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Seoul says Putin to visit N. Korea 'in a few days'

NK, Russia likely elevate military cooperation by revising existing treaty signed in 2000, observers say

June 13, 2024 - 16:13 By Ji Da-gyum By Son Ji-hyoung
Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un shake hands during their meeting at the Vostochny cosmodrome outside the city of Tsiolkovsky, about 200 kilometers (125 miles) from the city of Blagoveshchensk in the far eastern Amur region, Russia on Sept. 13, 2023. (Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

ASTANA, Kazakhstan/SEOUL -- The South Korean presidential office said that Russian President Vladimir Putin will make his first visit to North Korea in 24 years, widely interpreted by observers as a key moment to bolster military and security cooperation between Moscow and Pyongyang amid the ongoing war in Ukraine and other shifting geopolitical dynamics.

"President Putin's visit to North Korea will take place in a few days," a senior South Korean presidential official confirmed to the media on Wednesday local time during President Yoon Suk Yeol's state visit to Kazakhstan.

Putin's forthcoming trip occurs amidst substantial geopolitical shifts since his initial journey to Pyongyang in July 2000, a period characterized by post-Cold War cooperation and inter-Korean reconciliation.

The summit between Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is poised to address the demands of such evolving dynamics, according to observers.

Experts in Seoul believe that the key focus of the Putin-Kim summit would be to strengthen their military and security cooperation by revising the Treaty of Friendship, Good-Neighborliness, and Cooperation, originally signed in February 2000, around five months before President Putin's first visit to Pyongyang.

The 2000 treaty marked a shift in the focus of their partnership towards economic cooperation by removing the clause on automatic military intervention present in the 1961 Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance.

However, current developments suggest a renewed need to level up military and security cooperation between Moscow and Pyongyang.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un examine a launch pad of Soyuz rockets during their meeting at the Vostochny Cosmodrome outside the city of Tsiolkovsky, about 200 kilometers (125 miles) from the city of Blagoveshchensk in the far eastern Amur region, Russia, on Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023. (Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Experts took note of a press release issued by the North Korean Foreign Minister's assistant office days after Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui's visit to Moscow this January. According to a statement, North Korea and Russia "reached a consensus and satisfactory agreement on practical issues to establish bilateral relations on a new legal basis, aimed at strategic development and comprehensive expansion."

"Therefore, there is now a possibility that the new treaty will include military and security cooperation, which was excluded from the previous friendship treaty. This will become the most important event," Lim Eul-chul, a professor of North Korean studies at Kyungnam University in Seoul, told The Korea Herald.

Lim explained, "Russia had no choice but to revise its treaty with North Korea to focus on economic, scientific, and technological exchanges in 2000" when Russia had limited influence in the international community and was focused on its own recovery in the post-Cold War era.

"Russia's status has evolved, and the war in Ukraine has become a significant factor. Given the heightened importance of military cooperation, there is a natural and growing need to renew the existing treaty," Lim said

Jeh Sung-hoon, a professor of Russian studies at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul, highlighted the likelihood of North Korea and Russia revising Articles 2 and 4 of their 2000 treaty. The articles respectively concern joint response in case of contingencies and the unification of the Korean Peninsula.

Article 2 stipulates that both parties will immediately establish contact if either faces the threat of invasion or any situation threatening peace and stability.

"I believe this clause could be strengthened to enhance security commitments," Jeh told The Korea Herald. "It wouldn't amount to an alliance or automatic military intervention, but there's potential to increase its symbolic significance and reinforce its substance to some extent."

People watch a news program broadcasting a file image of a missile launch by North Korea, at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, May 30, 2024. (AP)

Article 4 also confirms that the rapid end of the Korean Peninsula’s division and its reunification align with the interests of all Koreans and contribute to peace and stability in Asia and globally.

"North Korea has recently formalized its stance of viewing South Korea as a separate, hostile country. As a result, contents pertaining to unification between the two Koreas are likely to be excluded, as they do not align with the current situation and North Korean policies," Jeh said.

Reflecting on the treaty’s signing 24 years ago, Jeh noted that in February 2000, President Putin visited in July, during a period marked by relatively positive inter-Korean relations, highlighted by the first-ever inter-Korean summit on June 15 of the same year.

However, Hyun Seung-soo, a research fellow at the government-funded Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul, emphasized, "The significance doesn't necessarily lie in the changes to the treaty's contents, but rather in the fact that the treaty has been renewed."

Experts in Seoul also shared the view that the Putin-Kim summit would address the dispatch to Russia of North Korean workers. Russia seeks these workers due to a shortage of human resources amid the years-long grinding war in Ukraine, despite it being a violation of the UN Security Council resolution 2397.

Additionally, the summit would discuss boosting North Korean tourism, which does not contravene UN Security Council resolutions.

Hyun underscored the symbolic importance of enhancing tourism cooperation between the two countries.

"Activating bilateral tourism between Russia and North Korea not only promotes travel itself but also reflects Russia's intention to portray North Korea as a normal state," Hyun said.

"By boosting tourism and enhancing related infrastructure with Russia's help, North Korea can present itself as more than just a rogue state focused on nuclear and missile development, thereby improving its international image."

Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech at a plenary session of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF) in Saint Petersburg, Russia June 7. (Reuters)

However, Hyun emphasized that the core of Putin's first trip to Pyongyang in 24 years is the message Russia wants to convey to the world and the Korean Peninsula at this critical juncture.

"Putin's trip to North Korea is groundbreaking and intended to achieve a significant impact. As he begins his fifth term as president and strengthens his resolve to confront the United States and the West, this visit sends a powerful message to the world," Hyun said.

Hyun noted that Putin's visit is viewed as an attempt to restore and rebuild Russia's sphere of influence by reestablishing alliances lost after the Soviet Union's dissolution, as evidenced by his successive trips to Vietnam and North Korea.

"Putin's visit to North Korea intends to demonstrate that Russia's global strategy and diplomacy have shifted, emphasizing that the relationship between Russia and North Korea is now strategic and long-term, rather than merely tactical and short-term," Hyun said.

Putin's visit to Pyongyang is also intended to send a message to the US and its allies, including South Korea — a key US treaty ally in Asia — demonstrating solidarity with North Korea.

"A crucial element of this cooperation with North Korea is to deliver a warning message to South Korea," Hyun said.

In a notable parallel development, the South Korean presidential official emphasized during the briefing that the 2+2 strategic diplomatic and security dialogue between South Korea and China will take place around the same time as Putin's trip to North Korea.

Diplomatic sources indicated that Seoul and Beijing are finalizing arrangements to hold the meeting on June 18, which will be attended by vice foreign ministers and senior defense officials, marking the first such meeting in nine years.

Previously held at the director-general level in 2013 and 2015, the talks were recently elevated to the vice-ministerial level following an agreement reached by Yoon and Premier Li Qiang during the summit in late May.

The official added, "Taking all these elements into account, we will ensure that our key allies and strategic partners are in lockstep with South Korea on matters related to North Korea."