Putin threatens to arm North Korea if the West continues to supply weapons to Ukraine

Vladimir Putin has threatened to arm North Korea if Western countries continue providing military aid to Ukraine, as the Russia president’s new defense pact with Pyongyang sparked a series of diplomatic reverberations in the region.

Putin’s remarks, at the end of a state visit to Vietnam, capped off a week in which Moscow sought to rattle the West and project strength from a part of the world in which his influence still carries weight.

“Those who supply these weapons believe that they are not at war with us. I said, including in Pyongyang, that we then reserve the right to supply weapons to other regions of the world,” Putin told reporters Thursday at the end of his trip to Hanoi, in response to a question on whether the supply of Western long-range weapons could be considered an act of aggression.

“Where they will go next?” he said, suggesting those countries could then sell the weapons to Western adversaries.

The US called Putin’s remarks “incredibly concerning” in a briefing on Friday.

“It would destabilize the Korean Peninsula,” State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller told reporters, and “depending on the type of weapons they provide, might violate UN Security Council resolutions that Russia itself has supported.”

Russia and North Korea’s signing of a mutual defense pact this week sent ripples out across the region, with South Korea summoning Moscow’s envoy on Friday, and Japan and the United States voicing serious concern.

The defense pact, which comes against the backdrop of Putin’s grinding war against Ukraine, is the most significant agreement signed by Russia and North Korea in decades and is seen as something of a revival of their 1961 Cold War-era mutual defense pledge.

The deal was inked on Wednesday during Putin’s trip to Pyongyang, where he received a lavish welcome from fellow autocrat Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s leader.

It consolidates the Kim regime’s powerful link with a world power that wields a veto on the UN Security Council and means Russia now has a defense pact with South Korea’s biggest enemy.

South Korea, a US ally, condemned the treaty and summoned Russia’s ambassador on Friday, a rare diplomatic step that illustrates the soured tensions between Seoul and Moscow.

First Vice Minister Kim Hong-kyun relayed the South Korean government’s “stern position” on Kim and Putin’s defense pact, urging Moscow to “immediately halt military cooperation” with Pyongyang and abide by UN Security Council resolutions, the Foreign Ministry said.

Kim told the Russian ambassador that “any cooperation that could directly or indirectly help reinforce the North Korean military power is a violation of the UN Security Council resolution,” adding that Russia, a permanent member of the UNSC, should “act responsibly,” according to the ministry.

An official of the US military, which maintains almost 30,000 troops in South Korea, told CNN the closer Russia-North Korea ties were troubling.

“These developments should concern any country that cares about maintaining peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula, abiding by UN Security Council resolutions, and supporting the people of Ukraine as they defend their freedom and independence against Russia’s brutal invasion,” the military official said.

New threats

Putin flew to Vietnam on Thursday where he renewed threats towards both Western powers and their partners in Asia.

Speaking to Russian journalists at the end of the visit he accused NATO of “creating a threat” for Russia in Asia.

“And we see what’s happening in Asia, right? The bloc system is being cobbled together in Asia. NATO is already moving there as a permanent place of residence. This, of course, creates a threat for all countries in the region, including the Russian Federation. We are obliged to respond to this and will do so,” Putin said.

Putin warned South Korea on Thursday it would be making “a very big mistake” if it decided to supply arms to Ukraine, claiming Seoul has “nothing to worry about” concerning the new strategic partnership signed by Russia and North Korea.

“As far as I know, the Republic of Korea does not plan aggression against the DPRK, which means there is no need to be afraid of our cooperation in this area,” he said.

But at the same time, senior Russian government officials were warning that Moscow planned to send weapons to North Korea.

“I wonder what the people of this country (South Korea) will say when they see the latest Russian weapons from their closest neighbors – our partners from the DPRK?” senior Russian official Dmitry Medvedev said in a post on Telegram.

US and South Korean forces hold regular exercises and training in and around the Korean Peninsula, and the two allies have been working more closely with Japan, including recent exercises involving forces from all three countries.

National Security Director Chang Ho-jin said South Korea would review the issue of arms provision to Ukraine, but he also noted that Seoul was willing to wait for the Russian government’s explanation of the results of the meeting between Putin and Kim Jong Un.

Currently, South Korea’s policy is not to provide lethal weapons to Ukraine.

When later asked about those comments, Putin said: “As for the supply of lethal weapons to the combat zone in Ukraine, this would be a very big mistake. I hope that this will not happen. If this happens, then we will also make appropriate decisions, which are unlikely to please the current leadership of South Korea.”

Ukrainian soldiers with the 57th Motorized Brigade operate at an artillery position on June 9, 2024 near Vovchansk, Kharkiv Region, Ukraine. - Nikoletta Stoyanova/Getty Images
Ukrainian soldiers with the 57th Motorized Brigade operate at an artillery position on June 9, 2024 near Vovchansk, Kharkiv Region, Ukraine. - Nikoletta Stoyanova/Getty Images

Reports from earlier in the war say South Korea may have provided 155mm artillery shells to the United States to replace 155mm rounds sent to Ukraine.

A recent report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) said South Korea’s stockpile of 105mm howitzer rounds could give Ukraine an important battlefield boost if it were released to Kyiv.

“Public reports suggest South Korea has around 3.4 million 105mm artillery shells,” the CSIS report said.

Ukraine has about 100 105mm artillery pieces, the report said.

“During the Vietnam War, these lighter howitzers proved indispensable in firebases, given their high mobility by road and air. Their light weight and mobility would allow Ukrainian artillery units to relocate quickly after firing, a crucial tactic for survivability on the modern battlefield. These howitzers would also allow Ukrainian battlefield commanders to conduct attacks on rough terrain against high-value targets,” the CSIS report said

Earlier on Thursday, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshimasa Hayashi also expressed strong concern about the agreement signed by Russia and North Korea.

The fact that Putin “did not rule out military-technical cooperation with North Korea, which could be a direct violation of the relevant UN Security Council resolutions, is a point of serious concern from the perspective of its possible impact on the security environment surrounding our country,” Hayashi said in a press conference.

CNN’s Hanako Montgomery and Mike Valerio contributed to this report.

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