then transported him to the Osan Air Base in South Korea, before his final return to the United States. 

The U.S. government has stated that there was “no quid pro quo” to secure this release, and given the circumstances, this seems to be true. For over two months, while King was in detention, there was no direct negotiation between North Korea and the United States – purportedly because North Korea consistently avoided contact. 

“North Korea acted as if the U.S. was invisible,” according to a source with knowledge about the situation.

This approach can seen as North Korea sending a “dismissive” signal to Washington by indicating they “don’t particularly want anything” to do with the United States, the source continued. 

What’s notable is that this is part of a wider trend: Since the breakdown of the Hanoi summit in 2019, North Korea has been quite consistently choosing to ignore the United States and shun direct contacts.  Since the start of the Biden administration, Washington has reached out to Pyongyang at least 20 times for dialogue, but these attempts reportedly fell on deaf ears. 

The Hanoi Summit Setback and Kim’s “New Path”

After the North Korea-U.S. Hanoi Summit’s disappointing conclusion in 2019, North Korea urged the United States to “change its calculation,” challenging Washington’s reliance on sanctions as leverage. When Washington remained unmoved, North Korea announced a pivotal shift in its strategy towards the U.S. 

By July, North Korean leaders proclaimed they would no longer obsess over sanction relief. Later, in December, during a pivotal Workers’ Party meeting led by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, a commitment was made to “strengthen the nation’s strategic position and national power in harmony with evolving domestic and international scenarios.” The Workers’ Party Central Committee Plenary Session is the highest decision-making body that deliberates and determines North Korea’s core strategies and policy directions. The announcement solidified Kim’s cryptic warning that the country would go down a “new path,” as highlighted in his New Year’s speech.

The unfolding of events post-Hanoi has revealed Kim’s “new path” in action – a deliberate pivot away from U.S.-negotiated nuclear resolutions. This trajectory, disturbingly, steers Pyongyang closer to its nuclear ambitions. North Korea proclaimed itself a “nuclear state” and stipulated it in the nation’s constitution in 2012. In September, 11 years after formally committing to nuclear possession, North Korea amended the constitution on nuclear policy to emphasize “nuclear weapon advancement” and endorse preemptive nuclear use. Kim Jong Un stressed “the need to push ahead with the work for exponentially boosting the production of nuclear weapons and diversifying the nuclear strike means and deploying them in different services.”

But the “new path” doesn’t stop at nuclear ambitions; it has led North Korea to Russia’s doorstep. While the White House may be dismissive of the recent summit between Kim and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, labeling it an “arms-for-food deal,” such a cursory assessment might overlook intricate geopolitical dynamics.

Russia’s new foreign policy, as articulated in “The Concept of the Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation” in March, showcases a profound departure from the U.S.-led global order, with aspirations to bolster anti-U.S. and anti-Western alliances. When both North Korea and Russia, united by their mutual discontent with the United States, stride down their respective “new paths,” the global community has reasons to be alarmed.

Both Pyongyang and Moscow share a common goal: to challenge the U.S.-led security framework in the region. Just as South Korea and the United States promote values-based solidarity, there is no reason to underestimate the growing intimacy between North Korea and Russia. The solidarity between Russia and North Korea, which have found common ground in their political regimes and hostility toward the U.S., is more likely to strengthen in the future than to weaken.

The Kim-Putin summit was also noteworthy for the attendance of the “missile trio,” the three top individuals in North Korea’s missile program, thus emphasizing the military-centric nature of the summit. Kim said that his selection of Russia for his first overseas trip since the COVID-19 pandemic underscored the “strategic significance” of their nations’ relationship. 

Moreover, as the Russia-U.S. power competition intensifies over the protracted war in Ukraine, Moscow may see a fortified North Korea as an increasingly useful counterbalance to U.S. power in Northeast Asia. Former White House National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien, when asked about the evolving ties between North Korea and Russia during a webinar where this author also participated, responded: “I am very concerned.” 

After the summit, North Korea has started sending artillery to Russia. This comes as the Russian invasion of Ukraine nears the 20-month mark. Meanwhile, North Korea, which has been making efforts to launch a military reconnaissance satellite, has experienced two satellite launch failures this year. However, it publicly declared its intention to launch another reconnaissance satellite in October. During the summit, Putin publicly stated that Russia would assist North Korea in building satellites. Certainly, Russia could provide North Korea with the much-needed technological advancement in this regard. 

Siegfried Hecker, a former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory and a longtime observer of North Korea’s nuclear development, also expressed concern that Moscow may secretly supply plutonium to Pyongyang to help build more nuclear bombs

The Kim-Putin summit could harbor significance beyond North Korea securing just another patron besides China. In particular, it is crucial to carefully analyze whether Putin’s Russia has undergone a fundamental shift in its strategy, opting for a “new path” similar to North Korea, one that abandons engagement policies with the United States. An adversary that perceives its worldview as fundamentally incompatible with the United States and anticipates sustained conflicts with Washington in the future, thus deeming engagement with the U.S. as futile, would result in an unstable regional security environment. When there are two such adversaries, the situation becomes even more precarious. Kim and Putin are pursuing their “new paths” away from engagement with Washington, and now it seems their paths are converging in a strategic synergy against the United States.