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Putin's state visit to North Korea sets stage for elevated ties

Putin says his trip aims to broaden partnership, fortify unity against 'rules-based order'

June 18, 2024 - 16:20 By Ji Da-gyum
Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un (L) shaking hands during their meeting at the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Amur region on September 13, 2023. (Pool Photo via AFP)

The leaders of Russia and North Korea are set to sign a "treaty on a comprehensive strategic partnership" that could elevate the bilateral ties to a new level possibly in the fields of military, technology and economy upon President Vladimir Putin's visit to North Korea for the first time in 24 years on Wednesday.

The Russian president signed a presidential decree to "accept the proposal" of the Foreign Ministry in Moscow on signing a comprehensive strategic partnership agreement between Russia and North Korea, according to an English language decree dated Monday but released Tuesday.

The decree also said Putin allowed the Foreign Ministry to "make changes to its draft that are not of a fundamental nature."

"The presidential decree was released just hours before Putin's arrival at Pyongyang International Airport early Wednesday morning. Originally planned as a two-day trip starting Tuesday evening, the visit to North Korea was shortened due to Putin's delayed arrival.

Putin’s aide for foreign affairs, Yury Ushakov, announced Monday that the new treaty, if signed, will replace the Treaty of Friendship, Good-Neighborliness and Cooperation signed in 2000, and the Moscow and Pyongyang Declarations of 2000 and 2001.

Russia has established comprehensive strategic partnerships with several countries, including Argentina, Mongolia, South Africa, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam, according to the database provided by the Foreign Ministry in Seoul.

The purpose of Putin's "state visit" to North Korea was made clear in an article authored by Putin and published Tuesday in Korean on the front page of the Rodong Sinmun, North Korea's widely circulated official newspaper.

Putin underscored that his state visit represents a pivotal opportunity to broaden bilateral cooperation between Pyongyang and Moscow in a range of fields encompassing economy and trade and security.

“I am convinced that our joint efforts will take our bilateral interaction to a higher level, which will facilitate mutually beneficial and equal cooperation between Russia and the DPRK, strengthen our sovereignty, promote trade and economic ties, people-to-people contacts and, ultimately, improve the well-being of the citizens of both states,” Putin said in an English version of the article shared by the Kremlin.

The DPRK stands for the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, which is the official name of North Korea.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin (left) and North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un visit the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Amur region on September 13, 2023. (Pool Photo via AFP)

Putin's key message was unequivocal: Moscow and Pyongyang intend to bolster unity and forge all-encompassing cooperation against the "rules-based order," which he denounced as "nothing more than a global neo-colonial dictatorship relying on double standards," in the article.

Putin also highlighted that Moscow and Pyongyang are "ready to closely work together to bring more democracy and stability to international relations."

"To do this, we will develop alternative trade and mutual settlements mechanisms not controlled by the West, jointly oppose illegitimate unilateral restrictions, and shape the architecture of equal and indivisible security in Eurasia," he said.

South Korea's Unification Ministry indicated Tuesday that the development of a mutual settlement mechanism likely entails a payment system using Russia's ruble as the principal currency in bilateral trade.

Although Russia and North Korea agreed to use Russian rubles for mutual settlements during a joint economic committee meeting in Vladivostok in June 2014, no substantial progress has been made since.

"If significant progress is achieved this time, it seems Russia aims to bolster its influence as a key currency, thereby diminishing the dominance of the dollar," a senior official at the Unification Ministry remarked, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The Unification Ministry noted the significance of the inclusion of Russian Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak, the point man for the energy sector; Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Alexander Kozlov; Head of the Roscosmos State Space Corporation Yuri Borisov; and Russian Railways CEO Oleg Belozerov, especially in comparison to Putin's trip to Pyongyang in 2000.

"Compared to that time, the delegation seems to have expanded to cover more diverse fields, and the inclusion of the head of the Russian State Space Corporation suggests that there is a need to closely monitor the possibility of space technology cooperation," the Unification Ministry official said. "This is particularly relevant given that there was a summit at the Vostochny Cosmodrome last year, indicating potential follow-up cooperation."

The Kremlin announced Monday that the delegation accompanying Putin would also include: First Deputy Prime Minister Denis Manturov, Defense Minister Andrei Belousov, Deputy Defense Minister Aleksey Krivoruchko, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Minister of Transport Roman Starovoit, Minister of Health Mikhail Murashko and Oleg Kozhemyako, Governor of the Russian Far Eastern region of Primorsky Krai.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin views an exhibition of IT and creative industry at the Labour Quarter creative cluster on Tuesday. (Pool Photo via TASS)

North Korean state media also announced Monday that Putin will embark on a "state visit" to North Korea, marking only the second use of this term by North Korea since Chinese President Xi Jinping's trip to Pyongyang in 2019

In an editorial, the Rodong Sinmun on Tuesday underscored the significance of Putin’s state visit, describing it as a "meaningful opportunity of great significance in developing the friendly relations between North Korea and Russia to a new high level."

Experts in Seoul shared the view that Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine and North Korea's illicit nuclear and missile advancements have resulted in increased international isolation, thereby heightening the need for a broader partnership.

However, experts are skeptical about reviving the clause on automatic military intervention, which was present in the 1961 Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance but was later removed in the 2000 treaty.

“The talk of treaties may prove important. There is speculation that this might include mutual defense aspects, but this seems a bit unlikely. It gives both sides the opportunity to present the relationship as developing in new and important ways without actually doing anything concrete or specific beyond signing documents," Peter Ward, a research fellow at the Sejong Institute in Seoul, said.

"Obviously what goes into these documents could prove to be very important, but it seems unlikely that Russia will make commitments to the security of North Korea, given how this would potentially damage the prospects of improving relations with South Korea in the future,” Ward added.

Echoing the view, Fyodor Tertitskiy, a senior researcher at Kookmin University, suggested that the Kremlin's mention of a treaty on comprehensive strategic partnership, without providing specifics, is an intentional move to maintain "strategic ambiguity" aimed at South Korea and Japan.

"The biggest fear in South Korea and Japan would be, of course, the revival of the mutual defense treaty of 1961 -- the one the DPRK had with the USSR and the one Russia later replaced with a new one that did not have such a clause. Russia is exploiting this fear -- likely to push Seoul away from Kyiv," Tertitskiy said.

"I would say that the chance of a revival of a mutual defense treaty is low. Russia would gain little from such an agreement and it would hurt its relationship with Seoul enormously."