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Echoes of the Cold War in Northeast Asia

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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, North Korea in this image released by the Korean Central News Agency 20 June 2024 (Photo: KCNA via REUTERS).

In Brief

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his North Korean counterpart Kim Jong-un have formed a comprehensive strategic partnership while the United States, South Korea and Japan work to deepen their alliance, echoing past alignments during the Cold War. Dynamics in the region are complex, with China uneasy about the partnership between Russia and North Korea but unwilling to distance itself fully. Meanwhile, South Korea and Japan are caught between their alliance with the United States and their desire to engage with China to prevent conflict.

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The highly orchestrated imagery of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin standing next to his North Korean counterpart, Kim Jong-un, in Pyongyang’s main parade square is bound to evoke disturbing thoughts of the past. It reminds us of the historical turning point when Joseph Stalin, with Mao Zedong’s support, gave the green light to Kim’s grandfather to invade South Korea.

This time, Chinese President Xi Jinping was not present, as the Chinese have kept a distance from this re-creation of the Cold War past. But China remains the principal backer of North Korea and echoes Russia’s embrace of the regime. China is drawn again — as it was in 1950 — into backing Russia’s strategic miscalculations.

The one-day visit unveiled a new agreement to form a ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’ between North Korea and Russia that includes a range of economic and cultural ties but, importantly, offers a pledge of ‘mutual aid’ in the event of aggression. The new treaty replicates the language of the 1961 Soviet–North Korean treaty.

The North Korea–Russia–China triangle faces off against another echo of the start of the Cold War in South Korea — the tightening partnership between the United States, Japan and South Korea. Following the 2023 Camp David Summit, the three countries have tried to institutionalise their security cooperation. The three militaries will carry out a joint multi-dimensional exercise codenamed ‘Freedom Edge’ later in 2024, a level of integration that would have been unthinkable even a year ago.

The sense of a looming confrontation has been embraced in the rhetoric of some expert observers. The Kim–Putin summit presents ‘the greatest threat to US national security since the Korean War

South Korean commentary has also warned of the possible dark consequences. Indeed, local newspaper Donga Ilbo editorialised that  ‘a meeting between Kim and Putin — who both seek to break the status quo through instability, chaos, and disorder — is dangerous’.

The imminence of a collision that might lead to war cannot be dismissed. But it ignores other dynamics in the region that reveal a far more complicated reality. Alongside these two triangles, there is also a third triangle — one between China, Japan and South Korea — animated by an increasingly urgent search for stability rather than conflict.

In May 2024, the three Asian neighbours convened a trilateral summit in Seoul, the first leader-level gathering since before the COVID-19 pandemic. Plus, while Kim and Putin were meeting in Pyongyang, a South Korea–China dialogue was being held in Seoul for the first time since 2015.

Both these events took place after China dropped its resistance to resuming these dialogues. In part, this is widely seen as a Chinese effort to drive wedges between its neighbours and the United States. But it also reflects a shared concern about the drift towards confrontation and economic warfare.

The Chinese have signalled their unease with the Kim–Putin embrace in small but significant ways. The trilateral summit in Seoul issued a joint declaration that notably included a common responsibility to maintain ‘peace, stability and prosperity’ in Northeast Asia and referred to the ‘denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula’.

The Kim–Putin summit is not an entirely happy event for Beijing. Putin had hoped to visit North Korea on the heels of a visit to Beijing in May 2024, but the Chinese nixed that idea, apparently wary of the image of a trilateral alliance.

Russia is eager to rattle Western support for Ukraine, even opening the door to North Korean soldiers joining the fighting there. But looking more closely at the Kim–Putin public display of affection, there are reasons to question its depth and even durability. Rather than a declaration of shared hatred for the United States — though that clearly exists — this is a desperate pact among two deeply isolated regimes.

The North Korean regime sits atop an impoverished populace and siphons off vital resources into an expensive nuclear and missile program. Russia has become a military economy, funnelling a large portion of its state-run economy into its defence buildup. And while Russia can claim some pockets of support — or at least neutrality — in the Global South, even China is wary of offering open backing for their war of aggression.

For Russia, the open support from Pyongyang is a rare exception. North Korea also offered something more concrete. As Russia’s stocks of ammunition dwindled in 2023, the North Koreans shared vast stores of artillery ammunition and short-range rockets. In return, Kim Jong-un got similar gifts. The Russians offered means to crack the UN sanctions regime and allowed North Koreans to be used as cheap labour in Russia and China.

Perhaps more ominously, the Russians have almost abandoned their previous commitment to non-proliferation and denuclearisation. Russian diplomats used to be staunch guardians of these principles. Now, they are providing active help to North Korea’s long-range missile development, thinly clothed as aiding satellite launches.

There may be limits to their cooperation, though for now, this is a bargain that meets the needs of both. Beijing, uneasy as it may be, is not ready to block it.

For the US–Japan–South Korea triangle, the challenge will be to offer each other enhanced security and reassurance against the threat of conflict while being supportive of the efforts, fragile as they may be, of the South Korea–Japan–China triangle to avoid war.

Daniel Sneider is Lecturer of International Policy and East Asian Studies at Stanford University and a Non-Resident Distinguished Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute.

An extended version of this article was first published here by the Korea Economic Institute.

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