Putin’s Visit to North Korea and Its Impact on Northeast Asia’s Geopolitical Landscape

On June 19, Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived in Pyongyang for a two-day visit to North Korea. Following this, Putin is also scheduled to visit Vietnam.

On June 19, Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived in Pyongyang for a two-day visit to North Korea. Following this, Putin is also scheduled to visit Vietnam.

In the context of Western sanctions imposed due to the Russia-Ukraine war, aimed at isolating Russia and affecting its geopolitical and economic status, Putin’s recent visit to China and current trips to North Korea and Vietnam are strategic moves to expand Russia’s influence. According to reports, Putin’s North Korea visit has yielded several outcomes, notably the signing of a “comprehensive strategic partnership” treaty with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

During the talks with Kim Jong Un, Putin stated that Russia is fighting against the “hegemonic, imperialist policies” of the United States and its allies over decades. He said that Russia appreciates North Korea’s “consistent and unwavering support for Russian policy, including in the Ukrainian direction”.  Putin also added that Russia has prepared “a new basic document for the establishment of long-term relations with North Korea”. Meanwhile, Kim Jong Un remarked that in a complex and rapidly changing world, North Korea is strengthening its strategic communication with Russia and its leadership. He affirmed that North Korea will “unconditionally support all of Russia’s policies”.

Putin emphasized the importance of the treaty signed between the two countries, stating that this document will serve as the foundation for further development in the bilateral relationship.  He stated that “the comprehensive partnership agreement signed today provides, among other things, for mutual assistance in the event of aggression against one of the parties to this agreement”. Putin also hinted at the possibility of military technology cooperation with North Korea. Kim Jong Un, commenting on the signing of the treaty between North Korea and Russia, remarked that the agreement accelerates the construction of a new multipolar world and that the relations between North Korea and Russia have been elevated to the level of an alliance.

These indications suggest that while Russia and North Korea haven’t yet formalized a military alliance, their relationship is approaching that level. Both countries currently contend with extensive sanctions from the U.S. and its Western allies. Strengthening bilateral ties enables Russia and North Korea to increase their geopolitical maneuverability and expand cooperation across economic, technological, and potentially military spheres. Providing military technology to North Korea would clearly violate United Nations and U.S. sanctions. However, given Russia’s strained relations with the West, such actions might not incur significant additional repercussions. Putin’s recent visit to North Korea could potentially reshape Northeast Asia’s geopolitical landscape, particularly regarding potential military collaboration. Furthermore, he has indicated openness to exploring military technology cooperation with North Korea.

South Korea has previously stated that from August 2023 to February 2024, North Korea shipped a total of 6,700 containers of weapons and ammunition to Russia. Ukraine has alleged that Russia launched KN-23/24 series missiles manufactured by North Korea. The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) also released a report claiming that North Korea transferred a large amount of military hardware to Russia. However, both Russia and North Korea have denied these claims, dismissing them as “absurd”.

If North Korea has indeed risked the ire of the West by supplying military equipment to Russia, what would Russia provide in return? From North Korea’s needs and geopolitical logic, Russia has numerous military cooperation options — advanced military aircraft, missile technology, and most worryingly, nuclear technology, all of which are potential concerns for the West. According to reports, on June 14 this year, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Kurt Campbell expressed in an urgent phone call with South Korean First Vice Foreign Minister Kim Hong-kyun that the U.S. had information on what Pyongyang has provided to Moscow but was uncertain about what North Korea received in return from Russia. “Hard currency? Is it energy? Is it capabilities that allow them to advance their nuclear or missile products? We don’t know. But we’re concerned by that and watching carefully”, Campbell stated.

With the already tense geopolitical environment in Northeast Asia, an increasingly nuclear-capable North Korea would profoundly reshape the regional landscape, particularly unsettling the United States and its allies such as Japan and South Korea. Historically, Russia, with its military prowess and European aspirations, would not have pursued such close cooperation with North Korea or committed significant geopolitical and military resources. However, the current dynamics are markedly different. Even if the Russia-Ukraine conflict were resolved soon, Russia, under Putin’s leadership, anticipates enduring containment, pressure, and scrutiny from the West. Consequently, Russia has abandoned any aspirations for short-term reconciliation with Western powers.

Amid these circumstances, Russia’s strategic shift towards the East is focused on deepening cooperation with both China and North Korea. The relationship between Russia and China has evolved into a “comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for a new era,” which differs from the relationship Russia shares with North Korea, described as a “comprehensive strategic partnership” resembling an alliance. Throughout the Russia-Ukraine conflict, China has explicitly stated its policy of refraining from providing lethal military aid to Russia, opting instead for non-military cooperation, particularly in economic realms. In contrast, Russia’s engagement with North Korea presents a unique scenario, where military cooperation could potentially become a significant facet of bilateral relations.

During the early 1950s Korean War, Northeast Asia witnessed a standoff characterized by “Russia-China-North Korea” versus “U.S.-Japan-South Korea,” which later evolved into the current state of tense equilibrium. More than seven decades later today, there are concerns over the possible resurgence of similar dynamics.

It is true that parallels with the past remain: Russia, China, and North Korea are all perceived by the U.S. as adversaries to varying extents, each posing distinct challenges in American strategic calculations.

However, there are notable distinctions between the present and historical contexts. China has undergone more than forty years of reform and opening up, primarily directed towards the West, leading it to become the world’s second-largest economy. Its ongoing development necessitates the continuation of these policies. Despite being a small and economically challenged nation, North Korea possesses an undisclosed number of nuclear weapons. The former Soviet Union, once a global pole, has since dissolved into today’s Russia, significantly altering its international stature. China’s current comprehensive strategic interests differ greatly from those of the past. Therefore, China’s commitment to neutrality and its efforts to facilitate peace talks during the Russia-Ukraine conflict align with its present strategic thoughts.

The evolution of Russia-North Korea relations, particularly advancements in military technology cooperation, will play a pivotal role in shaping Northeast Asia’s geopolitical landscape. This development is intricately linked to Russia’s ongoing standoff with NATO. Strengthening Russia’s quasi-alliance with North Korea is poised to bring substantial transformations to the region’s geopolitical dynamics. As a key player in Northeast Asia, China will need to prepare for and analyze the potential implications of these changes in the region.

He Jun
He Jun
Mr. He Jun takes the roles as Partner, Director of China Macro-Economic Research Team and Senior Researcher. His research field covers China’s macro-economy, energy industry and public policy