Connect with us

Politics & Security

Vladimir Putin in Pyongyang: How It's Viewed in the Region

Japan's Foreign Minister warns of an increasingly severe regional security environment as Vladimir Putin and his host sign a strategic partnership agreement.



Russia's President Vladimir Putin and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un attend an official welcoming ceremony at Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang on June 19, 2024. (©Sputnik/Gavriil Grigorov/Pool via Reuters)

A comprehensive strategic partnership agreement between Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un represents a heightened danger to Japan. It also has broader global implications.

The leaders signed the deal on Wednesday in Pyongyang. Putin was given a lavish welcome to the city, even though North Korea has been suffering from severe shortages of food and fuel. Its economic activity is heavily constrained by sanctions.

Russia is also sanctioned by the United Nations as a result of its brutal invasion of Ukraine. Nevertheless, parts of the Russian economy continue to thrive, due to trade with China and India. In Pyongyang, Kim told Putin that he fully supports Russia's "military operation" in Ukraine. Moreover, he offered the resources of his own military.

The exact nature of this support is unclear. Dr Miles Yu from the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis and the Hudson Institute in Washington, has suggested that North Korean commandos could be sent to join Russian soldiers on the frontline of the battle against Ukraine.

Yu also says that in return, the Russians may bolster North Korea's conventional weapons capabilities. However, he does not believe that Russia intends to directly aid the North's nuclear weapons program.

The North has fired many rockets over the Sea of Japan, sparking alerts. It also aspires to be an internationally-recognized nuclear arms state.

The Financial Times' Seoul Correspondent, Christian Davies says, "North Korea doesn't do many things well. But they can build weapons, they can build them at scale and they take war very seriously."

Russia's President Vladimir Putin and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un pose for a photo during a signing ceremony following bilateral talks in Pyongyang on June 19, 2024. (©Sputnik/Kristina Kormilitsyna/Kremlin via Reuters)

A Threat to Japan

Foreign Minister Yoko Kamikawa noted military cooperation between Russia and North Korea. She warned the regional security environment surrounding Japan is becoming increasingly severe.

"Japan will continue to collect and analyze relevant information, and will work closely with the international community, including the United States and South Korea, to implement and fully enforce the relevant Security Council resolutions," she said.

Japan's Prime Minister, Fumio Kishida has also repeatedly condemned the Russian assault on Ukraine as a horrific act of aggression and an attack on freedom. 

"Japan will do its utmost to ensure that peace is to be restored to the beautiful land of Ukraine, and to take solid steps towards its reconstruction," Mr Kishida said earlier on June 12. 

He signed a bilateral agreement with Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, offering humanitarian support, including the clearance of landmines. Notably, Japan's postwar constitution prevents it from providing lethal military aid to Ukraine. 

Prime Minister Kishida has also repeatedly warned that the war in Ukraine may foreshadow a crisis in East Asia. His concerns will deepen as the Russian and North Korean armies enhance their cooperation.

Damage to a car in south Korea by a balloon suspected to have originated from North Korea. (courtesy of South Korean police and Yonhap News)

Time of Trouble

The meeting between Putin and Kim in Pyongyang came during a time of tension on the Korean Peninsula. North and South Korea have been engaging in a Cold War-style of psychological warfare. North Korea has dropped garbage bombs on the South using balloons. The South broadcasts propaganda across the border from loudspeakers.

Earlier this month, South Korean soldiers fired warning shots to repel North Korean troops who had temporarily crossed the border.

South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman Lim Soosuk said that cooperation between Russia and North Korea must not proceed in a direction which violates UN Security Council resolutions or undermines peace and stability in the region.

South Korea's Vice Foreign Minister Kim Hong-kyun discussed Putin's trip to Pyongyang in an emergency phone call with the US Deputy Secretary of State, Kurt Campbell on June 14.

Campbell told Kim that Washington supports Seoul's position. That is, the visit should not result in a "further deepening of military cooperation between Pyongyang and Moscow, in a way that undermines regional peace and stability in violation of UN Security Council resolutions."

The two sides agreed to continue "airtight" coordination in the face of North Korea's actions.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un attend an official welcoming ceremony in Pyongyang. June 19, 2024 (©Sputnik/Gavriil Grigorov/Pool via Reuters)

Trump and Kim 

One question which is often discussed in Seoul and Tokyo is what Donald Trump's policy may be towards North Korea. That is, if he is reelected as US president in November.

Trump claims that when he met Kim Jong-Un in Hanoi in February 2019, he was informed that North Korea was ready to dismantle the Yongbyon complex. This is a research and production facility at the heart of North Korea's nuclear program. 

However, in return Kim wanted all sanctions on North Korea lifted. That was something the US was not prepared to offer. As he quit the talks, Trump said: "Sometimes you have to walk out, and this was one of those times." 

One of my sources in Tokyo believes that Kim Jong Un would like to renew the offer of shutting Yongbyon. He says that Kim hopes that Donald Trump would be more receptive to such a plan than President Joe Biden.

"Trump might well choose to travel to Pyongyang to sign such a deal with Kim," claims my source. He believes this could be presented as a deal which heralds the long-term denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un hold talks in Pyongyang on June 19. (©Sputnik/Kristina Kormilitsyna/Kremlin via Reuters)

China's View

The relationship between China and North Korea is also currently under pressure. This is partly in response to the high-level of engagement between North Korea and Russia. Both are important neighbors of China, but also its rivals.

A spokesperson from the Chinese Foreign Ministry commented. "China welcomes Russia to cement and grow ties with countries they have traditional friendship with," said Lin Jian.  

However, China may resent losing influence over North Korea, especially during a so-called "year of friendship" between the nations.

North Korea took the unusual step of issuing a statement criticizing China - along with South Korea and Japan - immediately after a trilateral summit between political leaders in May. 

There are also signs that China has quietly removed symbols of friendship between Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un. Footprint symbols of the two leaders in Dalian are no longer there.

A high level Chinese delegation joined meetings with representatives of the South Korean government in Seoul on June 19. Moreover, this was just as Putin was speaking with Kim in the North. The Chinese visit was part of a so-called "two-plus-two" dialogue between foreign and security ministers.

"We expressed deep concern that Russian President Putin's visit to North Korea comes at a time when North Korea has escalated tensions on the Korean Peninsula with a series of provocations," the South Korean foreign ministry said in a statement.

"We asked China to play a constructive role for peace, stability and denuclearization, as Korean Peninsula tensions arising from the strengthening of military cooperation between Russia and North Korea go against China's interests," it said.


Author: Duncan Bartlett, Diplomatic Correspondent
Mr Bartlett is the Diplomatic Correspondent for JAPAN Forward and a Research Associate at the SOAS China Institute. Read his other articles and essays.