Russia And DPRK Rustle Up An Alliance – OpEd

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The Russian President Vladimir Putin’s brief visit to Pyongyang on June 19 raised much heat and dust. The signing of a Treaty on Comprehensive Strategic Partnership between Russia and North Korea hogged headlines in the western media and raised wild speculations about the brith of a military alliance that may shatter the algorithm of power dynamic in the Northeast Asian region. 

The geopolitics of the region no doubt changes course as Russia and DPRK take their relations to a qualitatively new level with strong military overtones. But appearances can be deceptive when they are hyped up rhetorically by both protagonists. 

The treaty doesn’t make sense as both Russia and DPRK are nuclear powers. If nuclear deterrent cannot make them self-sufficient in the security sphere, god only can help them. An American attack on DPRK seems unlikely and an attack by the US on Russia is even less so.

The Biden Administration’s recent policy shift to allow Ukraine to use American weaponry to attack Russia — with the support and guidance by NATO personnel backed by satellite data and western intelligence inputs — seems to have been the proverbial straw that broke Russia’s traditional reserve.

The US National Security Advisor Jack Sullivan has since climbed the escalation ladder last weekend by widening the gyre of the Biden administration’s shift in policy. In a carefully structured interview with the US government-funded PBS, coinciding with Putin’s visit to North Korea, Sullivan announced that: 

  • Kiev is at liberty to use American weapons to “anywhere that Russian forces are coming across the border”;
  • specifically, it will apply to Russia’s Kursk region as well from where “exploratory moves” against Ukraine’s Sumy Region have been made; 
  • “This is not about geography. It’s about common sense. If Russia is attacking or about to attack from its territory into Ukraine, it only makes sense to allow Ukraine to hit back.”; 
  • The yardstick is whether Russian forces are using Russian territory as “sanctuary”; 
  • Ukraine will also be free to use air defense systems, including US-supplied weaponry, to take Russian planes out of the sky, even if those Russian planes are in Russian airspace, “if they’re about to fire into Ukrainian airspace”; 
  • F-16 jets (nuclear-capable) will be deployed in Ukraine since the intention is to enable Kiev to have the capability to attack Russia.  

Putin has explicitly warned about the possibility of supplying Russian weapons to regions from where strikes can be launched if Brussels and Washington did not stop arming Ukraine. Izvestia has written that “it seems that North Korea may be a suitable candidate.” 

Indeed, Putin’s delegation included the new defence minister, Andrei Belousev. Putin himself called the Treaty “a truly breakthrough document… a fundamental document that will form the basis of our relations for the long term.” But the brouhaha in the media over the military content of the budding Russia-DPRK alliance apart, what should not be overlooked is that there is vast unutilised economic potential in the Russia-DPRK relationship. 

Putin’s external strategies, unlike his Soviet predecessors’, invariably have a well-thought out economic content. In this case, Moscow is also building up ties with partners in Asia as a crucial vector of Putin’s prioritisation of the development of Russian Far East. 

From such a perspective, Putin has called for the abrogation of UN Security Council sanctions against DPRK. From Pyongyang’s perspective, this is a real game changer too. Bilateral trade increased by nine times and exceeded $34 billion last year.

There is big scope for Russia to import skilled labour from DPRK to the Far East, which is chronically short of manpower. Again, Putin’s visit has revived the strategically important project for the restoration and development of the joint logistics port of Rajin, the all-weather port in DPRK, which can ensure stable cargo flow from Russia to the Asia-Pacific markets. The two countries also signed an agreement on June 19 on the construction of a border road bridge over the Tumannaya River in a related development. 

However, at the end of the day, as Russian Presidential Aide Yury Ushakov put it, the Treaty is needed because of profound changes in the geopolitical situation in the region and worldwide. But he also stressed that the treaty will observe all the fundamental principles of international law, will not be confrontational or directed against any country and will aim to ensure greater stability in Northeast Asia. 

Inevitably, there is a lot of curiosity about how China fits into this paradigm. By a curious coincidence, Putin’s visit coincided with the vice-ministerial level diplomatic and security dialogue, or 2+2 dialogue, between China and South Korea. 

The South Korean side brought up the Russian-DPRK tango but the Chinese side apparently took a non-committal “principled” position that North Korea and Russia, as friendly and close neighbours, have legitimate need for exchanges, cooperation and development of relations. 

On the other hand, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said the 2-2 dialogue  in Beijing responded to the need of growing bilateral relations between China and South Korea and has no particular link to the engagement between other countries. Interestingly, Global Times cited a prominent Chinese expert’s opinion that the 2+2 dialogue can serve as “a stabiliser and mediator of regional tension and conflict,” as it allows China and South Korea, who have close trade and cultural ties, to enhance communication and trust on diplomacy and security issues. 

According to the Chinese Foreign Ministry, both sides reiterated during the 2+2 dialogue their commitment to friendly and mutually beneficial relations between China and South Korea and “to actively engage in dialogue and exchanges at all levels and in all fields.” 

They also agreed to strengthen communication through mechanisms such as high-level strategic dialogues, diplomatic security 2+2 dialogues, and 1.5 track dialogues “to enhance political mutual trust and advance the healthy and stable development of the China-South Korea strategic cooperative partnership.” 

Clearly, China and South Korea, two great beneficiaries of globalisation, are stakeholders in the stability of global production and supply chains and will be averse to the sort of politicisation and “securitisation” that Russia and DPRK have embarked upon, Global Times reported quoting unnamed Chinese officials. 

Thus, Global Times wrote, the Chinese side “emphasised that maintaining peace and stability on the peninsula is in the common interests of all parties, including China and South Korea… the urgent task is to cool down the situation, avoid escalating confrontation, and adhere to the overall direction of a political solution. China has always determined its position based on the merits of the matter itself and will continue to play a constructive role in Korean Peninsula affairs in its own way.”  

The bottom line is that Russia and China are moving on independent tracks with regard to North Korea and the power dynamic in Northeast Asia. Putin’s state visit to Pyongyang probably brought this fault line to the surface in the “no limits” partnership between Russia and China, which gives rise to a suspicion that, perhaps, too much shouldn’t be read into the Russia-DPRK “alliance” once the dust settles down. 

At the end of the day, it may turn out to be an alliance of convenience against the backdrop of the Ukraine war and the sharp deterioration of both Russia’s relations with the US, Japan and South Korea who are DPRK’s perennial tormentors, too. 

M.K. Bhadrakumar

M.K. Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.

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