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Putin's North Korea trip: A call for a more globalised EU defence industrial strategy

Security & defence / EPC FLASH ANALYSIS
Juraj Majcin

Date: 27/06/2024

Russian President Vladimir Putin's first visit to North Korea in 24 years has reignited the Cold War-era ties between the two countries. Furthermore, the Treaty on Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, signed by Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, revives the suspended 1961 mutual defence treaty and pledges Moscow and Pyongyang to provide  "military and other assistance" in an armed attack.

Due to severe international sanctions against Russia‘s defence sector, relations between Moscow and North Korea have strengthened significantly since Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine started in February 2022. North Korea has reportedly supplied Russia with 1.6 million artillery shells, vastly surpassing the EU’s contributions to Ukraine. In exchange, Russia has used its veto power in the UN Security Council to block a resolution extending the mandate of the panel of experts tasked with monitoring North Korea's violations of UN sanctions related to its nuclear programme.

In a recent press statement, Putin sidestepped any mention of denuclearising the Korean Peninsula. Instead, he endorsed Pyongyang's "right to take reasonable measures to strengthen its defense capability," promising unspecified technological assistance. This stance has antagonised the US and China, for whom stability and nuclear restraint on the Korean Peninsula are crucial. This concern was underscored in the 27 May Joint Declaration of the Ninth Republic of Korea-Japan-China Trilateral Summit.

Beyond asserting Russia’s geopolitical influence, Putin's visit underscored Moscow's eagerness and ability to obtain weaponry and ammunition from some of its “like-minded” partners to further its war objectives in Ukraine. Russia does not shy away from leveraging its veto power in the UN Security Council or utilising its access to advanced defense technology, including nuclear capabilities. In contrast, the nascent EU defence industrial policy is rather inward looking, lacking strategies for effective engagement between the EU and international partners on defense industry collaboration.

The recently unveiled European Defence Industrial Strategy (EDIS) calls for coordination with NATO and integration of the Ukrainian defence industry into the European Defence Technological and Industrial Base (EDITB). However, it lacks clear provisions for fostering collaboration with counterparts in countries with advanced defence industries (mainly NATO allies), including the UK, US, Türkiye, or South Korea. The latter, feeling threatened by the prospect of Russia’s growing support for North Korea, is contemplating supplying weapons to Ukraine.

The EU's inability to deliver the promised one million artillery shells to Ukraine, contrasted with the relatively successful ongoing Czech Republic's initiative to supply ammunition for Kyiv from third countries, underscores the importance of robust and credible international partnerships for European defence.

A critical task for the new European Commission, and potentially the new Defence Commissioner, must be to remove obstacles hindering a more efficient and integrated defense industry cooperation with third countries. While this would necessitate overcoming several challenges, including navigating export restrictions, managing intellectual property rights, and facilitating technology transfers, this is doable with the necessary political  will. A more strategic approach is essential, representing the EU's best response to Russia's wartime economic mobilisation and exploitation of its global reach.

Juraj Majcin is a Policy Analyst in the Europe in the World Programme.

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