What South Korea Needs Post-Russia-North Korea Mutual Defense Treaty

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What South Korea Needs Post-Russia-North Korea Mutual Defense Treaty

In forging deeper strategic ties with Pyongyang, Russia has inadvertently tarnished one of the key touchstones of Moscow’s relations with Seoul.

What South Korea Needs Post-Russia-North Korea Mutual Defense Treaty

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un smile during their meeting at the Pyongyang Sunan International Airport outside Pyongyang, North Korea, on June 19, 2024.

Credit: Gavriil Grigorov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File

The impact of the war in Ukraine on international security has been further underscored through recent security developments in Northeast Asia. With increasing casualties and the depletion of military supplies, Russia has turned to North Korea, with Russian President Vladimir Putin making a recent two-day trip to Pyongyang. During the visit, which began June 18, Russia cemented its ties with North Korea in order to overcome its strategic difficulties through the signing of a “Treaty on Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.”

The content of the treaty is essentially the reinstatement of North Korea’s 1961 Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance with the Soviet Union which was voided after the collapse of the latter in 1991. Putin openly admitted in a press conference in Hanoi that the new treaty is a de facto reinstatement of the 1961 Soviet-North Korean Treaty. This development is a clear indication of the complexities of the international security landscape. Putin’s continued obsession with Ivan Ilyin’s Eurasianism has once again resulted in Russia’s foreign policy looking to the perceived past glories of the Soviet Union. 

In doing this, Russia has inadvertently tarnished one of the key touchstones of Russian relations with South Korea, which has its foundation in the “Agreement on Cooperation in the Military – Technical Sphere, Defense Industry and Logistics between the Government of the Republic of Korea and the Government of the Russian Federation”, which was a military technology cooperation agreement between South Korea and Russia ratified in 1997 regarding South Korea’s economic assistance to post-Soviet Russia. The key predicate condition of the agreement was the severance of Russia’s direct military aid and assistance to North Korea.

However, given that the articles of the new treaty between Russia and North Korea involve providing direct military support to North Korea, the continuity of amicable relations between South Korea and Russia has once again come into question. 

Acknowledging this development’s potential impact on the geopolitical landscape of Northeast Asia and increased Russian influence in North Korea, China also took its own approach by engaging in security dialogue with South Korea for the first time in nine years. Nonetheless, the Chinese delegation has only reiterated its principled position that the stability of the Korean Peninsula is within the country’s primary interest, showing its diplomatic hesitancy and strategic limitations over the development of the ongoing political climate. Despite China’s efforts, the new treaty between North Korea and Russia seems to entail significant implications for the security landscape of the Korean Peninsula. 

What South Korea Needs Now

Currently, many news outlets have been focusing on Article 4 of the treaty’s language regarding the legitimization of North Korea-Russia relations by citing Article 51 of the U.N. Charter and highlighting Russia’s direct military support for North Korea in the case of armed provocations and invasion. Also, throughout the Russia-North Korea summit, contrary to the conventional diplomatic stance that Russia used to pursue on the historical interpretation of the Korean War, Putin officially recognized and emphasized the Soviet Union’s involvement in the Korean War. These changes in historical interpretation and political rhetoric show Russia’s change of stance on North Korea and its willingness for legitimization of the relations through highlighting their Cold War ties against the West. 

However, throughout the Russia-North Korea summit, contrary to Kim Jong Un’s explicit usage of the term “alliance” in the speech, Putin has refrained from using the same, which alludes to the lingering remnants of Russia’s diplomatic hesitancy. Considering that this treaty has yet to be ratified by the Russian State Duma, and reservations and interpretations on the treaty have not been made, it is currently premature to determine whether this development in Russia-North Korea relations extends beyond a marriage of convenience. But given the history and political nature of the Russian State Duma, it is highly likely that the treaty will be ratified without any significant changes to Putin’s current interpretation of it. Nonetheless, any meaningful clarity on these bilateral developments can only be assessed through the extent of military cooperation and developments that will follow in the near future.

Apart from Russia’s convoluted political stance throughout the bilateral summit, the short-term strategic implications of this diplomatic discourse can be best construed through the details of the treaty. Apart from Article 15 outlining the enhancement of bilateral law enforcement agency cooperation, the real strategic implications of the treaty can be best speculated through Article 18, focusing on bilateral strategic cooperation on information security. 

Article 18 of the Treaty on Comprehensive Strategic Partnership

“Both Parties contend for equal rights of the States in the management of internet telecommunication networks, oppose the misuse of information and communication technologies to tarnish the dignity and representation of sovereign states, violation of sovereign rights, and regard any attempts to subordinate the sovereign rights to coordination and security guarantees of the global network as unacceptable. 

Both Parties shall expand cooperation in the field of combating the use of information and communications technologies for criminal purposes, including the exchange of information necessary for the warning detection, interdiction, and investigation of crimes and other offenses involving the use of information and communication technologies.” 

Given this context and the precedent of Unit 74455 of the Russian Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU)’s cyberattack on South Korea’s 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, South Korea will need to reinforce cooperation with the United States’ National Security Agency (NSA) and the United Kingdom’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) to further bolster South Korea’s cybersecurity of the critical infrastructures and supply chains to thwart the potential SolarWinds-like attacks coordinated by conjoined Russia-North Korea efforts. 

Considering the logistical challenges that Russia is currently embracing from the Ukraine War, Russia cannot currently afford another front. But cyber warfare is arguably limited, in large part guarantees anonymity of state involvement, and has seemingly limited direct civilian casualties. Given the precedent of Iran-Israel’s cyber war, conjoined Russia-North Korea cyberattacks will be more aligned with the security interests of Russia and North Korea for now, as a low-risk, high-return method of unconventional warfare. 

Impact of the Russia-North Korea Mutual Defense Treaty on Northeast Asia 

The most notable outcome of the recent development in the Korean Peninsula is the increase in North Korea’s low-intensity provocations involving the launching of trash balloons, activities near the Military Demarcation Line (MDL), and GPS jamming attacks near the Northern Limit Line (NLL) in the West Sea throughout this month. As preceded by the Battle of Yeonpyeong in 2002 and other armed provocations by North Korea in 2015, these activities and recent developments between Russia and North Korea should be cautiously examined as the increased likelihood of armed confrontation can not be completely negated. 

Despite Putin’s diplomatic sophistry in Hanoi, stating that South Korea has nothing to worry about since the direct military support aspect of the treaty would only be invoked if South Korea were to launch an armed invasion on North Korea, the precedent of Russia’s abuse of Article 51 of the U.N. Charter and existence of the treaty itself has already provided strategic confidence and morale for North Korea, as it reinforces the internal legitimacy and emboldens the military aggressions of the Kim regime through international recognition. Also, Russia’s continued expansion of technological cooperation with North Korea since January this year and reinforcement of these efforts outlined in the treaty combined with Putin’s mention of the supply of high-precision weapons to North Korea has shattered the thin ice that Russo-South Korean relations have been relying on since the Ukraine War began.

Furthermore, the absence of China’s effective control on Russia-North Korea ties over its own strategic interest will continue to challenge the South Korean public’s sentiment toward the U.S.’ commitment to extended deterrence, and the South Korean general public’s continued outcry for procurement of nuclear weapons seems to be inevitable. However, contrary to China and Russia’s wildest dream of weakening the U.S. alliances through forging a climate for multilateralism, these outcries are not accompanied by hostility against the U.S.-ROK alliance but rather calls for reinforcement of the U.S. commitment in the region. Based on the Chinese government mouthpiece Global Times’ detailed coverage last February of South Korea’s potential to develop nuclear weapons, China is well aware of the implications of the ongoing geopolitical intricacies and the price for maintaining its strategic ambiguity on the Korean Peninsula. 

In the meantime, the current geopolitics of Northeast Asia will be conducive to consolidating coordination of the joint trilateral security efforts between South Korea, the U.S., and Japan. But as the security paradigm will be significantly altered over time, the self-inflicted security concerns by Russia and China surrounding North Korea are slowly dragging Northeast Asia to the sum of all fears. Given this, it is vital for Beijing to cautiously examine and determine whether maintaining strategic ambiguity on Russo-North Korean relations is truly beneficial for the future of the Chinese people since its strategic stability and leverage on the Korean Peninsula will continue to diminish as these developments continue.