Putin and Kim bring back Cold War-era military alliance to tense region

North Korea’s Kim Jong Un said he and Russian President Vladimir Putin share an “unbreakable relationship of comrades-in-arms.”
North Korea’s Kim Jong Un said he and Russian President Vladimir Putin share an “unbreakable relationship of comrades-in-arms.”


The leaders of Russia and North Korea signed an accord pledging assistance if the other country is attacked, stirring concern in the U.S., South Korea and Japan.

SEOUL—The revival of a Cold War-era military pact between Russia and North Korea has unnerved the U.S. and its main Asian partners, stirring uncertainty and concern that the agreement could undermine regional security.

The accord signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Wednesday includes a clause under which if one country is attacked, the other would provide “military and other assistance with all means in its possession without delay."

The pact, similar to one signed between Russia and North Korea before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, gave Pyongyang security assurances that Moscow would support it in the case of conflict.

But with tensions high across Northeast Asia, Putin used his first trip to Pyongyang in nearly a quarter-century to restore what has been a historic military relationship with North Korea.

While the pact’s open-ended language left unclear how strong the commitment is, it drew a swift rebuke from Washington, Seoul and Tokyo. A security pact signed in August at Camp David by President Biden and the heads of South Korea and Japan reaffirmed bilateral commitments to swiftly consult each other in response to regional threats. The agreement was aimed at strengthening trilateral cooperation amid growing threats from North Korea and China.

South Korea’s national security adviser described the treaty as troubling and said Seoul would reconsider its prohibition against providing weapons directly to Ukraine. Until now, South Korea had a longstanding policy of not supplying weapons to countries actively engaged in conflict, despite calls from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization for Seoul to do more to help Kyiv.

South Korea summoned Russia’s ambassador in Seoul on Friday to protest the new treaty. Seoul plans to sanction Russian ships and organizations involved in weapons transfers to North Korea.

Japan’s Foreign Minister Yoko Kamikawa said the type of military aid Russia is talking about providing North Korea may develop into a violation of United Nations sanctions. North Korea’s language referring to an alliance suggested that its military ties with Russia would be extremely close, she said, speaking at a news conference Friday.

The Russia-North Korea agreement “potentially poses great harm to the regional security environment surrounding Japan, and our government is gravely concerned," Kamikawa said.

The Pyongyang-Moscow accord raises the possibility of an increased flow of weapons between the two countries and a wider proliferation of weapons. Pyongyang’s weapons have already been used by Russian soldiers in fighting with Ukraine.

The broad nature of support suggested under the agreement sends a clear signal to the West that North Korea and Russia are banding together, said Paul Poast, a professor of international relations at the University of Chicago.

“It’s all up to interpretation, negotiation and bargaining regardless of what’s on paper," said Poast, who researches military alliances.

China hasn’t commented on the Russia-North Korea pact. It has largely kept quiet on the growing cooperation between Moscow and Pyongyang, characterizing it as a matter between the two countries—and showing a lack of interest in trilateral efforts.

There are a number of mutual defense pacts around the world, the best known of which is NATO’s Article 5 agreement stipulating that if an ally is the victim of an armed attack, every member of the alliance will come to its assistance. While Article 5 is considered one of the world’s strongest defense commitments, such articles are rarely invoked, signaling that military support isn’t automatic, Poast said.

Instead, it is likely that more weapons transfers will occur as a result of the pact, rather than North Korea or Russia intervening militarily in a conflict, as interpretations of alliance obligations will always vary, said Tongfi Kim, a research professor in Asian geopolitics at the Brussels School of Governance.

“Great powers like the U.S. worry about hurting their reputation by abandoning an ally, but neither Russia nor North Korea have such a reputation to protect," Kim said.

The North Korea-Russia defense treaty revives a 1961 pledge, which was renounced after the fall of the Soviet Union and Russia’s establishment of diplomatic relations with South Korea. The treaty was succeeded by weaker security assurances in 2000.

By reviving terms of the 1961 agreement, Kim received the strongest form of military, economic and diplomatic support from Putin that is possible now, especially the suggestion of being drawn to the defense of North Korea, said Lee Yong-joon, a former South Korean nuclear envoy.

“The language used in the treaty is purposefully broad, allowing any form of military assistance that Russia and North Korea agree on," said Lee, who was South Korea’s deputy representative during six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear program that included Russia, the U.S. and others.

Kim Jong Un said the treaty was defensive in nature, while Putin said South Korea had “nothing to worry about" unless Seoul plans an attack on Pyongyang. Yet their growing military cooperation has drawn the condemnation of the U.S. and its allies.

South Korea, through an indirect arrangement, has provided artillery shells for Ukraine’s war efforts with Russia. There are various options apart from lethal weapons that South Korea could consider, a presidential official told reporters on Thursday.

South Korea’s Foreign Trade Act stipulates that weapons exports can only be used for “peaceful purposes."

Such export permission is reviewed by South Korea’s Defense Acquisition Program Administration, the country’s arms-procurement agency, and a presidential decree to overturn the policy barring exports to Ukraine wouldn’t need parliamentary approval, said Bang Jong-kwan, a former South Korean Army major general.

“If South Korea sees Russia’s expansion as a bigger threat to international peace, aiding Ukraine and stopping Putin’s ambitions becomes a matter of preventing further global conflicts," Bang said.

Putin, who traveled to Vietnam after his trip to North Korea, said Seoul would be making a “big mistake" if it supplies arms to Kyiv, and threatened to make decisions that are “unlikely to please the current leadership."

Ann M. Simmons and Peter Landers contributed to this article.

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