North Korea, Russia deal blow to US-led order – how will Washington respond?

Posted on : 2024-06-24 17:31 KST Modified on : 2024-06-24 17:31 KST
North Korea, Russia deal blow to US-led order – how will Washington respond?
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un sits in the passenger seat as Russian President Vladimir Putin drives around the gardens at the Kumsusan State Guesthouse in Pyongyang, where the two “develop[ed] rapport” after signing their comprehensive strategic partnership pact on June 19, 2024. (KCNA/Yonhap)
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un sits in the passenger seat as Russian President Vladimir Putin drives around the gardens at the Kumsusan State Guesthouse in Pyongyang, where the two “develop[ed] rapport” after signing their comprehensive strategic partnership pact on June 19, 2024. (KCNA/Yonhap)

How will Washington respond to the recent North Korea-Russia summit, which presents a direct challenge to the US-led world order?

The three major risks faced by the US

On Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin spent less than a day in North Korea but, together with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, managed to present multiple risks to the US. Firstly, with the two sides agreeing to mutual military assistance, North Korea has made clear its intent to continue supplying weapons to Russia for use in Ukraine. For the current US administration, which struggled to secure funds to support Ukraine due to Republican opposition, North Korea’s additional weapons support to Russia is undoubtedly a thorn in its side.

Secondly, the fact that Russia has further distanced itself from its stance of not tolerating North Korea’s nuclear program is also a setback. Putin stated that North Korea has the right to take “reasonable measures” for self-defense. Russia, along with China, has already blocked attempts at additional sanctions on North Korea by the UN Security Council. In March, Russia opposed the extension of a panel of experts to oversee the implementation of sanctions on North Korea, leading to the panel’s closure 15 years after its establishment.

Thirdly, there are concerns that Russia may transfer military technology to North Korea that could be used to strike the US, such as intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) reentry technology.

In light of this, there are predictions that Russia could even incite North Korea to take “action.” Patrick Cronin, the Asia-Pacific security chair at Hudson Institute, told the Hankyoreh that the US’ biggest concern is Russia creating a conflict in East Asia, adding that Putin is “looking eastward to win the war he started in the West in Ukraine.”

Following his visit to China last month, Putin’s strategy of shaking up Asia by visiting North Korea and Vietnam last week has prompted Washington to respond by strengthening its support for Ukraine. The day after the Russian president visited North Korea, the US announced plans to supply Ukraine with more Patriot missiles and to allow Kyiv to use US-supplied weapons to strike into Russian territory anywhere along the Russo-Ukrainian border.

Additionally, at the NATO summit to be held in Washington from July 9 to 11, discussions will likely focus on the war in Ukraine and North Korea-Russia military cooperation. There is also a high possibility that South Korea, the US and Japan will announce enhanced military cooperation a trilateral summit scheduled for the sidelines of the NATO summit. 

Cronin predicted that the US will use the restoration of the North Korea-Russia alliance as a pretext to strengthen cooperation with South Korea and Japan, adding that he expects “an increased level of security cooperation to counter the global vision of Putin and Kim Jong-un” at the NATO summit.

China’s stance is key?

However, warnings and sanctions against North Korea and Russia have not been particularly effective so far. With strong sanctions already in place, additional sanctions are likely to be less effective. Particularly noteworthy is that China is being closely watched both inside and outside the US Biden administration. In an unusual move, the White House involved China in the matter, stating, “We would think that that concern would be shared by the People’s Republic of China” about the North Korea-Russia summit. This can be seen as Washington sending a message to Beijing not to engage in an anti-US alliance like North Korea and Russia, tinged with the hope that China, which has the greatest economic influence over both countries, will keep them in check.

Yun Sun, the director of the China program at the Stimson Center, said that China, which has sole influence over North Korea and Russia, would want to maintain that influence if possible. In other words, China would not welcome a strong North Korea-Russia alliance that could diminish its influence. 

Some believe that China, for which stability on the Korean Peninsula is a key foreign policy goal, is wary of the possibility of an unpredictable flare-up by Pyongyang due to Russian influence. They point out that China might remember its entanglement in the Korean War, which was instigated by the Soviet Union.

However, some analysts believe that China, suffering from US pressure, might not entirely view the situation negatively, as it could spread US power and attention thin.

By Lee Bon-young, Washington correspondent

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