After Putin’s Pyongyang summit, Seoul and Moscow play dangerous game

Posted on : 2024-06-24 17:28 KST Modified on : 2024-06-24 17:44 KST
All these recent developments make the upcoming NATO summit even more important
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un stand for a photo with copies of their newly signed pact establishing a comprehensive strategic partnership between their two nations following their summit in Pyongyang, North Korea, on June 19, 2024. (TASS/Yonhap)
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un stand for a photo with copies of their newly signed pact establishing a comprehensive strategic partnership between their two nations following their summit in Pyongyang, North Korea, on June 19, 2024. (TASS/Yonhap)

North Korea and Russia’s signing of an agreement that essentially restores their Cold War alliance has thrown South Korea and Russia into a dangerous game. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin declared on Thursday that it would be a "very big mistake" for South Korea to send lethal weapons to Ukraine. Putin’s “warning” was a response to an announcement by South Korean national security adviser Chang Ho-jin, who, while condemning the comprehensive strategic partnership pact that Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un signed during their Pyongyang summit, said that Seoul would reconsider sending armaments to Ukraine. 

Putin traveled to Hanoi, Vietnam, after his meeting with Kim in Pyongyang. During a press conference there, Putin said, “As for the supply of lethal weapons to the combat zone in Ukraine, this would be a very big mistake. I hope it doesn’t happen.”

“If it happens, then we will be making relevant decisions that are unlikely to please the current leadership of South Korea,” he said. 

Seoul announced its willingness to send more weapons to Ukraine after North Korea and Russia inked their new treaty, converting South Korea-Russia relations into a dangerous game of diplomacy that now is at the crux of inter-Korean tensions. 

Regarding Putin’s Hanoi comments, Seoul’s presidential office released a statement saying, “There are many measures to consider when sending armaments to Ukraine. After Putin’s announcements [on June 20], we will continue to monitor Russia’s responses and movements when considering how to move forward.” 

In short, although Seoul has indicated its willingness to resume sending weapons to Ukraine, it has yet to make a final decision, which will be dependent on Russia’s movements going forward. 

“Our government’s announcement that it will ‘reconsider’ sending weapons to Ukraine is a way of saying, ‘We are willing to use this card, but we may not, depending on what Russia does in the days ahead,’” said an official from the presidential office. 

In essence, the statement was a warning to Moscow to not push things further.   

The first diplomatic contact between Seoul and Moscow following the upgrade to the latter’s relations with Pyongyang was the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoning the Russian ambassador in Seoul. Kim Hong-kyun, the first vice foreign minister, summoned Ambassador Georgy Zinoviev to the ministry’s offices at 2 pm on Friday. Kim conveyed South Korea’s disapproval of the treaty, specifically its concrete agreements for increased economic and military cooperation between Moscow and Pyongyang. 

Kim and Zinoviev discussed the matter for about 30 minutes. According to the Foreign Ministry, Kim explicitly stated that Russia’s support for North Korea was a violation of UN Security Council resolutions and a threat to South Korea’s national security. Kim said that such actions unavoidably damage South Korea-Russia relations, and called for Russia to act responsibly. 

Zinoviev reportedly responded that any attempts to “threaten or blackmail” his country would not be tolerated. The Russian Embassy in Seoul posted on its social media accounts on Friday that Russia-North Korea cooperation “does not target any third parties.”

Russia’s renewed treaty with North Korea is a sign that Moscow intends to forcefully assert itself in the Korean Peninsula’s geopolitics for the first time since the end of the Cold War. It looks as if Putin wants to utilize North Korea as a tool against the US while securing North Korean weapons and munitions for the Kremlin’s war with Ukraine. 

Kim, on the other hand, looks to advance Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal and missile technology while increasing North Korea’s strategic value amid the new Cold War paradigm. The alignment of strategic interests between Moscow and Pyongyang further complicates the role of inter-Korean politics amid the global struggle for hegemony and influence between superpowers.

With its concrete agreements to engage in military cooperation and weapons exchange, the new treaty has also created an additional link between inter-Korean politics and the war in Ukraine. If South Korea decides to go ahead with shipments of lethal weapons and anti-aircraft guns to the Ukrainian military, Seoul may tie itself directly to Ukrainian battlefields, making its geopolitical situation even more precarious.

All these recent developments make the upcoming NATO summit — scheduled to be held in Washington, DC, from July 9 to 10 — even more important. Both South Korea and Japan have been invited, and a trilateral summit between the US, South Korea and Japan has been scheduled alongside the NATO meeting. There is a high probability that the trilateral summit will produce additional security cooperation agreements that complement those made during the Camp David summit in August of last year. Considering Seoul has announced its willingness to reconsider supplying Ukraine with weapons, it is likely that Washington will explicitly request Seoul to live up to its rhetoric.  

When questioned about this possibility during a department press conference on June 20, US State Department Spokesperson Matthew Miller said, “We welcome any support for Ukraine in its fight against Russian aggression, but that's ultimately a decision for South Korea.”

The new North Korea-Russia treaty is clearly a major strategic burden for South Korea. It allows Kim to utilize Russia, a member of the UN Security Council, to undermine any sanctions against the North. It is also probable that Pyongyang will exploit the pact to elevate the level of its provocations toward Seoul. Some analysts even think Pyongyang will openly conduct its seventh nuclear test to put the North Korean issue at the top of the docket ahead of the US presidential election in November. 

Right now, the most pressing question for South Korea is whether Russia’s cutting-edge military technology will find its way into the hands of the North Koreans. Kim is desperate for cutting-edge technology to apply to his military reconnaissance satellites and nuclear submarines, as well as intercontinental ballistic missile reentry vehicles. If he acquires such technology through the new treaty’s provisions on scientific and technological cooperation, South Korea will be vulnerable to a new class of North Korean nuclear and other cutting-edge weapons that are backed by Russian assistance. 

This all begs the question: What kind of strategic diplomacy can South Korea employ at this point? During his Pyongyang press conference following the signing of the new treaty, Putin explicitly stated, “Let me note one thing: this treaty is nothing new.” This is an acknowledgment that the new treaty, which pledges mutual military assistance in the event that one party is invaded, is a throwback to the North Korea-Soviet treaty of 1961, which stipulated automatic military intervention on behalf of the other party. 

Perhaps this is why Putin made the effort to convince us that South Korea has “nothing to be concerned about” because “assistance in the military sphere under the treaty that we have signed will only be provided in the event of an aggression against either signatory party.”  

“The recent North Korea-Russia treaty is unique in the sense that it was signed during a hot war between Russia and Ukraine, which means that the significance of the agreement is directly tied to North Korea’s strategic value. If North Korea’s strategic value plummets, then the meaning of the agreement is diminished,” said a former senior intelligence official in Seoul.

“We need to mobilize all diplomatic resources and pressure methods to prevent Russian military technology from making its way into North Korea. We must not push South Korea-Russia relations past the point of no return,” he added.

“We must not fall into the vicious circle of us providing weapons to Ukraine and Russia supplying military technology to North Korea.”

“Following the trilateral summit between South Korea, the US and Japan at Camp David [in August of] last year and the North Korea-Russia summit in September 2023, we should have expected a concrete upgrade in the North Korea-Russia alliance, and mobilized all our diplomatic resources on Russia,” said Wi Sung-lac, a lawmaker with the Democratic Party who formerly served as South Korea’s ambassador to Russia. 

“The Yoon administration has neglected relations with Russia for the past year, and this diplomatic failure has led to a new treaty between Pyongyang and Moscow,” he added. 

“Now the administration is scrambling to make up for its mistakes by insinuating weapons shipments to Ukraine. This strongman approach is unlikely to work, and will only exacerbate the state of South Korea-Russia relations,” he went on.

By Park Min-hee, senior staff writer; Lee Seung-jun, staff reporter

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