June 27, 2024

IntelBrief: Axis of Anxiety: Russia and North Korea’s New Treaty Stirs Regional Tensions

Agência Central de Notícias da Coreia/Serviço de Notícias da Coreia via AP

Bottom Line Up Front

  • In a recent visit to Pyongyang, Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un agreed to provide military assistance to each other in the event of aggression against their respective countries.
  • Both Iran and North Korea have assisted Russia and Hamas militarily, and a strengthening alliance may make aiding the war efforts of Hamas and Russia more effective and coordinated.
  • The axis emerging between Russia, Iran, and North Korea has spurred closer ties between historical rivals such as Japan and South Korea, further drawing lines between Chinese and U.S. influence in the region.
  • Experts believe that Beijing is concerned about this emerging axis emboldening North Korea, which has already significantly accelerated its nuclear weapons program.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's recent visit to Pyongyang, 24 years after his last one, signaled a renewed focus on strengthening relations between Russia and North Korea. Replacing previous strategic partnerships, the two leaders vowed to provide mutual assistance in the event of aggression against Russia or North Korea. Additionally, Putin announced Russia would supply North Korea with weapons, a move bound to raise alarm in South Korea and beyond. The warming relations between the two nations come at a time of their increased geopolitical isolation, demonstrating the extent to which Putin is willing to challenge U.S. and Western interests in the East Asia region.

Experts believe the new partnership with Russia may facilitate and accelerate North Korea’s development of nuclear and long-range missiles, a significant challenge not only for the United States but also for China. North Korea and Russia have fostered close ties since the establishment of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea in 1948, whose primary benefactor during the Cold War was the USSR. The visit demonstrates that Vladimir Putin has increasingly been seeking closer cooperation with China, North Korea, and Iran to counteract Russia’s economic, military, and political isolation after its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Putin’s visit to Pyongyang also occurred during a period of increasing rapprochement between North Korea and Iran, signaling a gathering of rogue nations that is growing closer. In April, Yun Jong Ho, North Korea’s Minister of External Economic Relations, and his accompanying delegation of economic and trade experts were welcomed to Tehran. While the exact topic of the meetings between North Korea and Iran remains unclear, some experts speculate the two countries may have exchanged lessons learned on the development of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons. While Tehran has rejected such allegations, Iran is nearly a “nuclear threshold state” based on its growing stockpile of uranium enriched to levels close to weapons grade.

Beyond the nuclear realm, a closer North Korea-Iran partnership has implications for both the Russia-Ukraine and the Hamas-Israel wars, respectively. Both Iran and North Korea have assisted Russia and Hamas militarily, and a strengthening alliance may make aiding the war efforts of Hamas and Russia more effective and coordinated. Just this Wednesday, Russian officials announced that they were working on a “big treaty” with Iran, further solidifying this new axis.

In response to the military treaty, the United States and South Korea are set to conduct their inaugural comprehensive military exercises, known as Freedom Edge, later this month. These exercises, encompassing naval, underwater, aerial, and cyber components, could potentially test the strength of the new relationship between South Korea and the United States and may provoke strong responses from North Korea.

Additionally, in light of the provocative actions by North Korea, South Korea has threatened it would reconsider its decision to withhold lethal aid to Ukraine. The provision of such aid could, according to experts, enable Ukraine to make a “breakthrough” in its war with Russia. Putin warned reporters that this would be a “big mistake,” stating that, in response, Moscow would make “decisions which are unlikely to please the current leadership of South Korea.” However, North Korean aid to Russia in its war has already made a significant impact – some experts believe it has helped turn the tide to the Kremlin’s advantage. The U.S. has warned North Korea that further involvement in the Ukraine war would be met with a strong response. During a press conference, Pentagon Press Secretary Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder stated in response to speculations that North Korea may be sending an engineering and construction corps to Russia-occupied Ukraine, that such a move would lead to North Korean personnel becoming “cannon fodder.”

Regionally, the axis emerging between Russia, Iran, and North Korea has spurred closer ties between historical rivals such as Japan and South Korea. Senior diplomats from Japan, the U.S., and South Korea have issued a joint statement condemning the new treaty and agreed on a “close” security cooperation in the aftermath of the treaty between North Korea and Russia. After the election of South Korean President Yoon Suk-Yeol in 2022, Japan and South Korea have enjoyed a new currency swap deal, increased diplomatic exchanges, and conducted military exercises, usually involving their mutual ally, the United States. This has led to a significant turn in bilateral relations, historically impacted by Japan’s colonial rule over the Korean peninsula. The rapprochement between North Korea, Russia, and Iran is thus further shaping regional dynamics and drawing lines between spheres of influence.

At the same time, experts believe that Russia and North Korea’s new treaty also threatens Chinese influence over Northeast Asia. In response to the news of Putin’s visit to Pyongyang, China began engaging in security dialogue with South Korea for the first time in nine years. This development sparked intense interest among Asia watchers. While this may demonstrate Beijing’s anxiety over the strengthening ties between North Korea and Russia, Chinese officials assert that this move is solely concerned with ensuring stability on the Korean Peninsula. Indeed, maintaining order in Northeast Asia is of utmost importance to Chinese interests. However, experts believe that Beijing is concerned the new axis could further embolden North Korea, which has already significantly accelerated its nuclear weapons programs.

Historically, China’s approach to the Korean peninsula has been to prevent escalation while avoiding the collapse of North Korea, whose controlled existence is perceived as counteracting U.S. influence. Yet, South Korea’s strengthening relationship with Japan and the U.S., along with Russia’s new treaty with North Korea and its desperate need for weapons in its war with Ukraine, may disrupt the delicate balance of power on the peninsula — something China is keenly aware of.

As tensions escalate between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea, reflected in increased investment by the latter in its maritime power, China has an additional interest in keeping the status quo on the Korean peninsula. The skirmishes between the Philippines and China in the South China Sea have intensified, particularly around the Second Thomas Shoal, a contested reef between China and the Philippines. On June 17, Chinese coast guard personnel violently confronted Philippine navy vessels, injuring several sailors. The Philippines condemned the actions, bolstered international support, and emphasized its commitment to asserting territorial claims. This escalation, part of China's broader assertiveness in the region, raises the risk of conflict despite ongoing diplomatic efforts to de-escalate tensions.