What's known, and not known, about the partnership agreement signed by Russia and North Korea

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Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un pose for a photo during a signing ceremony of the new partnership in Pyongyang, North Korea, on Wednesday, June 19, 2024. Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un signed a new partnership that includes a vow of mutual aid if either country is attacked, during a Wednesday summit that came as both face escalating standoffs with the West. (Kristina Kormilitsyna, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Both Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un say the strategic partnership they signed in their summit in Pyongyang is a breakthrough, but what it means for their relationship is still uncertain.

While the agreement could represent the countries’ strongest deal signed after the Cold War, there are differing opinions on how strong of a security commitment Russia made to North Korea.

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Kim claimed that the deal elevated bilateral relations to the level of an alliance. The day after the deal was signed at a Pyongyang summit on Wednesday afternoon, North Korean state media released the text of the agreement, which vows mutual defense assistance and broader cooperation in military, foreign policy and trade.

Officials in rival South Korean said they're still trying to assess what it all means, including what Russia’s response might be if the North comes under attack.

Relations between sprawling Russia and small, isolated North Korea — both of them nuclear powers — have warmed significantly in recent years amid Russia's growing acrimony with the West over the invasion of Ukraine and suppression of all domestic opposition.

The new agreement could bring them even closer, while also posing new challenges to the international community.

What's in the new partnership, according to Kim and Putin:

What did Russia promise?

Most of the debate over Putin and Kim’s comprehensive partnership agreement revolves around Article 4. According to North Korean state media, the article states that if one of the countries gets invaded and is pushed into a state of war, the other must deploy “all means at its disposal without delay” to provide “military and other assistance.”

But it also says that such actions must be in accordance with the laws of both countries and Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, which recognizes a U.N. member state’s right to self-defense.

To some analysts, that sounds like a promise that Moscow will intervene if North Korea comes under attack, renewing a promise made under a 1961 treaty between North Korea and the Soviet Union. That deal was discarded after the collapse of the USSR, replaced in 2000 by one that offered weaker security assurances.

Other experts say Wednesday’s agreement is carefully worded to avoid implying automatic intervention.

It’s also not clear why the article invokes the U.N. Charter.

Russia as of Thursday afternoon has not released the text of the agreement.

What far will military cooperation go?

Putin essentially linked military cooperation with North Korea to Western supplies of weapons to Ukraine, referring to high-precision weapons systems, warplanes and other high-tech weapons.

“The Russian Federation does not exclude the development of military-technical cooperation with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in accordance with the document signed today,” Putin said.

That statement in effect formalizes what Western countries claim is already happening.

The U.S. and other allies allege that Russia has received ballistic missiles and ammunition from North Korea as the Ukraine war depletes Moscow’s inventory, and that Russia has made technology transfers to Pyongyang that could enhance the threat posed by Kim’s nuclear weapons and missile program.

North Korean state media said the agreement requires the countries to take steps to strengthen their joint defense capabilities, but didn't specify what those steps would be, or whether they would include combined military training.

The agreement also calls for the countries to actively cooperate in efforts to establish a “just and multipolar new world order,” the North's Korean Central News Agency said, underscoring how the countries are aligning in face of their separate, escalating confrontations with the Untied States and its allies.

What's the economic aspect of the pact?

The partnership also calls for developing economic ties, an especially important issue for North Korea as it suffers under an array of international sanctions. North Korea needs goods and material, and in turn can supply Russia's war-depleted workforce with labor; those workers in turn could convert wages in rubles to dollars or euros and send hard-currency back home.

Putin said the Russian-North Korean trade turnover has risen nine-fold over the past year, but admitted that the amount itself remains “modest.”

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