Russia-North Korea Treaty Marks a Return to Normalcy

Recent Features

Flashpoints | Opinion | Security | East Asia

Russia-North Korea Treaty Marks a Return to Normalcy

We are witnessing a steady return to a web of relations previously regarded as normal after a recent, somewhat exceptional 30-year period.

Russia-North Korea Treaty Marks a Return to Normalcy

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (left) escorts Russian President Vladimir Putin after his arrival in Pyongyang, North Korea, June 19, 2024.

Credit: Russian Presidential Press and Information Office

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to North Korea has drawn much attention and almost corresponding levels of consternation from South Korean and U.S. analysts alike. One prominent academic claimed the partnership developed therein was the gravest threat to the United States since the Korean War.

North Korea-Russia interactions have increased significantly since Pyongyang stepped out of the abstaining non-aligned ranks concerning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, joining Syria, Belarus, and Nicaragua in supporting it. Perhaps in response, Putin tacitly acknowledged North Korea’s nuclear weapons status in March. Despite hyperbole, the thick history of Moscow-Pyongyang cooperation means this latest treaty is by no means unprecedented. In many ways we are witnessing a steady return to a web of relations previously regarded as normal after a recent, somewhat exceptional 30-year period. 

The exceptional period began when the international Cold War ended unevenly on the Korean Peninsula with South Korea establishing diplomatic and burgeoning trade relations with Russia (the Soviet Union at the time) and then China. Pyongyang’s efforts to establish relations with the United States and Japan, however, floundered repeatedly. Regardless of whether blame rests ultimately at the pivotal moments with North Korea or the United States, for these disappointments – and analysts that come down on either side are often emphatic in their condemnation of the other – throughout those 30 years what is undeniable is that North Korea participated in dialogue with the U.S., Japan, South Korea, and certain international organizations to an extent unfathomable during the Cold War. Falling back into the dichotomy of blocs where international recognition and cooperation is provided by Russia (and China) restores a protective barrier for North Korea, the absence of which had led Pyongyang to bear much risk over the past three decades. 

Russia refusing to renew the mandate of the United Nations Panel of Experts for the North Korean sanctions regime as a quid pro quo for support in its war in Ukraine is not exceptional. What needs to be recognized as exceptional was in fact Russia and China agreeing to and implementing multiple rounds of sanctions against North Korea in the first place, particularly the broad non-weapons program related sanctions of 2017. In today’s climate, as politicians in Russia, China, the U.S., Europe, and on both sides of the Korean Peninsula regularly talk up bi- or multipolar competition, invoking China to penalize North Korea or castigating Russia is increasingly meaningless for the situation on the Korean Peninsula. 

North Korea is not acting in a vacuum. Pyongyang’s post-2019 dismissal of dialogue and advances in the North Korean nuclear weapons program must be regarded as testament in part to deficiencies in U.S. and South Korean policy since the early 1990s. In assessing the present, an element of reflection is required. This can start with acknowledging that sanctions on North Korea have failed categorically to achieve their stated goal and that years of “strategic patience” were futile

The reasons for and consequences of missing opportunities to develop peaceful relations, particularly in 2000 and 2019, should also be reviewed. Reflecting on missed rapprochement opportunities will make all parties better prepared to make the most of opportunities when chances for peacebuilding emerge in the future. 

Adding unitary sanctions and condemning North Korea-Russia cooperation serve no purpose for the Korean Peninsula in 2024 other than to possibly further delegitimize or tarnish those remaining voices advocating engagement. 

There has also been condemnation recently in South Korea of the North for its two Koreas declaration. This condemnation, which will seemingly have no bearing on North Korean policy, serves only to entrench indignation about Northern wrongs among the segment of the South Korean population that already saw fault in all of Pyongyang’s policies. If the South were really incensed at the prospect of two separate Koreas, energy could be more productively spent reflecting on the impact of the last 15 years in South Korea, which has borne witness to the shrinking of political and societal dialogue about unification to an almost non-existent level, a steady refocusing of identity around “South Korea” with a corresponding decrease in focus on the Pan-Korean ethnic community that encompasses Northerners, and the recent restructuring of the Ministry of Unification that saw its exchange and cooperation functions all but disappear and preceded the more heavily commented on abolishment of Southern related party organs in the North. This is not to comment on the correctness or otherwise of these changes and policies in South Korea, only to point out that there are influential matters Seoul can shape regardless of the North’s policy about South Korea.  

With North Korea’s retreat into narrative espousing a multipolar world, increased U.S. or South Korean criticism and enlarged military exercises are today ever more likely to be utilized to evidence Pyongyang’s argument that external enemies are attacking North Korea and therefore to incite domestic solidarity. Furthermore, the United States and South Korea have less autonomy of action to determine North Korea’s actions today, than at any point in the past 30 years. In short, as military threats abound around the Korean Peninsula, increased energies put into consternation and condemnation of a party that is less conducive to listening than before would actually be far more productively invested into the aforementioned project of reflection. The U.S and South Korea should also focus on what they can definitely affect, creating strategies for de-escalation that are glaringly absent at present.

Since 2019 tensions have risen, communication lines have been cut, and military safeguarding agreements have been discarded. While North Korea-Russia cooperation is condemned, unprecedented Japan-South Korea-U.S. military cooperation accelerates. If one incites anxiety and escalation, then naturally the other does the same. 

The stakes are high. Public consciousness in the post-Cold War world seems less attuned to the immense destructive power of nuclear weapons, while Kim Jong Un and Yoon Suk-yeol reiterate their resolve not to back down. An environment exists on the peninsula where, despite neither side necessarily wanting war, both perceive shooting first as being imperative in a crisis

Those crises are constructed through the perceptions of individuals. It only takes one misplaced or misinterpreted show of force during live fire exercises near the border, exchanges of artillery fire in the West Sea, or missiles crossing the maritime demarcation line, for the peninsula to descend into devastating conflict. The failed South Korean missile test that crashed back into South Korean territory in October 2022 demonstrates how the South is in no way immune to such mishaps. 

Amid this dangerous environment, North Korea is being used as a means to convince South Korea to provide deadly weapons to Ukraine or to be subsumed within a broader competition with China, or simply to score points against domestic political rivals supposedly less hawkish on North Korea. Intentionally playing up the crisis while repeating the mantra of being ready and willing for talks is not only irresponsible, it is foolish and dangerous.