Putin and Kim Jong-un Sign Pact in North Korea

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, revived a Cold War-era mutual defense pledge between their nations on Wednesday, as the Kremlin deepened its security relationship with North Korea and vowed solidarity in challenging the United States.

Neither Russia nor North Korea immediately released the text of the new treaty. But Mr. Putin, speaking at a joint briefing in Pyongyang after the two leaders signed the document, said the pact called for the nations to aid one another in the event of “aggression” against either country. Mr. Kim claimed the new “treaty” elevated the two countries’ relations to an “alliance.”

Mr. Putin did not say whether the new agreement would require immediate and full-fledged military intervention in the event of an attack, as the now-defunct 1961 treaty between Moscow and Pyongyang specified during the days of the Cold War.

The pledge of mutual assistance is likely to further alarm Washington and its allies. It could presage not only deeper support by North Korea for Russia’s war in Ukraine but also greater support from Moscow in aiding Mr. Kim’s quest for better-functioning nuclear weapons, missiles, submarines and satellites — a development that would increase anxiety among America’s Asian allies, especially South Korea.

Both leaders heralded the agreement as the beginning of a new era in their relations.

Mr. Putin, speaking on his first trip to North Korea in nearly a quarter century, cast possible Russian military support for Pyongyang as a logical response to the West’s supplying weapons to Ukraine, which he claimed violated “various international obligations.”

Russia “does not exclude the development of military-technical cooperation” with North Korea, he said, threatening to support the ambitions of a military that the United Nations — backed by Russia — has been trying to defang for years.

Any transfer of arms or military technology to or from North Korea is prohibited by U.N. sanctions that Russia blessed. Mr. Putin, however, said on Wednesday that it was time to review those sanctions, calling “the very practice of sanctions strangulation” and a tool of Western hegemony.

“Pyongyang has the right to take reasonable measures to strengthen its own defense capability, ensure national security and protect sovereignty,” the Russian leader added.

His remarks appeared to come dangerously close to helping Mr. Kim obtain what he has long coveted and the West has vehemently opposed: Acceptance of North Korea as a nuclear weapons state.

Indeed, the pact announced Wednesday marked a dramatic change in tone for Mr. Putin since the days before his full-fledged standoff with the West, when he called Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions unacceptable and cooperated in international efforts to stop North Korea from developing nuclear and missile technology.

“I don’t think he’ll ever sign up to that again,” said Michael A. McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia and the director of Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, referring to Mr. Putin. “I think he’s decided we’re the enemy, the liberal international order that the United States anchors is over, and he wants to see its destruction.”

The prospect of Moscow possibly sharing its deep knowledge of satellites, missiles and space with North Korea underscored how Mr. Putin, in his 24 years in power, has evolved from a supportive, if difficult, interlocutor for the West to its chief global antagonist. North Korea has dozens of nuclear warheads but has had technical problems perfecting the missiles that can carry them.

The new agreement was one of the most visible rewards Mr. Kim has extracted from Moscow in return for the dozens of ballistic missiles and over 11,000 shipping containers of munitions that Washington has said North Korea provided in recent months to meet Mr. Putin’s urgent needs on the battlefield in Ukraine.

The Kim-Putin agreement “is an unprecedented case of a United Nations Security Council permanent member with nuclear weapons not only accepting but also pledging to defend a regime that blatantly violates” security resolutions and international nonproliferation norms, said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.

But Mr. Easley doubted that the agreement would make Russia and North Korea formal military allies, as Mr. Kim claimed, saying they lacked the shared institutions and interdependence that give other alliances credibility.

American officials on Wednesday warned of the danger of closer ties between Pyongyang and Moscow.

“This should concern any country that cares about maintaining peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula, abiding by U.N. Security Council resolutions, and supporting the people of Ukraine as they defend their freedom and independence against Russia’s brutal invasion,” a National Security Council spokesperson said.

The events on Wednesday represented the farthest the Kremlin has gone in throwing its weight behind North Korea, a function of both battlefield necessity and a standoff with the United States that Mr. Putin has pursued around the world.

At the news briefing, Mr. Putin denounced the United States for expanding military infrastructure in the region and holding drills with South Korea and Japan. He rejected what he called attempts to blame the deteriorating security situation on North Korea, which has carried out six nuclear test explosions since 2006 and tested intercontinental ballistic missiles that could reach the United States.

Mr. Kim called the pact the “most powerful treaty” ever signed between North Korea and Russia and praised the “outstanding foresight” of Mr. Putin, “the dearest friend of the Korean people.”

Mr. Putin’s remarks recalled the 1961 treaty of friendship and mutual assistance between Pyongyang and Moscow under which the two countries were obliged to “immediately extend military and other assistance” with all means at their disposal, should one of them find itself at war. That treaty became defunct after the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

When Moscow and Pyongyang signed a friendship agreement in 2000, it lacked a clause on automatic military intervention, calling only for mutual “contact” if a security emergency were to arise. It did not stipulate military intervention or military aid.

Mr. Putin is the first major head of state to visit North Korea since the pandemic, and Mr. Kim gave the Russian leader a red-carpet welcome. His energy-starved government flooded downtown Pyongyang with bright lights as the two leaders were driven in the same car — the Russian-made Aurus limousine that Mr. Putin gave Mr. Kim last year — to the state guesthouse​.

Despite sweltering heat, huge crowds were mobilized to a welcoming ceremony​ for Mr. Putin in the ​main square of Pyongyang later Wednesday, complete with goose-stepping honor guards and colorful balloons released into the air​. The crowds waved paper flowers and the national flags of the two nations as Mr. Putin arrived.

At the outset of the talks, Mr. Putin thanked Mr. Kim for his “consistent and unwavering support” for Russia over Ukraine, in light of “the hegemonic and imperialist policy” of the United States and its satellites.

Months before Mr. Putin’s trip, Moscow used its veto power at the U.N. Security Council to disband a panel of U.N. experts that helped to enforce sanctions aimed at making it more difficult for North Korea to develop its nuclear arsenal. Russia has vetoed resolutions about cross border access to Syria and sanctions extension on officials in Mali, demonstrating its ability to play spoiler to U.S. interests around the globe.

Throughout the visit, Mr. Putin characterized the two nations as kindred spirits managing to persevere despite Western attempts to punish them and hold them down.

After holding closed-door negotiations and signing the new agreement, Mr. Putin went for a stroll with Mr. Kim outside, placed a wreath at a monument commemorating the Soviet liberation of Korea at the end of World War II and gave a toast to their friendship at an evening banquet. Russian state news reported that Mr. Putin gifted the North Korean leader another Russian-made limousine during the trip.

On Wednesday evening, the Russian president hugged Mr. Kim, promised to stay in touch and flew to Vietnam, which has a long history of ties to Moscow but has developed warm relations with the United States, now one of its top trading partners.

North Korea’s military has long been ridiculed for its backward technologies and vast stockpile of outdated Soviet-era weaponry, such as artillery shells. But Mr. Putin’s embrace of Pyongyang demonstrated how such old-fashioned munitions are among those that Russia most desperately needs in its war of attrition in Ukraine.

How far Mr. Putin can take his support of North Korea will depend in large part on China, which has become a lifeline for Russia since his invasion of Ukraine. Beijing may be wary of the Russian leader developing too close a relationship with Mr. Kim.

“China can be a limiting factor, and it will share with the Russians how far they are comfortable with the relationship deepening between Moscow and Pyongyang,” said Alexander Gabuev, director of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center. “But at the end of the day I don’t see that Beijing is so uncomfortable with that.”

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