(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on Sept. 18)

Dangerous deal

Defense and diplomacy should go hand in hand

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un left Russia Sunday, heading back to Pyongyang nearly a week after he left it.

The postmortem of Kim's weeklong stay in Russia focuses on what he will get in return for providing additional munitions to Moscow for its war in Ukraine.

The Kremlin made two conflicting remarks in this regard.

On the one hand, it emphasized that President Vladimir Putin made no agreements with his North Korean counterpart. On the other, however, it hinted that the two countries could "cooperate in sensitive areas that cannot be made public."

It was a thinly veiled threat that Russia would help North Korea militarily, especially in areas that require advanced technology. Putin also stressed Russia would not violate any agreements regarding the Korean Peninsula. However, he made it clear that Moscow could help Pyongyang's development of satellites (technology that is identical to developing ICBMs).

For South Korea and the U.S., the Kim-Putin summit was a preview of how they can counter the Seoul-Washington alliance. Kim's visit to Russia's jet fighter factory and his inspection of strategic bombers, supersonic missiles and frigates showed his shopping list if circumstances allow. Russia will likely give or sell none of these anytime soon. Still, it at least left open the possibility.

Most evidence says that the display of the Putin-Kim bromance is more political than military, at least for now. The unity of two of the most alienated and disliked leaders worldwide aims to demonstrate to the West - and China - how much danger they can pose regionally and globally. Kim, who has given up mending fences with the U.S. since the abortive deal in Hanoi in 2019, appears to be returning to his country's old Cold War ally in order to prepare for the new Cold War, capitalizing on the U.S.-China rivalry and the Ukraine war.

For now, Russia is unlikely to do more than modernize North Korea's outdated weaponry and provide "humanitarian aid" such as food and fuel. Moscow will camouflage its support for satellite development as helping Pyongyang's space project, as Russia can ill afford to invite more international sanctions by aiding the North's nuclear weapons program. The world will see what specific agreements were made between Putin and Kim when their foreign and defense officials meet for follow-up talks. If Putin visits Pyongyang as he promised, political symbolism will magnify.

Therefore, it is natural that the U.S. has warned that allies will scrutinize all transactions between the two countries. For instance, they could focus on and block the inflows of weapons material to North Korea, including ammonium nitrate - used for making explosives as well as fertilizer.

South Korea must review and strengthen its defense posture to prepare for conventional, nuclear and cyber warfare. Seoul should also request Washington to help upgrade its war preparedness by revising the Korea-U.S. atomic energy agreement and missile-range accords and supporting the development of nuclear-powered submarines.

No less important are the diplomatic efforts - especially regarding China.

Beijing regards the close approach of Moscow and Pyongyang as both advantageous and disadvantageous. Suppose China adds force to the two countries and makes it a trilateral alliance. In that case, it will help Beijing deal with Washington for a global hegemonic war. Still, Russia's re-embrace of North Korea will weaken China's influence on the North and the region. Beijing also wants to differentiate itself from the two pariah states globally.

Some conservative politicians here were wrong to call for the sending of lethal weapons to Ukraine in retaliation. It will only justify the rogue nations' inhumane actions. National Security Council Chairman Cho Tae-yong was right when he vowed recently to try to realize Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to Seoul. South Korea must reopen diplomacy with China.

The government must also dissuade Russia from getting too close to the North. Seoul must keep an open dialogue channel with Moscow, as the Kremlin expressed an intention to explain the summit outcome to South Korea.

President Yoon Suk Yeol must prove his "audacious" vision regarding North Korea is not just lip service. If that were the case, the two Koreas wouldn't be in the situation they're in now.

Source: Yonhap News Agency