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Kim-Putin military cooperation may pose potential setback for China

Updated Sept. 15, 2023, 5:35 a.m. ET

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Russian leader Vladimir Putin inspected a fighter jet production facility in Russia’s Far East on Friday while the United States allies prepare joint countermeasures in response to safeguarding the security in both Asia and Europe.

Kim’s high-profile visit this week has pressured the allies to intensify their multilateral security cooperation in the region, a development which experts noted, may see China emerging as the most disadvantaged nation. 

The North Korean leader went to the Far Eastern Russian city of Komsomolsk-on-Amur early on Friday and inspected the Yuri Gagarin Komsomolsk-on-Amur Aircraft Plant (KnAAZ), according to Russia’s official news agency Tass. 

“A red carpet was unfurled for the top-ranking guest,” Tass said. “In accordance with the Russian tradition for special guests, Kim was welcomed with bread and salt.”

KnAAZ is at the heart of Russia’s fighter jet production, which produces advanced warplanes such as its fifth generation jets: the Su-35 and Su-57.

Kim’s visit to Russia’s core defense facility came after both sides agreed on Wednesday to boost their military cooperation that would significantly aid their battle against the West. The core of the cooperation is most likely to be Russia’s weapons technology transfer in exchange for North Korea’s conventional ammunition. 

As the speculation continues to rise, North Korea has reportedly begun providing ammunition to Russia in aiding its Ukraine aggression, according to a report from the New Voice of Ukraine, the country’s one of the largest news outlets, on Thursday. Putin has already received “122mm and 152mm artillery shells as well as Grad rockets from North Korea,” the New Voice of Ukraine claimed, quoting the Ukrainian Defense Intelligence chief Kyrylo Budanov.

The cementing of such a trade deal puts the U.S. at risk in its attempt to curb Russia’s aggression on Ukraine, potentially prolonging the war, and containing North Korea’s nuclear pursuits to enhance nuclear capabilities.

In response, the U.S., South Korea and Japan are reinforcing security cooperation to confront the latest development that could threaten their interests. Top security aides of the three – the U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, South Korea’s National Security Office Director Cho Tae-yong and Japan’s National Security Secretariat Secretary General Akiba Takeo – vowed to further consolidate their ties to jointly counter the possible Moscow-Pyongyang military cooperation.

The three NSAs reaffirmed the importance of trilateral coordination consistent with their commitment to consult,” White House said in a statement Thursday. “They noted that any arms exports from the DPRK to Russia would directly violate multiple UN Security Council resolutions, including resolutions that Russia itself voted to adopt.”  The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is the North’s formal name.

Meanwhile, the U.S. and South Korea held discussions under the Extended Deterrence Strategy and Consulting Group (EDSCG) in Seoul on Friday, where vice foreign and defense ministers from both sides discussed practical ways to curb heightened security risk for the allies, including the latest posed by the high-stakes Kim-Putin summit.

“The Russia-North Korea military cooperation is a serious violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions,” Chang Ho-jin, South Korea’s first vice minister of its Foreign Ministry, told reporters after the EDSCG discussion. “We have shared our concerns about the recent intensification of North Korea-Russia military cooperation and discussed future responses.” 

The U.S. and South Korea representatives said the trilateral cooperation including Japan would boost the allies’ capability in deterring North Korea’s nuclear provocations. 

“Japan would play a major role in stopping the North Korean naval and air threats in/over the East Sea, and Japanese Aegis ships might also assist in shooting down North Korean ballistic and cruise missiles,” said Bruce Bennett, adjunct international/defense researcher at the RAND Corporation and a professor at the Pardee RAND Graduate School. 

“In short, Japan would have a major role in helping to stop any North Korean invasion of the ROK,” he added, referring to South Korea’s formal name.  

“In the wake of a North Korean invasion of the ROK, the defense of the ROK might actually fail without Japanese assistance. And interestingly, if North Korea starts a major conflict against Japan and not the ROK, the ROK could play a major role in stopping the North Korean aggression,” Bennett pointed out.

The EDSCG meeting represent an elevated level of cooperation among democracies, underscored by a heightened call for stronger trilateral collaboration.

“To address the common security concerns, the initial step is to solidify and institutionalize the trilateral cooperation framework among South Korea, U.S. and Japan,” Jin Chang-soo, an expert at South Korea’s prestige think tank, Sejong Institute, said. “The most significant strategic disadvantage from this [cooperation] would likely be on China.”

South Korea, the U.S., and Japan take part in joint naval missile defense exercises in international waters between Korea and Japan, April 17, 2023. (The South Korean Defense Ministry via Reuters)

Biggest disadvantage: China

China has long opposed the emergence of a multilateral security platform in the region, frequently expressing concerns over the possible establishment of what it called a “mini-Nato” in the Indo-Pacific. However, the latest Kim-Putin summit is likely to just provide the impetus for a more united security front involving the U.S., South Korea, and Japan – and possibly more. 

“This would be a major concern for China. The level of security cooperation among the U.S., South Korea, and Japan in terms of material capability, surpasses that of China, Russia and North Korea; they simply aren’t on the same playing field,” Jin said.

“From China’s perspective, the North Korea-Russia summit intensifies pressure to bolster the trilateral cooperation among the like-minded nations. The military collaboration sought by North Korea and Russia to involve China might also not be in China’s best interests.”

The consolidation of the trilateral security cooperation may work against China’s expansionist ambition. The institutionalized coalition could become a barrier to Beijing’s naval operations, including those in the South China Sea, where China has long pursued its territorial claims.

Improved intelligence sharing and joint military exercises may also restrict China’s strategic options, potentially jeopardizing its aspirations for regional dominance. Experts said that this combined strength could put smaller nations out of Beijing’s orbit of influence, relieving them of the pressure to succumb to Chinese diplomatic and economic demands.

The possibility of adding other member countries to the security platform would be further bad news for Beijing’s vision for the region. Canada’s potential participation in the alliance could elevate it into a quadrilateral arrangement, JACK (Japan, America, Canada, Korea). 

Canada has reportedly proposed this new coalition earlier this year, aimed at countering authoritarian states like North Korea, Russia and China. The proposal emerged against a backdrop of Canada’s own strained relations with Beijing, which have exacerbated since the 2018 detention of Huawei Technologies’ chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou.

It is, however, important for the “U.S., ROK, and Japan to consolidate their partnership [first], and then they can strengthen their partnerships with Canada and other potential allies,” Bennett said, given the “very modest size of the Canadian military,” a quarter of Japan, and one-seventh of South Korea.

Experts, however, also noted the possibility of China leveraging the current dynamics to its advantage in the long-term. 

“As Russia asserts its presence in Asia, and as the dynamics of the game in Northeast Asia are shifting, the U.S. would have to reevaluate its strategic posture in the Indo-Pacific region,” said Cheon Seong-whun, a geopolitical strategist, who was a security strategy secretary for South Korea’s presidential office. 

“Although the intensified trilateral cooperation might challenge China’s plan to expand its global influence, it could also conversely benefit China by prompting a re-evaluation of the existing U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy.”

Updated to add statement from the EDSCG meeting in Seoul, and experts’ comments

Edited by Elaine Chan and Taejun Kang