(Bloomberg) -- Russia and North Korea revived a deal struck during the Cold War when their leaders met in Pyongyang this week and agreed to come to each other’s defense if they are ever attacked. The deal is likely a reward for Kim Jong Un for supplying massive amounts of munitions to help Vladimir Putin in his war on Ukraine. How it will be actually implemented is still a question, but the pact sets Russia and North Korea on a path that keeps them in lockstep as they try to vex the US and its partners. 

1. What did the two agree to?

They agreed to immediately provide “military and other assistance” if either of them is attacked. Dubbed the Treaty on the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, it is similar to a 1961 deal signed during the Cold War which was scrapped after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The level of assistance the two sides will provide each other is unclear. Putin and Kim also agreed to take joint measures to strengthen their defense capabilities and expand cooperation in trade and investment — all of which could be in violation of international sanctions. The treaty will be effective indefinitely until either of them seeks its expiration.

2. What’s in it for North Korea?

Kim gets an ally with a nuclear arsenal to back him up. It also means he can continue to pursue his own atomic ambitions with Russia using its veto power at the United Nations Security Council to block any new sanctions. Putin said the treaty sets the stage for boosting their cooperation in trade, investment as well as in security matters for the long term, all of which are what North Korea wants. Kim needs cash, commodities and technology to help with his plans to build a nuclear-powered submarine and deploy an array of spy satellites. North Korea’s economy was estimated by South Korea’s central bank to have been worth about $24.5 billion in 2022, and any assistance makes a big difference. Russia has so far provided North Korea with food, raw materials and parts used in weapons manufacturing, South Korean Defense Minister Shin Wonsik has said. If the arms transfers grow, Russia will likely send more military technology, increasing Pyongyang’s threat to the region, Shin said. 

3. Why did Putin reach the deal?

In the near term, Putin rests assured that he can tap North Korea for weapons that allow him to keep up his grinding war on Ukraine. He has already received millions of artillery shells and scores of ballistic missiles, Shin said in an interview with Bloomberg News. The pact is a way to show defiance of the US and its partners in the face of sanctions. How much Putin will commit to the actual defense of North Korea is another matter. The Soviet Union did not fully commit to fight on behalf of North Korea during the 1950-1953 Korean War, and stepping into a conflict now would almost certainly mean taking on a US-led coalition. 

“Russian diplomats will likely be telling other governments not to worry and that they won’t do anything stupid — that Putin is just paying Kim off with a show, with meaningless gestures,” Stephen Sestanovich, a senior fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations said in comments posted on a CFR webpage. “What we don’t know is what’s been promised in secret — or will be promised over time,” he wrote.

4. How does this affect the US?

The US has to recalculate what might happen if it uses weapons against North Korea. An option discussed during the Trump administration was a “bloody nose” strike on North Korea designed to hit a key facility or two and remind Kim that his antiquated military is no match for America’s might. The deal means the US has to plan for the contingency of a Russian response. The pact also makes it easier for Kim to ignore Washington’s call to return to nuclear talks, where aid is offered in exchange for him winding down his atomic arsenal. “What we’re most worried about — Russian sharing and transfer of weapons technology to North Korea and the consequential proliferation — would also be in the realm of possibilities,” said Soo Kim, a former Korea analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency who now works at US-based management consulting firm LMI.

5. Does this mean North Korea will send soldiers to fight in Ukraine?

North Korea for years has supplied workers to Russia — mostly in its Far East for forestry and construction projects — in return for hard cash. But sending troops to fight against Ukraine may be a bridge too far for Kim. Instead, he could dispatch workers to parts of Ukraine occupied by Russia. Since Putin demands that his invasion be called a “special military operation” it could be difficult for him to invoke the pact, unless there is a significant attack on the Russian homeland. 

Read more about Putin and Kim here: 

  • Putin, Kim Agree to Immediately Offer Military Aid If Attacked
  • Kim Jong Un’s Russia Lifeline Gives Big Reason to Avoid War 
  • Kim Jong Un Faces Annihilation in Most Korea War Scenarios 
  • How North Korea Is Building a Nuclear Attack Arsenal: QuickTake
  • Kim Vows to Back Putin ‘Unconditionally’ on War in Ukraine 

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