North Korea, Russia Strengthen Military Ties

July/August 2024
By Kelsey Davenport

Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un signed a mutual defense treaty and committed to strengthening military ties during a June summit in Pyongyang.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un shake hands after signing a mutual defense treaty in Pyongyang on June 19. (Photo by Kristina Kormilitsyna / POOL / AFP via Getty Images, distributed by Sputnik, the Russian state agency)

The treaty comes as Russia continues to court North Korean support for its war in Ukraine and as tensions between North Korea and South Korea escalate.

According to Article 4 of the treaty that Kim and Putin signed on June 19, North Korea and Russia “shall immediately provide military and other assistance” to the other party if it “falls into a state of war due to armed invasion from an individual or multiple states.” The treaty stipulates that the assistance must be in accordance with Article 51 of the UN Charter, which preserves the right to “individual or collective self-defense” in response to an armed attack against a UN member.

Putin told reporters after the summit that the treaty represents a “breakthrough” in Russia’s relationship with North Korea and a “new level” of strategic partnership between the two countries. Putin last visited North Korea 24 years ago, although he did meet with Kim in September 2023 near Vladivostok. (See ACT, October 2023.)

Kim described the treaty as “a most powerful agreement” that is “peaceful and defensive in nature.” He said it will be a “driving force” toward a “new multipolar world.”

In a June 23 joint statement, Japan, South Korea, and the United States condemned the “deepening military cooperation” between North Korea and Russia, noting in particular Pyongyang’s provision of arms to Moscow that “prolong[s] the suffering of the Ukrainian people.”

The three states said the partnership between North Korea and Russia is “of grave concern to anyone with an interest in maintaining peace and stability” on the Korean peninsula. The statement said that Japan, South Korea, and the United States will “further strengthen diplomatic and security cooperation” to counter the threat from North Korea and prevent escalation.

In a June 25 televised speech marking the 74th anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol said that the treaty is in direct violation of UN Security Council resolutions on North Korea. South Korea “must stand up to North Korea’s provocations and threats overwhelmingly and decisively,” he said.

In addition to the provision of military assistance in the event of attack, the treaty suggests that Russia and North Korea may engage in military cooperation. According to Article 8, the parties “shall establish mechanisms” to “strengthen defense capabilities to prevent war.”

In a June 19 video statement released by the Kremlin, Putin said Russia does not rule out the possibility of military cooperation with North Korea.

Kim said that North Korea would continue to support Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine.

Chang Ho-jin, the South Korean national security adviser, responded by saying that Seoul will reconsider selling arms to Ukraine. Currently, South Korea is providing humanitarian support, but has not offered any weaponry to Ukraine due to a policy of not exporting arms to states involved in conflict.

Putin warned South Korea to refrain from providing military assistance to Ukraine, saying Seoul would be making a “very big mistake” if it transfers arms. He said Russia’s partnership with North Korea does not pose a threat to South Korea. Because South Korea “does not plan aggression against” North Korea, there is “no need to be afraid” of defense cooperation between Moscow and Pyongyang, Putin told reporters during a June 20 press conference in Vietnam.

The treaty also opens the door for Russian assistance to North Korea’s nuclear energy and space programs. Article 10 states that North Korea and Russia will “develop exchanges and cooperation” in certain scientific fields, including space and “peaceful nuclear energy.”

Russia is prohibited from providing assistance to North Korea’s nuclear and space programs under the terms of UN Security Council sanctions, but Moscow has already violated the sanctions by accepting armaments from Pyongyang.

Putin said Russia will continue its opposition to sanctions imposed on North Korea, which he described as “illegal,” and suggested the two countries will work to develop payment systems that are “not controlled by the West.”

During a June 12 event at the Stimson Center, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Kurt Campbell said that Washington will be “watching carefully” to see what assistance Russia provides to North Korea.

Kim’s visit to Russia in September 2023 suggested that North Korea is interested in assistance in developing its space program. Despite announcing ambitious plans to deploy satellites, North Korea has struggled with its launch vehicles. On May 27, North Korea attempted to put a satellite in orbit using a new space launch vehicle, but it exploded midflight.

North Korea’s National Aerospace Technology Administration said that the explosion likely was caused by a defect in the first stage of a new type of rocket motor that the country is developing.

Kim said that the failure will not stop North Korea’s space ambitions and reiterated that Pyongyang needs satellite capabilities due to South Korean and U.S. threats.

The failed launch took place shortly after leaders from China, Japan, and South Korea, met in Seoul. Yoon, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, and Chinese Premier Li Qiang released a joint statement during the May 27 summit that included a reference to “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.”

In a rare criticism of China, the North Korean state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) denounced the trilateral statement, saying that denuclearization “means a power vacuum and hastened war.” KCNA said North Korea viewed the reference to denuclearization as “a blatant challenge” to the country’s sovereignty.

South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lim Soo-suk defended the reference to denuclearization, saying that UN Security Council resolutions call for North Korea’s “complete abandonment of nuclear weapons.”

North Korea claimed to have tested a missile armed with multiple warheads on June 26, but South Korea called the launch a failure. KCNA reported on June 27 that the test involved three mobile warheads and a decoy separating from a missile. The warheads were guided to three different targets, KCNA said, adding that North Korea will now begin full-scale testing of the capability. Japan and South Korea said the missile exploded and described the test as a failure.

The test took place after South Korea conducted a live-fire exercise near the inter-Korean maritime border on June 25. South Korea was prohibited from conducting live-fire exercises along the border under a 2018 joint military agreement with North Korea, but Seoul suspended its participation in that agreement on June 4 after Pyongyang sent more than 1,000 balloons filled with trash into South Korea. North Korea withdrew from the agreement in 2023.