South Korea and the US Should Use the Kim-Putin Bromance

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South Korea and the US Should Use the Kim-Putin Bromance

Despite Seoul and Washington’s growing fear of the strengthened ties between Russia and North Korea, there is no need to rule out diplomacy and denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula. 

South Korea and the US Should Use the Kim-Putin Bromance

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (left) escorts Russian President Vladimir Putin after his arrival in Pyongyang, North Korea, June 18, 2024.

Credit: Russian Presidential Press and Information Office

Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, on June 19 to meet his counterpart Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader. It is his first state visit to North Korea since he traveled to the country in 2000 and met Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il. Also, it is the first state visit North Korea has hosted since the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, North Korea has been one of the rare countries firmly supporting Moscow. North Korea is supplying munitions, including ballistic missiles and artillery shells, to Russia, which faces munitions shortfalls in the war with Ukraine due to the U.S. massive assistance to Kyiv. Pyongyang has been accused of receiving illegal aid from Moscow in return for its military cooperation. 

In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Pyongyang and Moscow have explicitly strengthened their bilateral relations, arousing fear from Seoul and Washington as Pyongyang has not responded their requests for dialogue since then-U.S. President Donald Trump walked out of the 2019 Hanoi summit meeting with Kim. 

When Kim visited the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia’s Far East region to meet Putin in September 2023, it was apparent that his visit was Moscow’s response to Pyongyang’s support. During this visit, Putin promised that his country would help Pyongyang build satellites as it has failed to place its own reconnaissance satellite into orbit several times. 

Pyongyang can apply the technology Moscow transfers for the development of military spy satellites to its intercontinental ballistic missile program. There are also rumors that Russia is assisting North Korea in developing a submarine capable of launching nuclear-armed missiles. Enhancing military cooperation between Russia and North Korea thus aggravates tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

When Russia’s state media reported Putin’s visit to North Korea, the eyes of the government officials and pundits in South Korea and the United States were on the possibility of Putin signing a military pact that pledged full-fledged military intervention in the event of an attack. Although such an explicit phrase was not included in the “comprehensive strategic partnership” pact Putin and Kim signed during the summit, Moscow pledged to provide military assistance to North Korea in the event of aggression. 

Based on the follow-up report released by the North’s Korean Central News Agency on Thursday, the Russian military may intervene if the war breaks out on the Korean Peninsula.

“In case any one of the two sides is put in a state of war by an armed invasion from an individual state or several states, the other side shall provide military and other assistance with all means in its possession without delay in accordance with Article 51 of the U.N. Charter and the laws of the DPRK and the Russian Federation,” the KCNA reported. (DPRK is an acronym of the North’s official name: Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.) 

On Thursday, South Korean National Security Adviser Chang Ho-jin released a statement strongly denouncing the agreement signed by Putin and Kim. He pledged that Seoul will strengthen the extended deterrence capabilities of the South Korea-U.S. military alliance and the trilateral cooperation of the United States, South Korea, and Japan.

Chang also warned of negative impacts to South Korea-Russia relations in the wake of the agreement made on Wednesday in Pyongyang. In response, Seoul has said it will consider directly supplying weapons to Ukraine for use in repelling the Russian invasion

A new Cold War has unfolded on the Korean Peninsula as South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, unlike his liberal predecessor Moon Jae-in, has emphasized the necessity of strengthening military alliance with the U.S. while taking a hawkish stance on North Korea.

After the Kim-Putin summit and the comprehensive strategic partnership treaty, pundits in South Korea have raised concerns about security on the Korean Peninsula. However, the latest agreement signed by Putin and Kim could be a tool for Washington and Seoul to leverage.

For decades, North Korea insisted that its desire to develop nuclear weapons comes from its security concerns, meaning it would not use nuclear weapons first unless it is attacked. Although the defensive nature of its nuclear weapons has been shifted after the current leader Kim Jong Un threatened to use his nuclear weapons to subjugate South Korea early this year, Pyongyang will not use its nuclear weapons first unless there is an imminent threat of attack by the United States and South Korea.

On the other hand, Kim would not consider dismantling his country’s nuclear weapons the way he did in 2018 and 2019 when he negotiated with Trump. In September 2023, Pyongyang stipulated the policy of strengthening its nuclear force in the constitution to demonstrate that Kim would no longer use its nuclear weapons as a bargaining chip in future talks with the United States.

It is clear that Pyongyang will not give up its nuclear weapons voluntarily, and it now enjoys stronger backing from Moscow. North Korea will covertly cooperate with Russia to evade economic sanctions imposed by the U.S. and the United Nations. And if Moscow’s support has some impact on improving North Korea’s stagnant domestic economy, Pyongyang would not even consider negotiating with Washington and Seoul. 

Due to Russia’s veto power in the U.N. Security Council, the U.S. and South Korea will not be able to impose additional sanctions against North Korea. Also, as Russia vetoed the renewal of a U.N. panel monitoring sanctions against North Korea months ago, more and more hurdles will come to the U.S. and South Korea in enforcing the existing sanctions. 

The current international security environment is not favorable to Seoul and especially Washington to make moves to bring Pyongyang back to the negotiating table. However, Putin’s visit to North Korea and the comprehensive strategic partnership pact he signed with Kim could actually provide an opportunity. 

Whenever the U.S. and South Korea hold joint military drills in South Korea, North Korea has vehemently criticized them, calling the exercises an act of invasion rehearsal. In light of the agreement signed on Wednesday, Washington and Seoul now have a strong rationale to back up their claims that their drills are for defensive purposes only, as they would not seek a war with Russia by invading the North. 

Additionally, North Korea no longer needs nuclear weapons if Russia has pledged full-fledged military intervention if it is attacked. In this scenario, Washington can see a path to persuade Pyongyang give up its nuclear weapons in a phased manner. South Korea has no nuclear weapons but has a so-called ironclad military alliance with the United States; in a similar vein, North Korea can also co-exist on the Korean Peninsula peacefully with no nuclear weapons if it has a powerful security backer in Moscow.

Rather than taking a conventional perception on North Korea with an old-school strategy, Washington and Seoul should see the Putin-Kim bromance in a different perspective. The agreement not only could be the beginning of a new era in Russia-North Korea relations but also a new chapter of nuclear negotiations – if Washington and Seoul can think creatively.