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Putin to arrive in North Korea, with new treaty in focus

Seoul, South Korea — Russian President Vladimir Putin is set to arrive Tuesday in North Korea, where he is expected to sign a treaty outlining Moscow’s expanded cooperation with Pyongyang, according to Russian state media.

Putin has decided to sign a comprehensive strategic partnership agreement with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during his two-day visit, reported the Russian news agency TASS.

The report provided no details of the document, though earlier the agency quoted a Putin foreign policy aide as saying it would likely cover defense matters.

Earlier Tuesday, Putin vowed to work with North Korea to counter sanctions as both countries expand their “many-sided partnership,” according to a letter published in North Korean state media.

In the letter, Putin said the two countries would develop trade mechanisms “not controlled by the West” and would “jointly oppose illegitimate unilateral restrictions.”

Russia is a long-time supporter of North Korea. Though ties have sometimes been rocky, both countries recently found more reasons to work together, especially following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

U.S. officials say North Korea has provided Russia with 11,000 containers of munitions, as well as ballistic missiles, for use in the Ukraine battlefield. Both North Korea and Russia deny such weapons deals even though a growing number of independent observers have documented North Korean weapons being used against Ukrainian forces.

“Moscow and Pyongyang will likely continue to deny violations of international law but have notably shifted from hiding their illicit activities to flaunting their cooperation,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.

Defense ties

U.S. officials have expressed concerns that Russia may provide advanced weapons or other help related to North Korea’s nuclear program.

Such worries intensified last September when Kim inspected numerous advanced Russian weapons while touring several military sites in eastern Russia, including a modern space launch facility.

Though North Korea’s latest satellite launches showed signs of Russian assistance, analysts debate how far defense cooperation would go, noting that Russia does not often share its most advanced military technology.

“These states do not share durable alliance institutions and values; they are only weakly bound together by resistance to the enforcement of international laws and norms,” said Easley.

Treaty history

Analysts will closely parse the language of any new treaty signed by Putin and Kim.

Russia currently has comprehensive strategic partnerships with countries including Vietnam, Mongolia, and some Central Asian nations.

While such documents form the basis for Russia’s “highest type of interstate relations,” they do not amount to alliance treaties, observed former Russian diplomat Georgy Toloraya.

“I don’t think that this treaty would include a clause which directly calls for military assistance, but it will certainly give room to imagine a situation where this could be provided,” he said in an interview with VOA.

In 1961, North Korea and the Soviet Union signed a friendship and mutual assistance treaty that included a provision for automatic military intervention in emergencies.

That deal was abolished after the Soviet Union’s collapse. The two countries signed a new treaty in 2000, but it focused on economic rather than military matters.

According to Putin aide Yuri Ushakov, the treaty being negotiated by Kim and Putin would replace all other bilateral treaties.

Obstacles

If Putin’s letter is any indication, his visit will also likely focus on expanding economic ties, including by ramping up exchanges related to education, culture, and tourism.

However, this plan faces obstacles due to United Nations Security Council resolutions that prohibit a wide range of economic engagement with North Korea.

While Russia says it no longer supports U.N. sanctions on North Korea, it has not formally announced that it will stop observing them.

Instead, Russia may search for what it sees as loopholes that facilitate cooperation even in areas that are subject to U.N. sanctions, such as North Korean laborers earning income abroad.

For instance, North Korean IT specialists could work remotely from their home country without technically receiving income abroad, said Toloraya, a former member of the U.N. Panel of Experts, which was meant to monitor enforcement of the North Korea sanctions.

Russia earlier this year effectively abolished the U.N. panel – one of its boldest steps to unilaterally degrade the U.N. sanctions regime it once supported.

What North Korea wants

For Kim, Putin’s visit is meant to provide a boost in domestic legitimacy, especially amid North Korea’s increasingly public frictions with its main economic backer China, said Kim Gunn, who earlier this year stepped down as South Korea’s top nuclear envoy.

“North Koreans feel nervous about that, because their economy is 99% dependent on China,” said Kim, who is now a member of South Korea’s National Assembly. “Kim Jong Un’s answer is to say, ‘Don’t worry, we still have Russia.”

In the lawmaker’s view, Kim Jong Un also likely hopes that Putin’s visit will give him leverage with Chinese President Xi Jinping, creating a situation where both Russia and China vie for North Korea’s favor.

But, Kim Gunn added, the new Russia-North Korea relationship is likely a “marriage of convenience,” rather than a restoration of Soviet-era ties.

“Russia is not the former Soviet Union,” he said. “And Russia is at war in Ukraine – they are pouring all their energy into this war. There’s not so much room for Russia to do anything with North Korea.”

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