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Putin threatens to arm North Korea, warns U.S. ally South against ‘big mistake’

WorldPutin threatens to arm North Korea, warns U.S. ally South against 'big mistake'

A key U.S. ally fired warning shots Friday — live ones to repel North Korean soldiers and a diplomatic volley to counter Russian President Vladimir Putin, as tensions rise after his new mutual defense pact with Kim Jong Un.

South Korea, which has so far only provided non-lethal aid to Ukraine, said it was considering arming Kyiv in response to a newly forged alliance between Moscow and Pyongyang reminiscent of the Cold War that has alarmed officials in the West.

Putin said that doing so would be a “very big mistake.”

“If this happens, then we will also make appropriate decisions that the current leadership of South Korea would hardly like,” he said during his state visit to Vietnam on Thursday, which immediately followed the lavish Pyongyang visit. “We reserve our right to supply weapons to other regions of the world,” he added.

The Russian president’s saber-rattling continued Friday, when he said that Russia will continue to develop its nuclear arsenal as a deterrent.

When Putin paid a rare visit to his North Korean counterpart in Pyongyang on Wednesday, the two leaders signed a comprehensive strategic partnership that allows for mutual defense in case of an attack as well as military technology transfers that could aid Putin’s war in Ukraine and Kim’s nuclear ambitions.

That angered officials in Seoul, with national security advisor Chang Ho-Jin saying Thursday that “we plan to reconsider the issue of arms support to Ukraine.” In response, Putin drew an equivalence between the West’s arming of Ukraine and raised the prospect of him doing the same for North Korea.

“As for where these weapons will end up, to this we can also say: ‘Well, the Westerners supply weapons to Ukraine’ and say ‘We don’t even control anything here, and it doesn’t matter how they are used’,” he said. 

He continued: “So we can put it in the similar way: ‘We have supplied something to somebody and are not in control over anything after that’.”

Putin’s comments mark the latest intervention by the Kremlin into Asian geopolitics and further escalate tensions between key U.S. allies South Korea and Japan, and an increasingly emboldened North Korea.

“It is incredibly concerning,” State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said in a news conference Thursday. “It would destabilize the Korean Peninsula,” he said.

Seoul summoned the Russian ambassador Georgy Zinoviev on Friday, with South Korea’s foreign ministry issuing a statement demanding that “Russia immediately stop military cooperation with North Korea.” The ministry added that the Kremlin’s support threatens its security and violates U.N. Security Council resolutions. “South Korea will respond resolutely to threats against South Korea’s national security,” the statement said.

Russia’s foreign ministry responded that “attempts at threats and blackmail against Russia are unacceptable,” and that the agreement was bilateral and not aimed at third countries.

The U.S. and South Korea say North Korea has already provided Russia with millions of rounds of ammunition and dozens of ballistic missiles for use in Ukraine. Both Moscow and Pyongyang deny exporting arms, which would violate sanctions.

Commenting on the prospect of South Korea arming Ukraine, Miller said “that is a decision for every country to make in terms of whether they are going to supply weapons to Ukraine.”

South Korean soldiers fired warning shots to repel North Korean soldiers who temporarily crossed the rivals' land border Tuesday for the second time this month, South Korea's military said.
North Korean soldiers work at an undisclosed location near the border, as seen from a South Korean position on Tuesday.AP

It’s against this diplomatic backdrop that North Korean soldiers crossed the border for the third time this month Friday “while working inside the demarcation zone,” according to Seoul’s Joint Chiefs of Staff.The soldiers returned to the North Korean side after South Korean soldiers fired warning shots and blared warning messages, they added. The Koreas technically remain at war since the Korean war ended in 1953 with an armistice instead of a peace treaty.

While Seoul has described the crossings as unintentional, commercial satellite imagery obtained by NBC News showed a new wall-like barrier being erected in the past months along portions of the North Korean side of the demarcation zone (DMZ), which is a 2.5 miles thick buffer zone, half on each side of the border line.

Satellite images show an apparent wall structure on the border in Kangwon, north Korea.
Satellite images show an apparent wall structure on the border in Kangwon, North Korea on Monday.Planet Labs PBC
Satellite images show an apparent wall structure on the border in Kangwon, north Korea.
The same section of land captured on Nov. 8, 2023. Planet Labs PBC

“North Koreans are building wall sections, not a continuous wall across the entire DMZ,” Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, told NBC News.Border tensions have been escalating for a while, with South Korea resuming aerial surveillance near the boundary and declaring null parts of the 2018 military accords. Officials said in November that both decisions were in retaliation to a North Korean satellite launch. Following that exchange, Kim suspended the accords altogether, restoring guard posts along and sending trash-filled balloons over the border.

Easley said the barrier’s construction could violate the armistice agreement, which states that only “persons concerned with the conduct of civil administration and relief” or those authorized by the U.N.’s commission on the armistice are allowed enter the area.

“What they are building is likely directed as much at keeping their countrymen in as it is at keeping the South Koreans out,” said Easley.

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