President Putin’s Visit to North Korea: Upending Asian Security

On June 20, Russian President Vladimir Putin made his first visit to North Korea in 24 years. The historic visit by President Putin to General-Secretary Kim Jong Un sent a shockwave through the world and will have enormous impacts on Asian security. While media outlets are ringing alarm, signs of the realignment were in plain view in the runup to the historic meeting. 

The Putin-Kim meeting and outcome is classic horizonal escalation. International relations analyst refer to horizontal escalation as a means of striking or escalating against your adversary indirectly Often through other parties and entities in different areas of the world which affect their interests rather than risk a direct escalation. This limits the possibilities for direct and irreparable direct confrontation while diverting your adversary’s energy, focus and resources.

In late May President Biden authorized the use of American missiles to strike targets inside of Russia. This provoked a response by President Putin at the SPIEC “why don’t we have the right to supply weapons of the same class to regions of the world where there will be strikes on sensitive facilities of those countries?…the response can be asymmetric. We will think about it.” The constant escalatory military measures by the Americans in Ukraine since 2022 have slowly pushed Russian red lines to act. This began with the North Koreans in late 2023.

North Korea and Russia have been edging closer over the past year, seen when Kim Jong Un made a six day visit to Russia in September. During the visit Kim Jong Un visited Russian manufacturing facilities as well as a cosmodrome and armaments factories. On display were Russian technology for space, 5th generation fighter jets, drones and hypersonic missiles. The last of which no Western country or ally possess nor have the means to counter.

On March 28, 2024 the Russian’s vetoed a UN Security Council Resolution to extend the mandate of the UN Panel of Experts which monitors and enforces compliance with international sanctions against North Korea. The sanctions which have hemmed in the North have been in place and grown ever tighter since they were first imposed in 2006. Interestingly, China abstained in the vote which can be read as tacit endorsement of the Russian veto.

The recent trip by President Putin to North Korea resulted in a bilateral agreement which included a mutual defense clause as confirmed by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. The mutual defense clause in this authors’ estimation is a dual game changer in Asian security. In effect the Russian’s turned America’s forward defense posture across the first island chain into the Maginot Line. Second, the Russian’s have helped free or at least give maximum leeway for China in the South China Sea and Northeast Asia.

North Korea is now out from under UN sanctions and will have dual lifelines to the rest of the world. Russia will now have access to millions of rounds of 152mm artillery shells and possibly KN-25 600mm MLRS systems as well as others. Most importantly for Asian security, Russia, China and North Korea have pierced America’s Pacific strategic containment policy designed to hem in China. 

The Northeast Asia Dimension 

As a consequence of history America is the incumbent power in East Asia (geographically Northeast and Southeast Asia). After WWII America cemented its regional power by capturing the 1st and 2nd island chains in Asia. Afterwards, fortifying its WWII gains by forming mutual defense pacts with Australia, New Zealand, Philippines, South Korea and Japan. Later extending these to more countries in the region.

          Source: 960cyber

United States of America Asian Security Partners
PartnerYearNature of Relationship
Australia1951Treaty partner (Deep full spectrum cooperation)
New Zealand1951Treaty partner (Deep full spectrum cooperation)
Philippines 1951Treaty partner (Deep full spectrum cooperation)
South Korea 1953Treaty partner (Deep full spectrum cooperation)
Japan1960Treaty partner (Deep full spectrum cooperation)
Thailand1954Strategic partner (Training, military procurement, counter terrorism, possible basing)
Taiwan1979Strategic partner (Training, military procurement, counter terrorism, possible basing)
Singapore2005Strategic partner (Training, military procurement, counter terrorism, possible basing)
Brunei Darussalam1994Low level partner (Training, military procurement)
India2017Formative stage partner (QUAD maritime strategic)
Indonesia2023Initial stage partner (Defense cooperation, technical and economic)
Vietnam2023Initial stage partner (Economic strategic, technical)

 

China has steadily built the foundations for sustainable power projection and has been increasing its assertiveness across the region. From militarizing islands to building artificial islands and forcefully backing its claims, namely with the Philippines over disputed islands in the South China Sea

Alongside growing Chinese influence in the region has been a steady ratcheting up of tensions by America. These tensions are demonstrated by American Freedom of Navigation Patrols, arming of the Taiwanese military and economic sanctions and tariffs that began under former President Trump and have continued under President Biden. The most recent of which include restrictions on semiconductors, chip manufacturing technology, AI chips and now Chinese electric vehicles.

In March 2022, after the start of Russia’s Special Military Operation, President Putin and Xi signaled that Sino-Russo relations would be upgraded to unprecedented levels when they declared that theirs was a ‘friendship without limits nor areas of cooperation’

Upending the East Asian Security Order

America currently has 120 military bases in Japan, 73 in South Korea with troops at bases and ‘lily pads’ throughout the region. Recently, the American Navy was invited back to the Philippines by President Marcos. The recent mutual defense agreement between Russia and North Korea upends not only the existing security order in East Asia but it also undermines America’s prospects for containing China. The AUKUS submarine deal and military pact which was aimed at China is now dead in the water. The American tripartite security relationship with Japan and South Korea is now severely threatened. 

South Korea and Japan were so alarmed that South Korea immediately announced it would supply arms to Ukraine. This is a hollow threat as South Korea has already been shipped arms to Ukraine via the Americans. The reinvigorated security relationship between the three will fundamentally alter the security arrangements in Northeast Asia. America’s minilateralisms of AUKUS and the QUAD are now of questionable utility and the security ring which had existed around China’s Pacific borders is now seriously compromised.

If America or its allies choose or get into a conflict with China or Russia, as it appears from high ranking American military personnel that America is already planning. They will by default be in a war with Russia and now North Korea.

Prospects and Takeaways

Due to Western sanctions, North Korea and Russia have been pushed further and further into a corner. With the complete collapse of relations between the Russians, Americans and Europeans, coupled with increased bellicosity with China, it is no surprise that this unprecedented strategic move was made. Sanctions once applied rarely if ever go away, they only increase, as is the case with yet another round of American sanctions against Russia announced on June 12. America’s unceasing escalation against the Russians in Ukraine is now destabilizing Asia.

China’s silence on the mutual defense agreement can only be interpreted as support for the move. Given Russia’s dependence on China as its lifeline to the world and largest partner it can further be implied that Beijing sees the move as within its strategic interests. In one move President Putin has now put America and its allies in check. 

The events of this week point toward the law of unintended consequences and horizontal escalation when great powers come into conflict. By trying to undermine the Russia in Eastern Europe, America has now undermined its security in Asia along with its Asian partners. The American’s want to focus their energies on their greatest perceived competitor and threat, China. However, America’s security relationships and wars in Gaza and Ukraine have now led to a situation that one year ago, no one thought possible. If the American’s and President Biden do not get control of and begin to shift their foreign policy towards Russia and China, which has failed, the security order of Europe and Asia will continue to deteriorate and relative stability will be substituted with open conflict which nobody wants.

[Photo by Kremlin.ru, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons]

William J. Jones is an Assistant Professor of International Relations at Mahidol University International College. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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