(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on June 17)

Stand firm on Putin-Kim summit
Realistic assessment of Russia-North Korea military cooperation is necessary

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forthcoming visit to Pyongyang for a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will certainly do more harm than good to South Korea as the two like-minded autocratic leaders are expected to escalate tensions with the coalition of democratic countries.

Despite this obvious fallout, it is not desirable to let the Putin-Kim summit stoke excessive fear. Overreaction is an enemy to an accurate assessment of the circumstances and, consequently, will end up doing a disservice to the nation.

As expected, Putin’s trip to North Korea has generated contrasting reactions from the two Koreas.

North Korea is excited about the Russian leader’s visit, which, if realized, comes after Kim’s trip to Russia’s Far East in September last year. The Russia-North Korea summit will also be the first to be held in the North since Putin’s last visit to the reclusive state in 2000.

South Korea, meanwhile, is wary of the Russia-North Korea summit because of its possible fallout on regional security.

While understandable, South Korea’s concerns should not lead to overreaction or excessive anxiety about the Russia-North Korea summit. Instead, it should adopt a wait-and-see approach, observing the outcome of Putin’s visit to North Korea and responding accordingly.

Putin’s Pyongyang visit raises a million-dollar question: Will Russia share its sensitive military technology with North Korea?

The poor quality of North Korean weapons has become known to the world through two recent events.

In November last year, North Korea lavishly celebrated the launch of its first military satellite, called Malligyong-1, which entered orbit. The North claimed it eventually came to possess an “eye in the sky” through which it can monitor the major industrial and military facilities of South Korea and the United States.

North Korea’s excessive celebrations, however, turned out to be a bluff, if not a lie. According to defense experts, Malligyong-1 is unfit to conduct military reconnaissance missions because of its poor spatial resolution. Malligyong has three meters of spatial resolution, which means it can detect objects three meters or larger, compared to a South Korean military satellite’s spatial resolution of 0.3 meters.

As the Ukraine Armed Forces Chief of Staff claimed publicly on his social media last year, the war in Ukraine also testified to the poor quality of North Korean munitions.

All eyes are on Putin because a potential technology transfer from Russia could be a game-changer, significantly elevating North Korea’s military capabilities and posing a greater security threat. This urgency underscores why North Korea is so eager to secure support from Russia.

Will Russia be willing to offer a helping hand to the North? The answer hinges on how Russia views North Korea. If Russia is serious about the partnership with North Korea, it may consider such an option.

However, in case Russia thinks North Korea is nothing more than a wartime supplier of munitions, the chances of a technology transfer will be slim.

Sharing sensitive military technology involves a substantial business contract. Such deals can only be signed when both parties have a deep mutual trust and view their partnership as sustainable, rather than solely based on immediate needs. Moreover, agreements are inked when both sides perceive mutual benefits, whether financial or military — a classic case of quid pro quo.

The critical question remains: What assets does North Korea possess that it could potentially share with Russia in exchange for sensitive military technology? Currently, North Korea, due to its economic challenges, appears to lack significant leverage to incentivize Russia into such a deal.

South Korea should maintain vigilance over developments in Russia-North Korea military cooperation, as these ties could potentially exacerbate Cold War-style tensions between democracies and autocracies.

In international relations, bilateral relationships cannot heavily favor one side without imposing significant pressure on the other to sustain the relationship.

This suggests that policymakers in Seoul must carefully observe the outcome of the impending Russia-North Korea summit and respond judiciously. South Korea should neither downplay the potential threat nor allow overreactions or exaggerated fear to dictate its response to military cooperation between Russia and North Korea.

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