John Humphrys: Why new friendships can threaten new conflicts

June 21, 2024, 2:58 PM GMT+0

State visits between dictators usually arouse little interest. There is the inevitable blanket coverage in the countries’ subservient media of the massive crowds ordered to cheer and wave their little flags, the promises of undying love and loyalty between the two countries and that’s about it. And there was indeed a great deal of that when President Putin paid his first visit this week to North Korea for 24 years. But there was something else too. Something that might force many of us to sleep a little less uneasily in our beds.

Were you amongst those?

Professor Mark Galeotti was and his credentials are impeccable: honorary professor at University College London School of Slavonic and East European Studies. He noted in the Mail that Putin’s welcome by North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong was a welcome fit for a Tsar: “Thousands of North Koreans cheering fanatically as

an army of young children lined the red carpet in Pyongyang, waving Russian flags and beaming obligingly from ear to ear. Others held aloft large portraits of the two dictators as the pair rolled past, waving from the sunroof of a blacked- out Mercedes.”

As the professor noted, we have become used to these farcical displays of idolatry inside North Korea, but he detected a “sinister shift” in strategy by the Kremlin and it worried him. So what exactly do Putin and Kim really want from one another and – this is the crucial question - how does it affect our ever-more fragile peace?

A decade ago, as Galeotti points out, Russia was a member of the G8 (now G7) alliance of major political nations. Putin had a seat at the top table of global diplomacy. He courted Western alliances, allowed American military jets to use Russian airspace and even once suggested that Russia might be open to joining Nato. But all that has changed and here’s why:

“The moment Putin's war machine rolled into Ukraine on February 24, 2022, he knew full well the old alliances – to say nothing of uneasy friendships – were shattered. Over the past two years, Russia has become isolated to an extent not seen since the darkest days of the Cold War.”

What Russia needs now above all else is the wherewithal to wage war. That means vast numbers of artillery shells. It’s believed Kim has already sent Moscow five million of them. Now, it seems, another five million has been promised. And what does Kim get out of this? Oil and food.

One of the effects of western sanctions against Moscow has been it has lost its most profitable market for oil. North Korea has been helping to fill that gap. Millions of barrels of the black stuff has been delivered.

It is also getting food from Moscow. Vast numbers of North Koreans – especially if they live outside the big cities – are going hungry and Russian grain is helping to feed them. That’s despite the fact that Russia itself is struggling to cope with a poor harvest of its own. And it’s important to remember that North Korea itself is at war. As every general knows, an army marches on its stomach. Its enemy, of course, is South Korea.

So how are other countries reacting to this new defence pact between Moscow and Pyongyang, which effectively states that each country would provide immediate military help if the other one was invaded? Some western military analysts believe it’s not only weapons that North Korea will provide. It’s manpower as well. Most analysts agree that if Kim did indeed send thousands of his troops to fight on Russia’s front line in Ukraine it would have a significant effect on the war.

It's believed that the North Korean army consists of up to 1.3 million active personnel. Most of them, of course, are engaged in the country’s historic standoff with South Korea.

And how would South Korea respond? Political leaders there are threatening to send their own weapons to Ukraine. Their president Yoon Suk Yeol has said: “It's absurd that two parties with a history of launching wars of invasion – the Korean War and the war in Ukraine – are now vowing mutual military cooperation on the premise of a pre-emptive attack by the international community that will never happen.” Mr Yoon's national security adviser Chang Ho-jin said Seoul was planning to reconsider the issue of providing weapons support to Ukraine.

He added: 'Any cooperation that directly or indirectly helps strengthen North Korea’s military capabilities is a violation of the UN Security Council resolutions. Russia's own violation of the resolution and support for North Korea will inevitably have a negative impact on the South Korea-Russia relationship.'

It’s worth recalling that South Korea wants to become one of the world's top arms exporters and has already signed huge deals with European countries. But it has a long-standing policy that bars it from selling weapons into active conflict zones. Both Ukraine and the US want it to change that policy.

It all seems a far cry from the most recent moves towards some sort of settlement between Russia and Ukraine.

The former British Army intelligence expert Philip Ingram has said it’s “very worrying” that North Korea probably will supply troops as part of the new defence pact. He questioned how adaptable they would prove on the battlefield but pointed out that Russia's tactics have been “so primitive, sacrificing vast numbers of soldiers in the so-called meat grinder” that the Kremlin is probably more interested in the quantity of personnel rather than quality.

The former British Army commander Colonel Hamish de Bretton Gordon suggested Kim could exchange soldiers for nuclear technology. He said it would show how absolutely desperate they both are: Putin for troops and Kim for knowledge. It’s worth noting that Russia has suffered about 500,000 casualties in Ukraine and any new troops from North Korea – almost regardless of their quality – would help bolster its front line and reduce any chance Ukraine might have of reclaiming its eastern provinces.

As for Kim himself, he has told reporters the country would respond with no hesitation to threats facing North Korea or Russia. He said the new treaty would help create a new multi polar world and described his nations support for Russia as unconditional.

As to where this new-found friendship goes from here, Professor Galeotti says the US is particularly concerned that Russia will begin sharing nuclear-missile technology with North Korea. It’s more than 20 years since its former leader withdrew from the global nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and since then his son has invested massive resources into expanding his nuclear arsenal.

Galeotti says the state is now believed to possess a stockpile of some 40 to 50 nuclear warheads along with the raw materials needed to double this apocalyptic hoard. What it lacks, however, is the long-range ballistic technology required to launch and carry these warheads. This is where we should recall that last September Putin welcomed Kim to Russia's Vostochny Cosmodrome. The spaceport is typically used to launch satellites, but the technology needed to do that is very similar to what’s needed to launch intercontinental ballistic missiles equipped with nuclear warheads.

At the time, Putin wisecracked to the assembled reporters: 'The leader of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea shows great interest in rocket engineering.'

Galeotti is, however, sceptical that Putin really wants to share nuclear know-how with Kim. For all the pomp and ceremony of this month's visit, Russia still does not fully trust North Korea. A more likely point of collaboration between the two concerns cyber-warfare – the latest and more profitable front in the battle against the US and Europe.

North Korea runs a highly sophisticated cyber unit which has been implicated in frauds worth $3 billion between 2017 and 2023. Our own National Health Service is, as I write, struggling desperately to cope with the damage caused by a cyber attack on the blood service. This was a serious attack by a criminal gang. Imagine how much more harm could be caused by an organisation with all the power of a malign state behind it. The possibility of co-operation in cyber-hacking represents a fearsome new threat to global banking, international security and personal data.

Galeotti also envisages the potential for trade in people. He writes: “Because of its losses on the battlefields of Ukraine, Russia faces a crippling shortage of workers to man its munitions factories, bring home the harvest and maintain public services. North Korea, on the other hand, has a surplus of impoverished, hard-working people. It wouldn't surprise me if we see thousands of North Koreans labouring in Russian munitions factories by the end of the year.”

And he concludes: “Whatever the case, Putin's historic visit to North Korea this week marks a line in the sand. A new axis of pariah states is emerging – with Russia, North Korea, Iran and China at its heart. But it's not just these four geopolitical heavyweights. Putin is hoping to lead a tribe of outcasts which also includes the likes of Venezuela, Zimbabwe and Iraq.”

The world, he believes, is becoming ever more unstable. The risk of another global conflict is increasing.

But there remains one great truism of war: before you pick your enemy, you choose your friends. And in this regard, Putin has made his ugly choice.

Do you agree and if you do, how should the west react ?

Let us know.

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