South Korean officials say North Korea has likely been invited to join Russia and China for the first time in trilateral naval exercises that experts see as a response to the newly cemented strategic cooperation among South Korea, Japan and the United States.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu is believed to have proposed the joint naval drills during a visit to Pyongyang in July, according to South Korean lawmaker Yoo Sang-bum. Yoo said National Intelligence Service Director Kim Kyou-hyun briefed about the proposal at a closed-door meeting on Monday.
China and Russia have held annual joint naval exercises for over a decade, but this would mark the first time that North Korea has been invited to participate. The development followed reports that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is expected to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin this month to discuss possible weapons transfers.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said at a press briefing on Thursday that she did not have information about the proposed drills with Russia and North Korea.
David Maxwell, vice president of the Center for Asia Pacific Strategy, told VOA the proposal for naval drills appeared to be “a direct response” to what he called “JAROKUS,” or “the new Japan-ROK-US security arrangement,” using an acronym for South Korea’s official name, the Republic of Korea.
He said that arrangement, sealed at a mid-August summit at the Camp David presidential retreat outside Washington, is “arguably the most important security arrangement in Northeast Asia in the 21st century and probably in the last seven decades.”
Maxwell said members of the Moscow-Beijing-Pyongyang “authoritarian axis” may also feel a need to counter other U.S.-led security alliances, including AUKUS (Australia, the U.K. and the U.S.), the QUAD (Australia, India, Japan and the U.S.) and NATO.
The United States, South Korea and Japan have conducted several joint ballistic missile defense drills of their own this year in response to North Korea’s missile launches.
At Camp David, the three countries agreed to hold annual multidomain trilateral exercises and exchange real-time missile warning data. They also committed to consult as necessary on military responses to common threats.
Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation, said joint drills by Beijing, Moscow and Pyongyang “will be pretty preliminary” in the beginning as the three militaries learn how to share information and communicate with each other.
“That doesn’t mean that’s where they’re going to end,” he said. “This would be the beginning of a whole sequence of naval drills and ground and air drills" in which the countries would most likely cooperate.
China and Russia have held annual naval drills since 2012, according to the Chinese Defense Ministry. The militaries of the two countries began training together in 2005, and in 2018, Beijing sent its ground troops and aircraft to join Russia’s Vostok exercises, according to the RAND Corporation.
In July, Beijing and Moscow held Northern/Interaction-2023 military exercises in the Sea of Japan. It was the first drill they had conducted near Japan.
Reports of the trilateral naval drills came just days before Kim is expected to travel to Russia’s far eastern port city of Vladivostok to attend the September 10-13 Eastern Economic Forum. While there, he is expected to meet Putin to discuss potential arms deliveries.
The New York Times, citing U.S. and allied officials on Monday, said Putin is likely to ask Kim for artillery shells and antitank missiles for use in his war in Ukraine, while Kim will probably ask for satellite technology and nuclear-powered submarines.
On Friday in North Korea, the state-run KCNA news agency said the country had held a "submarine-launching ceremony" on Wednesday that it said would bolster its naval force. Kim said equipping the navy with nuclear weapons is an urgent task as he inspected what KCNA described as tactical nuclear submarine "Hero Kim Kun Ok" on Thursday.
Assist to Russian army
Patrick Cronin, the Asia-Pacific security chair at the Washington-based Hudson Institute, said the North Korean weapons could “help the Russian army persevere in a primarily stalemated war in Ukraine.”
But even without the North Korean weapons, he said, Putin is likely to benefit from the trilateral naval drills because they would “help divert international attention from Ukraine” by “elevating security concerns for the United States and its allies in Asia.”
Mao, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, said at a press briefing on Thursday that the potential arms negotiations between Moscow and Pyongyang are matters that relate to the two countries, and she declined to comment further.
But other experts said China also stands to benefit from anything that prolongs the war in Ukraine.
“The upside for Beijing … is that it depletes U.S. weapons stockpiles and makes it harder for the U.S. to fulfill weapons commitments to Taiwan,” said Dennis Wilder, who served as the National Security Council director for China in 2004-05.
“It also keeps significant U.S. forces focused on Europe and away from the Indo-Pacific,” he said.
Bennett at RAND said the U.S. and its allies had “depleted a lot of our weapons stocks, sending them off to Ukraine without adequately replacing anything.”
“We no longer have a two-major-theater war capability,” he said. “What do we do if all of a sudden we have three major wars?” including the war in Ukraine and potential conflicts over Taiwan and in the Korean Peninsula.
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said at a press briefing Tuesday that Russia’s weapons were depleted as well.
Describing Russia’s outreach to North Korea as an act of desperation, he said Moscow finds it necessary only because the U.S. and its allies “have continued to squeeze Russia’s defense industrial base.”