Home News Putin’s efforts to curb North Korea’s nuclear program are over.

Putin’s efforts to curb North Korea’s nuclear program are over.


Even as Vladimir V. Putin’s Russia and Xi Jinping’s China have deepened their confrontation with the West over the past decade, they have remained aligned with the United States on at least one geopolitical project: dismantling or at least containing North Korea’s nuclear arsenal.

Until the Ukrainian war broke out two years ago.

Putin’s visit to Pyongyang on Wednesday, where he and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un presided over a memorial service, marked one of the starkest Cold War throwbacks yet and underscored how efforts by the world’s three nuclear powers to stop North Korea’s nuclear proliferation have been failing for some time.

Putin has done far more than abandon any desire to ensure nuclear restraint. He has pledged unspecified technical assistance that, if it includes several key technologies that Kim Jong Un is trying to perfect, would help North Korea design a warhead that could survive re-entry and threaten its many adversaries, starting with the United States.

Nowhere in Wednesday’s statement did Mr. Putin suggest that North Korea should give up its estimated arsenal of 50 or 60 nuclear weapons. Instead, Mr. Putin declared that “Pyongyang has the right to take reasonable measures to strengthen its defense capabilities, ensure national security and preserve its sovereignty” — though he did not say whether those measures would include further development of North Korea’s nuclear weapons.

While the shift is obvious, it could portend alarming consequences. “This is a return to Cold War security guarantees, without a doubt,” said Victor Cha, who worked on North Korea issues during the George W. Bush administration. Those guarantees date back to a now-defunct mutual defense treaty signed in 1961 between Pyongyang and Moscow.

However, Mr Che, now at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said the deal this time was “based on transactional needs on both sides — Russia providing artillery and North Korea providing high-end military technology”. He added: “They are not united by ideology as they were during the Cold War, but by their common opposition to the US and the Western liberal order.”

Mr. Cha said the new agreement would almost certainly solidify the increasingly formal security alliance between Japan, South Korea and the United States as the threat from North Korea grows.

The Russians hinted at what was coming 18 months ago.

Desperate for more artillery to fuel Ukraine’s war effort, Putin turned to Kim for some help with ammunition in late 2022. That trickle has now reportedly become a torrent: Western intelligence estimates that 5 million rounds of ammunition and a growing number of North Korean-made rounds have been stuffed into what the State Department says are 11,000 shipping containers filled with weapons. Then came the ballistic missiles.

This reflects that North Korea now has, perhaps for the first time in its history, a valuable bargaining chip it needs with its allies in its standoff with the West: it is a huge weapons producer.

Initially, Kim was happy to receive oil and food in return. But officials said intelligence assessments circulating in Washington and Europe showed growing concern that the North Korean leader was now determined to overcome the last major technical hurdle to becoming a full-fledged nuclear weapons state — the ability to strike any American city with a nuclear weapon.

Russia holds the keys; the question is whether it is willing to hand them over.

“Russia’s need for support on Ukraine has forced it to make some long-sought concessions to China, North Korea and Iran that could undermine long-held norms on nuclear nonproliferation, among other things,” Avril Haines, the U.S. director of national intelligence, told Congress in March.

In classified, closed-door meetings, she went even further, briefing key members of Congress on a range of technologies that Kim has yet to demonstrate he can master. Most of them involve keeping a nuclear warhead 6,000 miles in the air and ensuring it survives re-entry and hits its target.

U.S. presidents have repeatedly said they could not accept such a move. Before the Pyongyang meeting ended this week, Mr. Cha wrote that the prospect of Russia helping North Korea “poses the greatest threat to U.S. national security since the Korean War.”

“This relationship is ancient, and the war in Ukraine has reinvigorated it, undermining security in Europe, Asia, and the American homeland. In the face of hot-button issues like the war in Ukraine and Gaza,” he argued, “the administration is leaving this issue on the sidelines at its own peril.”

Of course, Washington has faced so many warnings about the dangers of North Korea’s arsenal since its first nuclear test 18 years ago that they have become almost background music to geopolitical turmoil.

Kim has also shown a willingness to strike the United States in non-nuclear ways. A decade ago, North Korea launched a devastating hack on Sony Pictures that destroyed much of the studio’s computing power. The attack was triggered by Sony’s decision to release “The Interview,” a comedy starring Seth Rogen and James Franco about two journalists sent to assassinate Kim Jong-un.

In many ways, it laid the foundation for modern cyber warfare, and North Korea has helped finance the expansion of its nuclear program by hacking into Western central banks and other lucrative targets.

A seemingly endless series of UN financial sanctions has failed to curb North Korea’s nuclear expansion or Closely related missile programAlthough the US sabotage campaign was effective, it did not last long.

The United States is therefore left to rely on cold deterrence: reminding North Korea through long-range bomber exercises that a strike against the United States or its allies would almost certainly lead to the country’s destruction. But a solid security agreement with Moscow would complicate that reasoning, because it implies that Russia might strike back on North Korea’s behalf. However, the terms of Wednesday’s agreement do not make that clear.

Mr. Putin’s statement on Wednesday was also a reminder that North Korea’s continued success in developing a nuclear weapon is one of Washington’s greatest failures of bipartisanship, beginning with the Clinton administration, which in 1994, faced with a crisis with North Korea, considered abandoning its nascent nuclear program before it could build a single nuclear weapon.

President Bill Clinton backed off, believing that diplomacy was the better path — launching three decades of on-and-off negotiations. China and Russia also helped, joining the “six-party talks” with North Korea, seeking to buy off its nuclear program.

When that mechanism collapsed, Russia was sanctioned and the United Nations set up a monitoring panel charged with publicly presenting evidence of sanctions evasion. Recently, the United Nations called for an extension of the monitoring operation, and Russia successfully led the effort to dismantle it, at least for now.

Now, the United States, Japan, South Korea and other allies face two immediate challenges. The first is trying to block the transfer of technologies on Mr. Kim’s shopping list, which Mr. Cha and other experts say includes the means to build quiet nuclear submarines and technology to circumvent missile defenses.

Putin has provided North Korea with missile designs in the past, according to U.S. intelligence officials, but there is little evidence that he has helped the country develop actual nuclear weapons. Now North Korea has leverage: Keeping the artillery stockpile for Putin may depend on whether Kim Jong Un gets what he wants.

No one is paying more attention to this than the Iranians. They are also supplying drones to the Russians. American officials believe the two countries are discussing missiles. Just last week, the Iranians ratcheted up the pressure on Israel and the United States, saying they were putting their most advanced centrifuges—capable of rapidly converting Iran’s fuel reserves into the material needed to make three nuclear weapons—deep underground in a facility that Israel might not be able to hit with bunker-busting bombs.

If North Korea’s gambit works, the Iranians might also see the benefits of developing closer ties with Russia. And Putin might think he has nothing to lose.

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