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Russia, North Korea and the axis of autocracies

Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un’s dangerous pact makes even China uneasy.

By Katie Stallard

Kim Jong Un could barely contain his glee. With a smiling Vladimir Putin in the driver’s seat, the two leaders set off at speed – seatbelts be damned – in the Russian armoured limousine Kim had just been given during their Pyongyang summit on 19 June. To the presumed horror of their bodyguards, the Russian president then pulled over and swapped places with his North Korean counterpart. Later, Kim fed carrots to a horse while Putin patted its head, and the younger dictator gave Putin a pair of Pungsan hunting dogs and a bust of the Russian leader. But they saved their biggest gift to each other for last, taking their places behind white and gold desks to sign a security treaty that resurrects a Cold War alliance and cements what Kim called their “fiery friendship”.

The pact reinstates the mutual defence provisions from the defunct 1961 treaty between North Korea and the Soviet Union. In its updated form, according to Pyongyang’s version of the text, Article 4 compels the two powers to provide immediate military assistance “with all means in its possession” to the other if it is attacked, echoing the Nato Article 5 commitment to collective defence. There is room for manoeuvre in the wording, presumably so that neither side would automatically be dragged into the other’s wars and their adversaries do not know what would trigger a response.

What is clear is their mutual desire to burn down the existing international order, with the treaty vowing to build a “new, fair and equal” system in its place – language that is calibrated to appeal to the low- and middle-income countries beyond the West, or what Putin calls the “world majority”. In the black-is-white parallel reality conjured by Putin and Kim, they are not international pariahs who threaten the stability of their neighbouring states. They are the vanguard leaders of long-oppressed emerging economies, fighting against the “imperialist hegemonic policies of the US and its satellites”, as Putin characterised their struggle – just as their Cold War predecessors once styled themselves.

The immediate effects will be felt in Ukraine, where Putin’s war will now be sustained by a functionally limitless arsenal of North Korean artillery shells and ballistic missiles. US officials said that Pyongyang has sent Russia 11,000 containers of munitions in the past year, alongside the lethal drones allegedly supplied by Iran, and the microelectronics and economic lifeline provided by China. Gone is any illusion that the consequences of this war can be confined to a single continent. Following the summit, South Korea said it would consider supplying weapons to Ukraine, with Putin threatening to arm North Korea in response.

“These theatres are totally connected now,” said Victor Cha, senior vice-president for Asia and Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington and a member of the Pentagon’s advisory board. “We are in a situation where North Koreans are effectively now killing Europeans, and that hasn’t happened since the Korean War.”

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Despite the appearance of unanimity, the Soviet leadership was wary of the Kim regime’s nuclear ambitions for much of the Cold War. The Kremlin repeatedly pressed Pyongyang to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) before agreeing to build a small nuclear power plant there in December 1985. (North Korea signed the NPT in 1985 but announced in 2003 that it could “no longer remain bound” by the treaty.) Russia continued that approach after the Soviet Union’s collapse, voting in favour of UN sanctions to constrain Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programmes (as did China) as recently as 2017. But no more.

At a minimum, the new Putin-Kim pact signals the end of any serious prospect that Russia will help to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear programme. The limousine Putin presented to Kim appears to have been in breach of UN sanctions Moscow once supported that barred the transfer of luxury goods to Pyongyang. Russia used its Security Council veto in March to halt UN monitoring of international compliance with the sanctions regime. This doesn’t mean that Putin will immediately hand over the technological secrets Kim most covets, but it begins a dangerous game that could rapidly advance Pyongyang’s capabilities and trigger a nuclear arms race across an already volatile region.

“North Korea has about 50 nuclear weapons today, but I believe their goal within five to ten years is to have a nuclear arsenal the size of Britain or France,” Cha told me. “They want intercontinental ballistic missiles that can evade US missile defences, and quiet submarines that are roaming the Pacific and can even come close to the shores of California or Hawaii.” These are not new ambitions, he said, but for the first time Kim has real leverage in the relationship, because he controls the ammunition stockpiles Putin needs. “If Kim drives a hard bargain then this formal relationship, which explicitly talks about military-technical assistance, could be the way that North Korea can get there.”

This puts China’s leader, Xi Jinping, in an uncomfortable position, having apparently been outmanoeuvred by his putative junior partners. Xi values Russia and North Korea as bulwarks against the West, but he does not want their belligerence to drive South Korea and Japan, both US allies, to develop their own nuclear weapons, or to prompt the rise of an Asian Nato. Nor does he want an emboldened Kim – believing himself safe beneath the Russian nuclear umbrella and no longer wholly dependent on Beijing – to provoke a new war on the Korean Peninsula, which would have disastrous consequences for China.

These fears are not unfounded. South Korean soldiers have fired warning shots three times in June after North Korean troops crossed the border, and there are rumours Pyongyang is plotting an “October surprise” to provoke a major crisis on the peninsula ahead of the US election. It must also have been galling for Xi to watch Putin – whose war in Ukraine has caused political blowback for China in Europe – travel on from Pyongyang to Vietnam, a rival claimant in the South China Sea, to discuss the region’s “security architecture” and what sounded like potential weapons sales.

This is hardly a new dynamic. Relations between the supposedly brotherly socialist nations of the Cold War were often fraught in reality, as was the case for the Axis powers during the Second World War. “Past groupings of adversaries often did not share common objectives or some common master plan,” said former US diplomat Philip Zelikow, who is now at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. “They not only distrusted each other; they often really disliked each other.”

These groupings were held together by a common enemy. “They all had and have in common a sense that they are oppressed and confined by a system they see as imperialist – ‘hegemonist’ is the currently fashionable term,” Zelikow said. “They all believed and believe that this system is anchored by the United States – and by Britain in the earlier periods – and that it is a system of cultural, social, national, as well as military and economic oppression, one which cloaks its power in pieties they scorn.” For all the theatrics of Putin’s visit to Pyongyang, a shared assessment of a greater threat is what binds these powers together. This emerging axis of autocracies will be complicated and riven with mutual suspicion, but that doesn’t mean it cannot also endure.

[See also: The end of the pariah state]

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This article appears in the 26 Jun 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Lammy Doctrine