Russia-North Korea military pact prompts Seoul to threaten arms to Ukraine

Russia’s military treaty with North Korea has drawn a stern warning from South Korea: send advanced weapons to Pyongyang, and Seoul may retaliate by arming Ukraine.

Experts say such moves would prompt significant strategic shifts. Seoul’s threatened provision of lethal aid to Ukraine could help Kyiv achieve a “breakthrough” in its ongoing conflict with Russia. Conversely, Moscow’s threats to arm North Korea could escalate regional tensions and provoke a military response from the South and its allies.

South Korean national security adviser Chang Ho-jin issued a fresh warning to Russia on Sunday against crossing a “red line” by supplying “high-precision weapons” to North Korea.

Seoul and Moscow have been exchanging warnings since Wednesday’s summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

On Thursday, Chang said South Korea would “reconsider” its policy of withholding lethal aid to any country at war, including Ukraine, after Russia and North Korea signed the treaty last week calling for mutual military assistance if either faces aggression.

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Kim and Putin parade around in an open-top car during a welcoming ceremony on Wednesday at Kim Il-sung Square in Pyongyang. Photo by KCNA via KNS / AFP

Putin brushed off Seoul’s response, saying on Thursday “South Korea has nothing to worry about”.

But he also warned the South against supplying weapons to Kyiv, saying it would “be a very big mistake”.

Putin has threatened to arm North Korea and other countries should Western countries continue providing military aid to Ukraine.

Chang didn’t specify the types of weapons that South Korea might provide to Ukraine.

Political science professor Park Won-gon of the Ewha Woman’s University said the lethal weapons the South could supply to Ukraine include its much-touted Chunmoo multiple rocket launch systems, K9 howitzers and K2 tanks.

“In terms of the impact on the course of the war, the North’s supply of ammunition to Russia would pale in comparison if the South provides Ukraine with lethal weapons, which would help Ukraine make a breakthrough in the war,” he told This Week in Asia.

North Korea’s air force is too weak and outdated to deter air attacks by the combined forces of the United States and South Korea, which are equipped with sophisticated stealth” military aircraft that could be mobilised to “decapitate” the North’s military leadership, he said.

The provision of weapons of mass destruction is out of the question, Park said, but Russia could provide the North with much-needed anti-air defence systems like those it has sold to Turkey.

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A Hanwha K9 Howitzer seen at the company’s manufacturing facility in Changwon. Hanwha Aerospace Co. is South Korea’s leading arms manufacturer. Photo: Bloomberg

Suwon University Professor Ilya Belyakov said Putin was resorting to his typical “bluffing” tactics toward South Korea and the West.

“Russia has kept back-pedalling in its threats against the West as it has become mired in an endless war in Ukraine. It has nothing much in the way of punishing South Korea,” he said.

But Russia could provide the North with less lethal technology, such as that related to space programmes and the peaceful use of nuclear energy, he added.

Lee Il-woo, a senior researcher at the Korea Defence Network think tank, said Russia would likely give North Korea its upgraded version of the MiG-29 fighter jet with updated air-to-air missiles that could deter the South’s air attacks.

In November, North Korea dispatched a team of pilots and engineers to assist with maintaining and operating upgraded military aircraft at Sunan International Airport in Pyongyang, according to South Korean intelligence. Analysts suspect the aircraft technology was of Russian origin.

Observers expect North Korea to leverage its new defence pact with Russia to pressure Beijing into forming a three-way military alliance, aimed at deterring the combined activities of the US, South Korea, and Japan.

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Putin, Kim sign ‘strongest ever’ defence treaty amid growing tensions with the West

Putin, Kim sign ‘strongest ever’ defence treaty amid growing tensions with the West

But Sun Yun, director of the China programme at the Washington-based Stimson Centre think tank, said Beijing does not want to form a three-way alliance with North Korea and Russia because it “needs to keep its options open”.

Such a coalition could mean a new cold war, something Beijing says it is determined to avoid. Aligning itself with Pyongyang and Moscow would be contrary to China’s goals of maintaining relationships with Europe and improving ties with Japan and South Korea, Sun said.

Closer ties between Putin and Kim could weaken Beijing’s sway and leave it as the “biggest loser”, said Danny Russel, who was the assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs in former US President Barack Obama’s administration.

Coming on the heels of a new Russo-North Korea treaty, the US and South Korea and will hold their first multi-domain military drills, code-named Freedom Edge, later this month. The exercises will include sea, underwater, air and cyber drills.

The US Navy’s nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt arrived in South Korea on Saturday for the drills, which are likely to trigger angry reactions from the North.

The Freedom Edge drills are likely to serve as a test of how the new Russo-North Korea treaty would work in terms of their joint response, said Professor Lim Eul-chul of the Institute for Far Eastern Studies.

“North Korea and Russia can demonstrate their military might by holding their own joint naval exercises in the East Sea (Sea of Japan)”, he said.

Additional reporting by the Associated Press

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