Hot on the heels of several noteworthy developments in the DPRK’s foreign relations, the Russian defense ministry announced that Deputy Minister of Defense Alexander Fomin would travel to the DPRK for talks with his North Korean opposite number Kim Hyong Ryong.
Among the topics scheduled for discussion were the situation on the Korean Peninsula and deepening DPRK-Russia defense cooperation.
Fomin is no stranger to the development of DPRK-Russia ties: in 2018 he was present at a reception at the North Korean embassy in Moscow to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the DPRK’s foundation.
Ahead of the meeting between senior North Korean and Russian military officials, which took place on July 3, Russian president Vladimir Putin stated in an interview with the Financial Times that the most important issue at hand was not so much North Korean denuclearization, but rather ensuring the DPRK’s military security.
Ensuring military security on the Korean peninsula – in other words, preventing armed conflict in Korea – had long been a priority for the Kremlin. During talks with Moon Jae-in on the sidelines of this year’s G20 summit in Osaka, Putin reportedly iterated to his South Korean counterpart the need to find a diplomatic solution to the Korean security crisis.
In spite of continued American diplomacy over the Korean security crisis, official Russian discourse over Korean security employs the term “diplomatic solution” as an alternative to American policies that include combining military pressure and economic sanctions.
In light of this, Moscow was reportedly pleased with the impromptu Kim-Trump meeting at Panmunjom, stating that the meeting coincided with the spirit of the 2017 Sino-Russian “roadmap” to peace, which calls for a reduction of American military activities on the Korean Peninsula.
The headwinds on the Korean peninsula seem to be blowing in the Kremlin’s favor
As far as the most recent gathering of senior North Korean and Russian defense officials is concerned, there are two ways to interpret the meeting. On the one hand, Moscow is moving to strengthen bilateral military cooperation on the heels of the Kim-Putin summit in April.
At the same time, however, while the situation in the DPRK poses a special challenge to Russian security interests, strengthening ties with North Korea also coincides with wider efforts by the Russian Federation to securitize its Asia-Pacific periphery.
In 2001, Moscow and Pyongyang vowed to strengthen cooperation on international security. The Kremlin supported North Korea’s claims that the DPRK’s missile program is for defensive purposes and poses no threat to countries that respect North Korean sovereignty.
The agreement to strengthen security ties came a year after the signing of a Treaty of Friendship, Good-Neighborliness and Cooperation, which replaced a Soviet-era mutual defense treaty that was in effect from 1961-1995.
Conspicuously absent from the current North Korea-Russia friendship treaty, however, is any assurance that Moscow will come to the DPRK’s aid in the event of a military crisis.
DPRK-Russia military ties have been developing, albeit slowly, since the singing of the current treaty. In 2017, two years following the inking of a bilateral agreement on preventing dangerous military incidents, North Korea and the Russian Federation held their first DPRK-Russia military commission in Pyongyang.
More recently, North Korean defense minister Noh Kwang-chol participated in the 8th Moscow Conference on International Security, a conference that hosts officials from the Russian government, Russian partner states, and multilateral security organizations. Noh, however, was not among the main speakers of the conference.
North Korea’s treaty-clad friendship with Moscow has meant that Russian responses to North Korean saber-rattling have been measured. Following the DPRK’s sixth nuclear test in 2017, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu denounced both what he considered to be a North Korean provocation, as well as the military activities of other countries in the region.
Russian and U.S. disagreement over how to best resolve the Korean security crisis notwithstanding, recent developments in DPRK-Russia defense ties don’t seem to be of much concern to Washington. A recently-released white paper on Russia’s strategic intentions authored by a group of experts commissioned by the Pentagon made no mention of Russia attempting to challenge U.S. interests in Korea directly.
Allegations have nevertheless recently emerged that the DPRK may have acquired Russian technology to produce a missile that can evade defensive action from both THAAD and Patriot missiles. THAAD is currently operational in the ROK, while Patriot missiles were, until recently, openly deployed in Japan.
There is no doubt that the recent uptick in DPRK-Russia relations, as the Kim-Putin summit underscores, has in part propelled further cooperation between Moscow and Pyongyang in the defense field. Alexander Fomin said as much following his most recent voyage to North Korea.
Furthermore, Fomin assured Kim Hyong Ryong that the Kremlin would continue working with Pyongyang in a spirit of friendship and good-neighborliness.
Nevertheless, recent developments in defense ties between Moscow and Pyongyang also comprise part of a wider effort by the Russian Federation to solidify its security relationships across the entire Korean peninsula.
In 2018, the Russian military participated in military exercises organized by the Singaporean and South Korean governments.
Furthermore, on the sidelines of the 2019 Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore, Alexander Fomin and South Korean vice defense minister Suh Choo-suk agreed to develop ROK-Russia bilateral military ties.
The ROK’s refusal to enter into a formal trilateral alliance with Tokyo and Washington will be most welcome for the Kremlin
The uptick in ROK-Russia defense ties, set back by Russian incursions into South Korea’s Air Defense Information Zone, coincides with developments in Northeast Asia’s military landscape that bode well for Russian interests.
Russian state-funded media recently noted that South Korean lawmaker Song Young-gil, who currently heads a presidential commission on economic cooperation with Russia, stated that the ROK had no interest in forming a trilateral alliance with Japan and the U.S. Such an arrangement would, for Russia, be akin to having NATO on its eastern periphery.
Song’s announcement should come as no surprise as, according to a US government report, the ROK acquiesced to a series of Chinese demands, including a request that South Korea not join any formal trilateral alliance with Tokyo and Washington.
The ROK’s refusal to enter into a formal trilateral alliance with Tokyo and Washington will be most welcome for the Kremlin, which may consider developments in the Asia-Pacific to be more threatening to Russian national security than events transpiring along Russia’s European flank and in the Middle East.
In the aftermath of the meeting between Kim Hyong Ryong and Alexander Fomin, several points stand out: the continued working of DPRK-Russia relations at the vice-ministerial level demonstrates that while Moscow-Pyongyang ties are growing, they remain nowhere near as strong as Pyongyang’s ties with other states.
Furthermore, while outreach between North Korea and Russia following the Kim-Putin summit includes collaboration in the defense sphere, such developments form part of a broader Russian strategy in the Asia-Pacific, of which the DPRK only forms a part.
Nevertheless, the headwinds on the Korean peninsula seem to be blowing in the Kremlin’s favor of late. The Kim-Putin summit last April may not have ended with a bang, but slow and steady seems to be the rule of the day in one of Pyongyang’s priority relationships.
Edited by James Fretwell
Featured image: Russian Ministry of Defense
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