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The Russia-North Korea Military Alliance: Reducing Its Negative Fallout

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The Russia-North Korea Military Alliance: Reducing Its Negative Fallout

Moscow needs to assure Seoul that it will not let its relations with South Korea deteriorate unduly.

The Russia-North Korea Military Alliance: Reducing Its Negative Fallout
Credit: Depositphotos

The recently signed comprehensive strategic partnership between Moscow and Pyongyang is a worrisome development that makes the current situation on the Korean peninsula more dangerous. As it is most likely a strategic blunder for Russian President Vladimir Putin, Moscow would do well to limit its negative fallout. Other stakeholders including Seoul, Washington, Beijing and Tokyo also need to do their part to reduce the current tensions on the peninsula.

What makes the partnership dangerous is that it contains a provision for a military pact that commits both sides to come to each other’s aid if either side were to be attacked by a third party. This pact apparently amounts to an official bilateral military alliance and a mutual defense treaty. 

The danger is that Kim Jong Un, the leader of a nuclear-armed North Korea, may feel further emboldened by this pact and engage in military provocations against South Korea. Even before this pact, relations between Moscow and Pyongyang had become closer than at any time since the 1980s, as both Moscow and Beijing had become more closely aligned with Pyongyang against the West in the current Cold War-like global geopolitical environment. This pact may add to Kim’s sense of security that he now enjoys the backing of Moscow and Beijing and may encourage him to take more risks vis-à-vis Seoul, Washington and Tokyo.

If a historical parallel may be drawn, the current situation is somewhat reminiscent of 1950 when Kim Il Sung, Kim’s grandfather and the North Korean leader at the time, launched the Korean War with backing from Moscow and Beijing. Although it is highly unlikely that Kim Jong Un wants to launch a full-scale invasion of South Korea, there is a chance that he may feel emboldened enough to engage in limited military provocations. The danger is that such provocations could escalate into a full-scale war

As any war in the Korean peninsula will directly involve the United States, Putin must ask himself if he is prepared to go to war against Washington in order to bail out Kim from the consequences of his military adventurism. If he is not prepared to do so, he may have something to learn from the precedent of Joseph Stalin, the Soviet dictator. Although Stalin gave his blessings to Kim Il Sung’s plan to invade South Korea, he was careful to avoid getting dragged into a direct war with Washington as a result of the elder Kim’s adventurism. Accordingly, the Soviet Union did not fight the United States in the Korean War except in limited air battles between U.S. pilots and Soviet pilots camouflaged as Chinese pilots. 

The pact is a liability, not an asset, for Moscow because the pact apparently does not give Moscow more than what Moscow was already getting from Pyongyang or more than what it could get from Pyongyang without such a pact. Even before the pact, Moscow was getting munitions from Pyongyang in significant quantities to support its war in Ukraine, and the pact apparently is not necessary for Moscow to receive other potential benefits from Pyongyang. Most importantly, Moscow needs to realize that whatever benefit it may receive from the pact is clearly not worth the risk of getting dragged into a war against Washington. 

Moscow has more to lose than gain from the pact also because the pact has raised alarms in Seoul, Washington, Tokyo and elsewhere. Policymakers in Seoul are very concerned that the pact signals deeper military cooperation between Moscow and Pyongyang, including Moscow helping Pyongyang advance the sophistication of its nuclear weapons and missile delivery systems. Accordingly, Seoul has signaled that it may transfer lethal weapons to Ukraine if Moscow gives such assistance to Pyongyang. 

Moscow would do well to realize that South Korea is a major arms exporter and that the weapons South Korea can supply Ukraine may do much more harm to Russia than the harm done to Ukraine by the munitions North Korea supplies to Russia. Moreover, South Korea is economically much more powerful than North Korea, and Moscow needs to realize that, over the long term, it has much more to gain from pursuing good relations with Seoul than from pursuing good relations with Pyongyang. 

Accordingly, Moscow should do what it can to minimize the negative fallout from the pact. Moscow needs to assure Seoul that it will not let its relations with Seoul deteriorate unduly, and one way to do that is to refrain from helping Pyongyang advance its nuclear and missile programs. The pact does have an escape clause in that the entire partnership of which it is a part can be abrogated unilaterally by one side via written notification to the other side. Moscow can hint to Pyongyang that it may abrogate the partnership if Pyongyang takes military risks that Moscow views as unacceptably excessive. 

Likewise, Beijing can echo such warnings by signaling to Pyongyang that it opposes excessive risk taking and supports stability in the Korean peninsula. Lastly, Seoul, Washington, Tokyo and others need to do what they can to lower tensions on the peninsula, including pursuing efforts to engage Pyongyang in talks.