Vladimir Putin in North Korea

Image: Zhengkui Li
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By BRUNO FABRICIO ALCEBINO DA SILVA*

Relations between Russia and North Korea have deep and complex roots, dating back to the historical context of post-World War II and the subsequent Cold War.

Vladimir Putin's recent visit to North Korea, his first in 24 years, marks a new era in relations between Pyongyang and Moscow, with significant implications for global geopolitics. This meeting, hailed by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as the beginning of an “unshakable partnership”, illustrates the confluence of strategic interests between two of the most isolated and sanctioned regimes in the world. The revitalized alliance between Russia and North Korea is a direct response to the isolation imposed by the West, especially the United States, and reflects a coordinated effort to challenge Western hegemony.

For Kim Jong-un, this rapprochement with Putin not only diversifies his diplomatic options beyond China, but also strengthens his domestic position, demonstrating the ability to attract attention and support from a permanent member of the UN Security Council. The visit of a Russian leader, especially one of Putin's stature, is a rare diplomatic victory for a regime that almost never receives visits from heads of state. This reinforces the legitimacy of Kim's government within his own country, while also signaling a shared resistance against international pressure.

On the other hand, for Vladimir Putin, the alliance with North Korea offers an escape route from growing Western isolation (let's not forget that Russia is part of the BRICS). Facing an arrest order from the International Criminal Court (ICC) and strict sanctions due to the invasion of Ukraine, Putin seeks to demonstrate that he still has strategic allies and that the isolation imposed by the West is not absolute. The partnership with Pyongyang allows Moscow to project an image of resilience and solidarity against what Vladimir Putin describes as the hegemonic policies of the United States and its allies.

Historically, the alliance between Russia and North Korea dates back to the 1950s, post-Korean War, when both countries, together with China, formed a communist bloc against Western influence. However, this relationship went through ups and downs, especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In recent years, Russia's 2022 invasion of Ukraine has catalyzed a revival of these relations, with both countries seeking mutual support amid international condemnation and sanctions.

One of the most relevant aspects of this new phase of cooperation is the alleged exchange of weapons between the two countries. North Korea, accused of supplying missiles and artillery shells to Russia, denies such activities, as does Moscow. However, if confirmed, these transactions would violate UN resolutions and significantly increase tensions with the West. On the other hand, there is speculation that Russia is transferring technology to Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program, which would pose a serious threat to North Korea's enemies.

Despite Western media scaremongering, the West and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) are not far behind in expanding their reach with the recent accession of Finland and Sweden to the alliance. This move represents not only a significant change in the stance of these countries, which have traditionally maintained a policy of neutrality towards Moscow, but also an escalation in geopolitical tensions in the region. The accession of these new members to NATO cannot be seen just as a simple gesture of cooperation, but rather as a step that potentially intensifies militarization and polarization in relations between the West and Russia.

The signing of a strategic partnership agreement between Putin and Kim, which includes clauses on mutual assistance in the event of foreign aggression, formalizes this alliance and promises to further exacerbate international tensions. This pact not only solidifies military cooperation between the two countries, but also represents a direct provocation to the efforts of the United States and its allies to contain nuclear proliferation and supposedly maintain “regional stability” in East Asia.

Vladimir Putin's visit was marked by military ceremonies and warm meetings, highlighting the symbolic and practical importance of this alliance. Both leaders made strong statements against Western “hegemony,” with Kim Jong-un expressing unconditional support for the Russian “military operation” in Ukraine and Putin thanking North Korean support for Russian policy.

This strengthening of ties also occurs in a broader context of the formation of anti-Western blocs, with China playing a central role. Beijing, although officially not directly involved in the Ukraine war, has demonstrated covert support for Moscow, creating an axis of anti-hegemonic powers that openly defy Western-dominated international norms.

This dynamic is reminiscent of the Cold War, when rival ideological blocs competed for global influence, but with additional complexity provided by globalization and contemporary economic interdependence. The resurgence of alliances like Moscow and Pyongyang suggests a growing fragmentation of the world order, where isolated and sanctioned nations find common ground in their resistance to Western power.

The historic relations between Russia and North Korea

Relations between Russia and North Korea have deep and complex roots, dating back to the historical context of the post-World War II and subsequent Cold War. These ties were forged in a period of intense geopolitical rivalry between the Western bloc, led by the United States, and the Eastern bloc, dominated by the Soviet Union. Since then, the dynamics of these relationships have been shaped by a combination of strategic, ideological and geopolitical interests, reflecting global transformations over the decades.

The alliance between Russia and North Korea began to form at the end of World War II, when the Korean Peninsula was divided into two occupation zones, with the North under Soviet control and the South under American control. In 1948, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) was formally established under the leadership of Kim Il-sung, with strong support from the Soviet Union. This support included military, economic and political assistance, cementing North Korea as a socialist state allied with Moscow.

During the Korean War (1950-1953), the Soviet Union, along with China, militarily supported the North against United States-led UN forces, further solidifying the alliance. The war ended with an armistice but without a peace treaty, leaving the peninsula in a perpetual state of tension. In the following years, the Soviet Union continued to provide economic and military assistance to North Korea, helping to develop its industries and military.

The relationship between the two countries went through a phase of tension during the Nikita Khrushchev era, when the Soviet leader adopted a policy of de-Stalinization and sought peaceful coexistence with the West. Kim Il-sung, who ruled North Korea with an iron fist, viewed these changes with suspicion and sought to maintain a policy of self-sufficiency, known as Juche, which emphasized political, economic and military independence. Despite these tensions, the alliance remained intact due to the common threat posed by the United States and its allies.

With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, relations between Moscow and Pyongyang entered a period of decline. Russia, under the leadership of Boris Yeltsin, sought to align itself more with the West and significantly reduced economic and military support for North Korea. This period of distancing forced North Korea to seek new sources of support, deepening its ties with China.

However, with Vladimir Putin's rise to power in 1999, relations gradually began to improve. Putin sought to restore Russia's influence on the global stage and saw North Korea as a strategic ally in the region. Visits by Kim Jong-il, Kim Il-sung's son and successor, to Russia in 2001 and 2002 marked the beginning of a rapprochement. Moscow offered humanitarian assistance and renewed some economic and military cooperation agreements.

In recent years, especially after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, relations between the two countries have strengthened further. North Korea has expressed support for Russian actions and there have been reports that Pyongyang was supplying arms and ammunition to Moscow, although both countries officially deny these transactions. In return, there is speculation that Russia is providing advanced military technology to North Korea.

Vladimir Putin's current visit to North Korea symbolizes a new era in bilateral relations. The renewed alliance between Russia and North Korea must be seen in the broader context of a changing world order. Both countries face severe sanctions and international isolation, and their cooperation offers a way to mitigate these impacts. Furthermore, the alliance between Moscow and Pyongyang is one component of a broader network of nations challenging Western hegemony, with China playing a central role in this scenario.

China and BRICS Plus

As the global geopolitical landscape continues to evolve, we observe a gradual transition towards a multipolar world, where several regional and global powers emerge as key actors. In this context, China and the expansion of BRICS (to Plus) – which now includes Egypt, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Iran, in addition to the original members (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) – play crucial roles.

China's rise as an economic and political power has been one of the most significant transformations of the 21st century. Under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), China has adopted a pragmatic and assertive foreign policy, seeking to expand its global influence through initiatives such as the Belt and Road Initiative (Belt and Road Initiative). A Belt and Road Initiative not only promotes global infrastructure and economic connectivity, but also strengthens China's diplomatic ties with a diverse network of countries, including many of the new BRICS Plus members.

The concept of BRICS Plus, first introduced during China's BRICS presidency in 2017, reflects the intention to expand the bloc's reach and influence beyond its original members. The inclusion of countries such as Egypt, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Iran aims not only to diversify the group's economic and geopolitical base, but also to consolidate a platform for cooperation in areas such as trade, sustainable development and global governance.

This expansion of BRICS Plus is symptomatic of a broader movement towards a multipolar world, where multiple centers of power coexist and interact in a dynamic balance of interests and influences. However, the multipolar configuration does not necessarily imply an equal distribution of power; rather, it reflects an order in which various regional and global powers exert significant influence in different parts of the world.

China, as the main actor within the BRICS and beyond, plays a central role in this emerging scenario. Its continued economic growth, combined with proactive diplomacy and massive investments in global infrastructure, positions China as a key pillar of the new balance of power. The accession of countries from the Middle East and Africa to BRICS Plus also reflects the growing importance of these regions in the global economy and international affairs.

On the other hand, the dynamics between the original BRICS members and the new participants bring unique challenges and opportunities. While the original BRICS represents a coalition of large emerging economies with common aspirations to reform international financial institutions and promote more inclusive development, the new members bring specific regional perspectives and varied strategic interests to the table.

As China and BRICS Plus continue to expand and consolidate themselves as influential players in the global arena, we are witnessing the gradual construction of a multipolar world. This new paradigm not only challenges the traditional hegemony of the West, but also promises a more diverse and complex international order, where cooperation, competition and negotiation between multiple centers of power will define the future of international relations.

What about the USA and the West?

As we approach the US presidential elections in November, the global political landscape becomes increasingly volatile and uncertain. The rematch between Joe Biden and Donald Trump is more than a simple electoral competition; it symbolizes a critical bifurcation in the future of the United States and, by extension, Western dynamics. While Biden seeks to consolidate his policies of post-Covid-19 economic recovery, green infrastructure and a foreign policy against Russia and China, Trump, on the other hand, capitalizes on growing popular dissatisfaction with established politics, promoting an agenda of nationalism and economic protectionism.

This election takes place in a context of growing discontent with traditional Western leadership. The Biden administration, despite its efforts to strengthen transatlantic alliances and revitalize NATO, faces significant challenges both at home and abroad. The emptying of leadership in the West is palpable. The European Union, for example, faces an identity crisis, with traditionally influential members like France and Germany dealing with their own internal crises and political differences. The rise of the far right, exemplified by advances in the elections for the European Parliament, reflects a tectonic shift in the electoral preferences of Europeans, who seek alternatives to the establishment traditional politician.

The recent European Parliament elections highlighted this trend, with far-right and nationalist parties gaining ground in several countries. These parties, which advocate restrictive immigration policies, national sovereignty and, in some cases, a critical review of European integration policies, are gaining popular support. The rise of parties led by figures such as Marine Le Pen in France, Matteo Salvini in Italy and the Alternative for Germany (AfD) reflect a Europe that, in many ways, is moving away from the economic liberalism and traditional democratic values ​​that defined the European project after the Second World War.

However, this far-right wave is not just a European phenomenon. In the United States, political polarization is also on the rise, with Trump and his allies continuing to challenge democratic norms and the establishment republican. Trump's rhetoric, often incendiary and polarizing, resonates with a significant base of voters who feel abandoned by traditional political elites. This not only threatens the internal unity of the United States, but also calls into question the country's position as leader of the so-called “free world”.

Furthermore, the weakening of traditional leadership in the West is evident on several fronts. Brexit, which was a milestone in the erosion of European cohesion, still reverberates with its economic and political consequences. The United Kingdom's departure from the European Union not only challenged the European project, but also highlighted the growing fragmentation within the bloc. The rise of populist and nationalist movements has exacerbated these divisions, putting European stability and integration at risk.

In the United States, the Biden administration, despite its efforts to restore American leadership on the global stage, faces considerable challenges. Inflation, the crisis of confidence in institutions and growing political polarization are just some of the factors that hinder his agenda. Trump's continued presence in American politics, whether as a candidate or as leader of a significant faction within the Republican Party, continues to challenge the narrative of unity and progress that Biden tries to promote.

Meanwhile, global competition continues to intensify, with China and Russia increasingly assertive in their foreign policies. The rise of non-Western powers, combined with the weakening of Western leadership, is redrawing the global balance of power. China's Belt and Road initiative, growing Russian influence in Central Asia and the Middle East, and intensifying trade and technological rivalries between the United States and China are just some of the indicators of this new multipolar world order.

As we approach the American elections and watch political developments in Europe, it is clear that the West faces a period of turbulence and transformation. The rise of the far right, the emptying of traditional leadership and the constant challenge posed by emerging powers are shaping a new global paradigm. The future of the West, and its ability to maintain its global influence and values, will depend on how its democracies and institutions respond to these unprecedented challenges. The November election and developments in Europe will undoubtedly be crucial in determining the course of this new multipolar world.

*Bruno Fabricio Alcebino da Silva He is majoring in International Relations and Economic Sciences at the Federal University of ABC (UFABC).


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