Dhaka,  Thursday
25 July 2024

Hegemonic policy between Pyongyang and Moscow

Shahidul Alam Swapan

Published: 07:58, 25 June 2024

Hegemonic policy between Pyongyang and Moscow

Photo: Messenger

Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un recently signed an agreement promising mutual aid if either country faces "aggression", a strategic pact that comes as both countries face escalating tensions with the West.

Details of the agreement were not immediately available, but it could be the strongest link between Moscow and Pyongyang since the end of the Cold War. The two leaders described the agreement as a major improvement in their relations in the areas of security, trade, investment, culture and humanitarian aid.

The summit took place as Mr Putin visited North Korea for the first time in 24 years, and as the US and its allies expressed growing concerns about possible arms deal in which Pyongyang would supply Moscow with badly needed munitions for its war in Ukraine, in exchange for economic assistance and technology transfers that could reinforce the threat posed by Mr Kim's nuclear weapons and missile programme.

From North Korea, Mr Putin travelled to Vietnam, where he exited his plane on a red carpet and briefly shook hands with dignitaries as soldiers in white uniform stood at attention. In Hanoi, Mr Putin met Vietnam's most powerful politician, Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, as well as new President To Lam, as the Russian leader seeks to strengthen ties with a long-standing partner.

When Russia invaded Ukraine two years ago, even the most far-sighted minds could not have imagined that North Korea would end up being linked to the conflict, let alone become a major player in it. Although the signs of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea's (DPRK or North Korea) gravitation towards Russia became unequivocal, the extent of this pivot and whether Russia would find North Korea useful enough to reciprocate were uncertain at best. Today, as the war rages on, the world is faced with increasingly close ties between Pyongyang and Moscow.

The rift between the US and China and Russia offers Kim Jong Un a golden opportunity to advance his weapons programmes at no political or economic cost. China and Russia, both permanent members of the UN Security Council, have vetoed additional sanctions against North Korea since 2022, accusing the US of being responsible for North Korea's actions, and their violations of sanctions against the North have been widely documented.

This is true, but the real issue is not that Kim is taking advantage of the rift between the great powers. Rather, the focus should be on his view of the world - where the beleaguered US, no longer as powerful as it once was, is constantly challenged by the rise of China, has failed to deter Putin and, when Putin has provoked, has been unable to consistently push back or punish Russia - and the lessons learned from Kim's understanding of the world order and how the US responds to another nuclear power in the face of aggression. It is no coincidence that the North Korean Foreign Ministry website has closely followed the strategic competition between the US and China, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the decline in US and European support for the protracted war in Ukraine and, most recently, the conflict in the Middle East.

North Korea has everything to gain from its ties with Russia, at least if the war in Ukraine persists. This is why it is likely to maintain, and even harden, its current domestic and foreign policies. Paradoxically, given its economic performance in 2023, when it has continued to reduce market-oriented reforms and strengthen central control of the economy, North Korea may wish to attribute its economic performance to its anti-reform measures and strengthen central control even further. Mr Putin praised these ties, which he said dated back to the Soviet army's fight against the Japanese army on the Korean peninsula at the end of the Second World War and Moscow's support for Pyongyang during the Korean War.

The type of support promised in the agreement was not specified. The leaders' explanations of the agreement did not specify what "mutual assistance" would consist of in the event of aggression against either country - troops, equipment or other types of aid. Mr Kim has made similar comments in the past, regularly stating that North Korea supported what he described as just action to protect Russia's interests and blaming the crisis on the West's "hegemonic policy".

North Korea is under heavy sanctions from the UN Security Council for its weapons programme, while Russia is also under sanctions from the US and its Western partners for its invasion of Ukraine. China is North Korea's main ally and source of income, accounting for the bulk of the country's trade. Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lin Jian said the high-level exchanges between Moscow and Pyongyang were "bilateral agreements between two sovereign states", without giving a specific assessment of the agreements.

Sam Greene of the Center for European Policy Analysis said Putin's trip to Pyongyang showed how indebted he has been to other countries since he invaded Ukraine. Before, "it was always the North Koreans who came to Russia. It wasn't the other way round".

In North Korea’s case, there has traditionally been a correlation between a desire to implement market-oriented measures and pursuing diplomacy with the United States because the North believed good relations with the US were essential for fundamentally improving the economy. However, if Kim no longer views market-oriented measures as essential for economic development—for example, if he thinks he has found a workaround for improving the civilian economy by giving priority to defense industries and manufacturing more weapons, including those to sell to Russia—that further reduces the strategic value of the United States for North Korea.

The real risk, according to this author, is that of a Kim Jong Un emboldened by his vision of world order and the range of foreign policy options he perceives, emboldened by the fact that his country has survived more than three years of confinement despite international concerns about the country's economic situation, and emboldened by some improvement in the country's economy in 2023. With this new-found confidence, North Korea's threshold for aggression - defensive or offensive, accidental or intentional - would appear to be lower, and the likelihood of a miscalculation higher.

Apart from the obvious reason that close ties with Russia bring political, economic and technological benefits, North Korea is attracted to Russia because Putin's adventurism is better aligned with Kim Jong Un's interests in his tug-of-war with the US than the more cautious stance adopted by China. And unless there is a major change in the international situation, such as the war in Ukraine or the domestic situation in North Korea, it is unlikely that Kim will change his policy in the foreseeable future.

The writer is a Geneva Switzerland based private banking crime compliance security expert, columnist and poet.