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Moscow’s Alliance with Pyongyang Heightens Ukraine Conflict with the West

Behind the smiles, balloons, and red-carpet pageantry of President Vladimir Putin’s recent visit to North Korea, a strong message emerged: In the escalating confrontation with the U.S. and its allies over Ukraine, the Russian leader is prepared to challenge Western interests more aggressively than ever before.

The pact Putin signed with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un envisions mutual military assistance if either nation is attacked. Putin also announced, for the first time, that Russia might provide weapons to the isolated country, a move that could destabilize the Korean Peninsula and have far-reaching consequences.

Putin described potential arms shipments as a response to NATO allies providing Ukraine with longer-range weapons to attack Russia. He declared that Moscow has nothing to lose and is prepared to go “to the end” to achieve its goals in Ukraine.

These developments have heightened concerns in Washington and Seoul about a possible alliance where North Korea supplies Moscow with much-needed munitions for its war in Ukraine in exchange for economic assistance and technology transfers that could enhance the threat posed by Kim’s nuclear weapons and missile program.

A Landmark Pact

The new agreement with Pyongyang marks the strongest link between Moscow and North Korea since the end of the Cold War.

Kim stated that it elevated bilateral relations to the level of an alliance. Putin was more cautious, noting that the pledge of mutual military assistance mirrors a 1961 treaty between the Soviet Union and North Korea. That agreement was discarded after the Soviet collapse and replaced with a weaker one in 2000 during Putin’s first visit to Pyongyang.

Stephen Sestanovich, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, observed that when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev signed the deal with Pyongyang in 1961, he also tested the world’s biggest nuclear bomb, built the Berlin Wall, and possibly started considering moves that led to the Cuban missile crisis in 1962.

“The question for Western policymakers now is whether Putin is becoming comparably reckless,” Sestanovich remarked. “His language in North Korea — where he denounced the United States as a ‘worldwide neocolonialist dictatorship’ — might make you think so.”

South Korea responded by stating it would consider sending arms to Ukraine, a significant policy change for Seoul, which has so far only sent humanitarian assistance to Kyiv under a longstanding policy of not supplying weapons to countries in conflict.

Also Read: Japan Implements Sanctions on Chinese Firms Aiding Russia in Ukraine Conflict

Putin insisted Seoul has nothing to worry about, as the new pact only envisions military assistance in case of aggression and should act as a deterrent to prevent a conflict. He strongly warned South Korea against providing lethal weapons to Ukraine, saying it would be a “very big mistake.”

“If that happens, we will also make corresponding decisions that will hardly please the current leadership of South Korea,” he said.

When asked if North Korean troops could fight alongside Russian forces in Ukraine under the pact, Putin said there was no need for that.

Potential Weapons for Pyongyang

Last month, Putin warned that Russia could provide long-range weapons to others to hit Western targets in response to NATO allies allowing Ukraine to use their arms to make limited attacks inside Russian territory.

He followed up on that warning with an explicit threat to provide weapons to North Korea.

“I wouldn’t exclude that in view of our agreements with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” Putin said, adding that Moscow could mirror NATO’s arguments that it’s up to Ukraine to decide how to use Western weapons.

“We can similarly say that we supply something to somebody but have no control over what happens afterward,” Putin said. “Let them think about it.”

Sue Mi Terry, a senior fellow for Korea studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, warned that Moscow could share weapons technologies with Pyongyang to help improve its ballistic missile capabilities. She noted evidence of this happening already, with Russia possibly assisting North Korea with its successful satellite launch in November, two months after Kim last met Putin.

“This is deeply concerning because of the substantial overlap between the technologies used for space launches and intercontinental ballistic missiles,” Terry said. “Russia can also provide North Korea with critical help in areas where its capabilities are still nascent, such as submarine-launched ballistic missiles.”

While hinting at potential arms supplies to Pyongyang that would violate U.N. sanctions, Putin also mentioned efforts to ease these restrictions at the world body — an apparent signal that Moscow might try to keep arms supplies under the radar to avoid accusations of breaching the sanctions.

Russia and North Korea have denied U.S. and allied assertions that Pyongyang has supplied Moscow with ballistic missiles and millions of artillery shells for use in Ukraine.

Going ‘to the End’ in a Confrontation with the West

By explicitly linking potential arms shipments to Pyongyang to Western actions in Ukraine, Putin warned Kyiv’s allies to back off as he pursues his goals in the war — or face a new round of confrontation.

“They are escalating the situation, apparently expecting that we will get scared at some point, and at the same time, they say that they want to inflict a strategic defeat on Russia on the battlefield,” Putin said. “For Russia, it will mean an end to its statehood, an end to the millennium-long history of the Russian state. And a question arises: Why should we be afraid? Isn’t it better, then, to go to the end?”

Alexander Gabuev, director of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center in Berlin, said Putin’s statement reflects an attempt to discourage the U.S. and its allies from increasing support for Kyiv as Russia pushes new offensives along the front line.

“The situation is becoming increasingly dangerous, and Russia believes that it should quickly rap the West over its knuckles to show that its deeper engagement in the war will have a price,” Gabuev said in remarks carried by Dozhd, an independent Russian broadcaster.

He noted that Putin’s statement about not knowing where arms end up if sent to Pyongyang could hint at North Korea’s role as an arms exporter.

Treading Cautiously with China

Putin’s visit to North Korea presents a new challenge to Pyongyang’s top ally, China, potentially allowing Kim to hedge his bets and reduce his heavy reliance on Beijing.

China has so far avoided commenting on the new pact, but many experts argue that Beijing won’t appreciate losing influence over its neighbor.

Since invading Ukraine, Russia has increasingly depended on China as the main market for its energy exports and a source of high-tech technologies amid Western sanctions. While forging a revamped relationship with Pyongyang, the Kremlin will likely tread cautiously to avoid angering Beijing.

“Whether this upgraded Russia–North Korea relationship will be without limits depends upon China,” said Edward Howell of Chatham House. “Beijing will have taken stern note of Kim Jong Un’s claim that Russia is North Korea’s ‘most honest friend.’ Despite the likely increase in cooperation in advanced military technology between Moscow and Pyongyang, China remains North Korea’s largest economic partner.”

John Collins
John Collins
John is an esteemed journalist and author renowned for their incisive reporting and deep insights into global affairs. As a prominent contributor to City Telegraph, John brings over 5 years of experience covering diverse geopolitical landscapes, from the corridors of power in major capitals to the frontlines of conflict zones.

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