North Korea, Russia pledge mutual defense, says Putin 

Seoul, South Korea — North Korea and Russia have signed a treaty containing a mutual defense clause, Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un announced Wednesday, during a rare Putin visit to Pyongyang.

Following a day of highly publicized events, Putin and Kim signed a “comprehensive strategic partnership agreement,” formally upgrading relations that have expanded since Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

The text of the agreement has not been released. But following the signing, Putin said the deal contains a clause that “provides for the provision of mutual assistance in the event of aggression against one of the parties,” according to Russia’s Interfax news agency.

Following the signing ceremony, Kim called Russia the “most honest friend and comrade,” insisting the treaty is peaceful and defensive in nature, according to Russian state media.

The development is sure to rattle Western leaders, who have condemned Russia-North Korea cooperation as a violation of international law. U.S. officials accuse North Korea of supplying Russia with thousands of containers of munitions, including ballistic missiles, for use on the Ukraine battlefield.

“Kim Jong Un has been able to extract more concessions than we thought he would be able to from his support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,” said a Korea specialist and professor of international relations at King’s College London.

French far-right leader Bardella backs Ukraine, but would not send long-range missiles

Paris — French far-right leader Jordan Bardella said on Wednesday that he backed Ukraine’s right to defend itself against Russia, but if elected prime minister he would not provide Kyiv with missiles that would allow it to strike Russia’s territory.  

He also said he would standby France’s commitments to the NATO military alliance if he became prime minister.  

Bardella’s National Rally (RN) party leads opinion polls ahead of June 30 and July 7 snap parliamentary elections, which has led to questions over the foreign policy implications if they win enough seats to form a government.  

“I wish for Ukraine to have at disposal the ammunition and equipment it needs to hold the front, but my red line will not change, which is sending equipment that could have consequences of escalation in eastern Europe,” Bardella told reporters at the Eurosatory arms fair near Paris.  

“And so I don’t plan to send, especially, long-range missiles or other weapons that will allow Ukraine to strike the Russian territory. My position has not changed and will not change – it’s about support for Ukraine and avoiding all risks of escalation in the region. And I think the risk of escalation is of course real.”  

Even if the RN was to run France’s government, Emmanuel Macron would remain as president, and the head of France’s army.  

But the constitution also gives the prime minister a role in terms of defense, with the division of power not clear cut.

Macron would lose control over the domestic agenda, including economic policy, security, immigration and finances, which would in turn impact other policies, such as aid to Ukraine, as he would need parliament’s backing to finance any support as part of France’s annual budget. 

Bardella also said he would keep France’s commitments towards its partners, including on increasing defense spending.

“I don’t plan to put into question the commitments made by France on the international level, because there’s a stake regarding credibility towards our European partners as well as towards our NATO allies,” he said.

“And so I plan to pursue the efforts of rearmament of the country, both in terms of its defense capabilities, increasing the military budget through budgetary efforts put in place in past years, which we have supported,” he added. 

Strict asylum rules, poor treatment of migrants push people north to UK

AMBLETEUSE, France — The rising tide crept above their waists, soaking the babies they hugged tight. Around a dozen Kurds refused to leave the cold waters of the English Channel in a futile attempt to delay the inevitable: French police had just foiled their latest attempt to reach the United Kingdom by boat.

The men, women and children were trapped again on the last frontier of their journey from Iraq and Iran. They hoped that a rubber dinghy would get them to better lives with housing, schooling and work. Now it disappeared on the horizon, only a few of its passengers aboard.

On the beach of the quiet northern French town of Ambleteuse, police pleaded for the migrants to leave the 10-degree Celsius water, so cold it can kill within minutes. Do it for the children’s sake, they argued.

“The boat is go!” an increasingly irritated officer shouted in French-accented English. “It’s over! It’s over!”

The asylum-seekers finally emerged from the sea defeated, but there was no doubt that they would try to reach the U.K. again. They would not find the haven they needed in France, or elsewhere in the European Union.

Europe’s increasingly strict asylum rules, growing xenophobia and hostile treatment of migrants were pushing them north. While the U.K. government has been hostile, too, many migrants have family or friends in the U.K. and a perception they will have more opportunities there.

EU rules stipulate that a person must apply for asylum in the first member state they land in. This has overwhelmed countries on the edge of the 27-nation bloc such as Italy, Greece and Spain.

Some migrants don’t even try for new lives in the EU anymore. They are flying to France from as far away as Vietnam to attempt the Channel crossing after failing to get permission to enter the U.K., which has stricter visa requirements.

“No happy here,” said Adam, an Iraqi father of six who was among those caught on the beach in a recent May morning. He refused to provide his last name due to his uncertain legal status in France. He had failed to find schooling and housing for his children in France and had grown frustrated with the asylum office’s lack of answers about his case. He thought things would be better in the U.K., he said.

While the number of people entering the EU without permission is nowhere near as high as during a 2015-2016 refugee crisis, far-right parties across Europe, including in France, have exploited migration to the continent and made big electoral wins in the most recent European Parliamentary elections. Their rhetoric, and the treatment already faced by many people on the French coast and elsewhere in the bloc, clash with the stated principles of solidarity, openness and respect for human dignity that underpin the democratic EU, human rights advocates note.

In recent months, the normally quiet beaches around Dunkirk, Calais and Boulogne-Sur-Mer have become the stage of cat-and-mouse games — even violent clashes — between police and smugglers. Police have fired tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets. Smugglers have hurled stones.

While boat crossings across the Channel represent only a tiny fraction of migration to the U.K., France agreed last year to hold migrants back in exchange for hundreds of millions of euros. It’s an agreement akin to deals made between the European Union and North African nations in recent years. And while many people have been stopped by police, they are not offered alternative solutions and are bound to try crossing again.

About 10,500 people have reached England in small boats in the first five months of the year, some 37% more than the same time period last year, according to data published by the U.K.’s Home Office.

The heightened border surveillance is increasing risks and ultimately leading to more deaths, closer to shore, said Salomé Bahri, a coordinator with the nongovernmental organization Utopia 56, which helps migrants stranded in France. At least 20 people have died so far this year trying to reach the U.K., according to Utopia 56. That’s nearly as many as died in all of last year, according to statistics published by the International Organization of Migration.

People are rushing to avoid being caught by authorities and there are more fatalities, Bahri said. In late April, five people died, including a 7-year-old girl who was crushed inside a rubber boat after more than 110 people boarded it frantically trying to escape police.

Putin’s visit puts Vietnam in ‘difficult position’ with ‘no breakthrough,’ experts say

WASHINGTON — Russian President Vladimir Putin’s upcoming visit to Vietnam will put the Southeast Asian country in a difficult position and could even be seen as risky for Hanoi, according to three international relations experts who spoke on Monday to VOA. They expected no breakthrough from the visit.

Putin is scheduled to visit Vietnam on Wednesday and Thursday, after his Tuesday-Wednesday trip to North Korea.

Risks for Hanoi

“Hosting Putin in a combined trip that brings him to North Korea is bad optics for Hanoi and will bring some risks. This may make Vietnam less trustful in the eyes of the West, Japan and South Korea. But on the other hand, Hanoi would gain more trust in the eyes of Russia,” said Alexander Vuving, a professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu.

According to Vuving, the link between Putin’s visits to North Korea and Vietnam lies mostly in logistics: It makes more sense for Putin’s schedule to go to these countries in one trip rather than in two separate trips.

“But it also highlights the fact that Vietnam, like North Korea, is a close friend of Russia,” he said.

Nguyen Ngoc Truong, former president of the Center for Strategic Studies and International Development, a government-affiliated think tank in Hanoi, said Vietnam had sent a message telling Russia they did not want Putin to combine the North Korea and Vietnam stops in one trip “because it could cause international misunderstandings.”

But the combined trip will still take place because “in terms of foreign affairs, Vietnam must consider all aspects,” Truong said.

‘Traditional and dearest friend’

Truong pointed out that the Vietnamese leadership is grateful for the assistance Vietnam received in past wars from the former Soviet Union. Therefore, they consider Russia a “traditional and dearest friend.”

“Vietnamese people, especially those who understand geopolitics, cannot turn their backs on their friends because of immediate events. Russians stood shoulder to shoulder with Vietnam through the darkest and happiest moments, including assisting with weapons,” Truong said.

Hoang Viet, a Ho Chi Minh City Law University lecturer and international dispute expert, stressed that Vietnam “does not want to lose its long-standing relationship” with Russia, a major power holding a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. Viet noted that Russia has never had any disputes or conflicts with Vietnam.

“Given the current harsh Western sanctions, Putin’s visit puts Vietnam in a difficult position. But Vietnam still has to maintain its relations because with the Vietnamese way of thinking, they must honor traditional friendship,” Viet observed.

Relationship with U.S.

Just nine months ago, Vietnam welcomed U.S. President Joe Biden, and on that occasion, Hanoi and Washington upgraded their relationship to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, on par with the relationship that Vietnam had for many years with Russia, China and a few other countries.

Viet noted that while the U.S. views Vietnam as an important player in its Indo-Pacific strategy, Vietnam still largely relies on Russian weapons for its defense strength. Therefore, Vietnam must balance its relations with Russia and the U.S.

“No country should give Putin a platform to promote his war of aggression and otherwise allow him to normalize his atrocities,” a spokesperson for the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi told Reuters on Monday when asked about the impact of the visit on ties with the United States.

“If he is able to travel freely, it could normalize Russia’s blatant violations of international law,” the spokesperson added, referring to the invasion of Ukraine that Putin launched in February 2022.

The Hague-based International Criminal Court in March 2023 issued an arrest warrant for the Russian president over alleged war crimes in Ukraine. Vietnam, Russia and the U.S. are not members of the ICC.

No breakthrough expected

Viet expected that during the visit, Russia and Vietnam would enter into deals on weapons and oil and gas, which he called “traditional deals,” while Hanoi tries “not to violate Western sanctions.” 

Truong expected there would be no special outcomes, saying “It will be just a friendly visit. There will probably not be any breakthroughs between the two countries. Military and defense cooperation in the current situation is unlikely to develop at all.”

Vuving said he thought the top issues likely to be discussed by Vietnam and Russia will be the ways to boost bilateral trade in the face of Western sanctions, cooperation in the energy sector, including oil, gas, solar and nuclear energy, and Vietnam’s purchase of weapons from Russia.

“Issues like payments and direct flights will likely be high on the agenda, as they are critical for restoring bilateral trade,” Vuving said.

He assessed that “Russia will benefit more from the visit.”

Noting that Vietnam will be the farthest destination for Putin since his invasion of Ukraine, Vuving commented that the visit will show that after the invasion, “many friends remain loyal to Moscow. These friends are not only in Russia’s neighborhood, and some are friends to Russia not because they are enemies of the West,” he said.

“But Vietnam also benefits from the visit as it helps to gain more trust from Russia and helps to keep Russia on Vietnam’s side in the South China Sea disputes with China,” he said.

Neutral stance toward war

Vuving added that Vietnam has been trying to maintain a largely neutral stance toward the war in Ukraine. However, the hosting of Putin will carry big risks to this stance.

Viet said despite trying to balance its heart for both Ukraine and Russia, two former Soviet republics that provided colossal help to Vietnam, Hanoi still leans more to one side.

“Russia’s strength is different; Russia is also a great power. In geopolitics, interests are important. Vietnam finds more benefits in Russia than in Ukraine. Since the beginning of the war, the Vietnamese government still seems more inclined to maintain relations with Russia than with Ukraine,” Viet said.

Truong commented, “Ukrainians may not like this trip, but they are also a people who have gone through many tough and tragic events in their history, and they understand everything very well. As a country living next to a giant neighbor [like Vietnam], they have similar views and similar feelings.”

The oligarch, Russia and the West: The battle for Georgia’s future

Tbilisi, Georgia — On top of a steep hill overlooking Tbilisi, tucked behind the city’s ancient fortress, sits a sprawling, futuristic $50 million mansion that locals call “the glass palace.” A shark tank, private zoo and helipad lie within the heavily guarded compound. Its owner, Bidzina Ivanishvili, reportedly calls it his “James Bond” house.

Ivanishvili is Georgia’s richest citizen by far. The 68-year-old multibillionaire founder of the ruling Georgian Dream party was rarely seen in public for much of the last decade — but he is now pulling the strings of Georgian politics, according to Eka Gigauri, head of the anti-corruption group Transparency International in Georgia.

“Ivanishvili is the real ruler of this country,” Gigauri said. “He owns one-third of Georgian GDP, and he made his fortune in Russia in the late ’90s. He still has the interests in Russia through his offshore companies — and not only him but his family members as well. …

“Is it possible to expect, or is it realistic to expect, from such an individual that he will do everything for Georgia to become the EU and NATO member? I don’t think so,” Gigauri told VOA.

Ivanishvili, for his part, has rarely spoken in public since a brief term as prime minister in 2012-13 apart from a speech in late April in which he defended a controversial “foreign agent” law as needed to prevent foreign intelligence agencies from undermining the government through the financing of nongovernmental organizations.

West vs Russia

Analysts say Georgia is torn between a future aligned with the West or with Russia.

Protests erupted in March this year after the government introduced the “foreign agent” law, which requires any organization receiving more than 20% of its funding from foreign sources to register as a foreign agent. It closely resembles similar legislation in Russia which has forced many nongovernmental and media organizations to close or move abroad.

The protests against the legislation in Georgia have evolved into anti-government demonstrations, as the country prepares for crucial elections in October.

Ghia Nodia, a political analyst at Georgia’s Ilia State University, said, “With this so-called Russian law or foreign agent law, [Georgian Dream] effectively turned its back on Europe, even though they don’t admit to it openly.”

EU aspirations

The Georgian government insists it still wants to join the European Union by 2030, although the bloc has warned that the foreign agent law could derail that process. The EU granted official candidate status to Georgia last year, hoping to set it on the path to democratic reform and Western integration. But the West misread Georgia’s billionaire puppet master, Nodia said.

“The Georgian state has been captured by a specific person — Bidzina Ivanishvili — who is very secretive, whose agenda was not clear for people,” Nodia said. “Some people, including in the West, had illusions that he was maybe a little bit of a strange guy, but ultimately he is also committed to values and norms of Western democracy.

“But they were proved wrong and skeptics were proved right, unfortunately. And it appears that he never had any real kind of commitment to democratic norms,” Nodia told VOA.

 

Protests

The streets of Tbilisi have become a canvas for anti-government graffiti. Alongside EU, U.S., Georgian and NATO colors, protesters have daubed the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag — a show of solidarity as Kyiv tries to resist Russian occupation and domination. One slogan reads “Georgia is Ukraine; Ukraine is Georgia.”

Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine forced Ivanishvili and his Georgian Dream party into the limelight, said Nodia.

The invasion “somehow put him on the spot that he had to take sides more clearly. He didn’t want to. But eventually he moved more in the Russian direction, even though Georgian Dream tries to hide it, not to say it openly. Ivanishvili made a strategic decision that Russia is winning this war, so we should stay with the winner, or prospective winner, as he saw it,” Nodia said.

Stoking fear

At a government-organized rally in April aimed at countering the opposition demonstrations, Ivanishvili said a Western “global party of war” was meddling in Georgia, citing a host of conspiracy theories about the role of nongovernmental organizations in the country. His party accuses the West of trying to persuade Georgia to open a new conflict against Russia, without providing any evidence.

The propaganda is part a well-rehearsed autocratic playbook, said Aka Zarkua of the Governance Monitoring Center in Tbilisi, a nongovernmental organization that tracks government spending and communications.

“The main propaganda line right now is that if we [Georgian Dream] are out of power, war with Russia is inevitable. So that is one of the biggest things. And as a country which experienced Russian aggression three or four times in the last 30 years, and a population traumatized by this experience, it is working,” Zarkua said.

“They are trying to portray the West and Western countries — especially the United States and European Union — as some kind of enemy of Georgian traditional interests and family values,” Zarkua said.

The government denies stoking public fear. Fridon Injia, an MP with the European Socialists party who voted for the foreign agent law, told VOA the government is seeking to carve its own independent future.

“The main goal of the Georgian government now is to maintain peace, because we have seen what the war has done to other countries. So, it’s our main goal to maintain peace and for the Georgian government to avoid any kind of provocation that could spark a military conflict,” Injia said.

 

Western mistakes

Since regaining independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Georgia has received financial and political support from the West. In addition to its EU aspirations, Georgia is a close partner of NATO, and the alliance decided in 2008 that the country would become a future member, although no timeline has been agreed upon.

So why has Georgia strayed from its path to Western integration?

“If we’re talking about Western mistakes, the biggest mistake was the overall assumption about the threat of Russia and tyranny — that it was a headache, but not a fundamental threat,” said Giga Bokeria, chairperson of the European Georgia party and the secretary of the National Security Council of Georgia from November 2010 to November 2013.

“Even after the 2008 invasion in Georgia, even after the 2014 invasion in Ukraine, there was no shift in understanding that this is a fundamental battle, and that resetting the relationship [with Russia] was only empowering the heirs of the evil empire of the Soviet Union,” Bokeria said.

“So, it’s a lack of focus, lack of attention, and overall, a misunderstanding that what’s going on in Georgia is part of this bigger confrontation with Russia. But now I think … that after this full-scale invasion in Ukraine we now see an overall turn to a sober understanding of the challenge,” Bokeria told VOA.

Backlash

The Geogian  government was taken by surprise at the strength of the backlash to the foreign agent law, which has politicized younger generations, said analyst Ghia Nodia.

“Some people say that now we are actually more optimistic than we were in February or March before this law was introduced. Because this law and protest woke up the Georgian people. We are kind of facing a precipice,” he said.

While there is optimism that the October election could bring a change of geopolitical direction in Georgia, it’s clear that the government — and its billionaire master Ivanishvili — won’t relinquish power without a fight.

Russia’s Fulbright scholars risk severe repercussions if they return home

In March 2024, the Russian government branded the Institute of International Education, which grants Fulbright scholarships, as an “undesirable” organization, banning it from operating in the country and making association with it potentially illegal. Now, Russian Fulbright scholars who are currently abroad could face repercussions when they return home. Maxim Adams has the story.

Russian involvement in China’s moon exploration divides space research camps

Washington — China aims to mark a new milestone in space exploration next week when its Chang’e-6 probe is expected to return to Earth from the far side of the moon with rock and soil samples.

Scientists involved in the project say the probe is likely to bring back a “treasure trove” of material that will shed light on the differences between the front and back of Earth’s satellite.

James Head is an American planetary scientist and professor of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences at Brown University.  He has 15 years of experience in cooperating with the Chinese scientific community and participated in the research for the Chang’e-6 lunar landing.

He told VOA in a video interview that the samples brought back by Chang’e-6 from the far side of the moon will be “a treasure chest of fragments of materials, all of which are going to tell us something about why the moon is different on the near side and the far side. It’s just amazing.”

“It’s going to be an international treasure trove of information for space planetary scientists,” he added.

The strength of China’s space science and technology, demonstrated by the Chang’e series of lunar exploration projects, has also attracted the participation of other countries.

The European Space Agency, France, Italy, and Pakistan responded to the “Chang’e-6 Mission International Payload Cooperation Opportunity Announcement” released by the China National Space Administration in 2019.

They were selected to carry out exploration on the lunar surface and lunar orbit.

Head said, “Not every country has the ability to launch rockets to the moon. So, if you can use your capability, then that’s a big deal for international relationships for the countries — essentially the way they’re perceived in the world.”

The mission, which comes 55 years after the U.S. first sent humans to the moon, has attracted the attention and participation of European and American scientists.  However, it also comes at a time when geopolitical tensions are pulling Russia and China closer together to counter Western democracies.  Analysts worry that our lunar exploration and space research are quickly being divided into two camps as well.

As China makes significant progress in its lunar program, it is also actively courting other countries to form a parallel alliance with the U.S.-led lunar exploration program.

China and Russia have been planning to cooperate in building the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) since 2021. On June 12, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law approving the cooperation agreement signed by Russia and China last year on the joint construction of the ILRS.

Countries currently participating in the ILRS initiative also include Venezuela, Pakistan, South Africa, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Nicaragua and a university in the United Arab Emirates.

Namrata Goswami, lecturer in space policy and international relations at the Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University, told VOA, “They’re (China is) actually changing the narrative to tell nations that want to collaborate with them, that their station is like a strategic high ground, and nations that actually collaborate with China will benefit from this particular focus, which is space resource utilization, and they have stated that officially now.”

The Chinese government has said it adheres to the peaceful use of space, but Western analysts have questioned China’s motives for developing the moon.

Todd Harrison, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, told VOA in an email, “China tends to have a more mercantilist view of the moon that aligns with its authoritarian form of government, which is in stark contrast to the open, transparent, and free market approach of the United States and its partners.”

China has even proposed establishing an Earth-Moon space economic zone and has drawn up a roadmap for it with an annual “total output value of more than US$10 trillion” by around 2050.

Harrison said, “China’s main partner for its lunar research base is Russia, and they have managed to attract a handful of other nations to join them, most of which have no significant space capabilities or financial resources to contribute.”

In contrast, NASA and the U.S. State Department jointly launched the Artemis Accords in 2020, reaching a multilateral arrangement with more than 30 countries, including Australia, Canada, Japan, the United Kingdom, France, and Italy, stipulating the principles of civil exploration and cooperation among the contracting parties in outer space.

Neither China nor Russia have joined the agreement initiated by the U.S. Dmitry Rogozin, former head of Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, even said that the Artemis Accords were “illegal” and not in compliance with international law.

“You do see a very clear strategic alignment structure forming, also very long-term clear ambitions as to what each coalition is hoping to do,” said Goswami.

Experts say the lunar exploration race of China and Russia versus the U.S. is about more than just resource extraction.

Harrison said, “This is really about setting precedent for how space commerce will be conducted and establishing norms of behavior for activities on the moon. A key component of this race is building international partnerships with shared values and a shared understanding of how the lunar economy should work for the benefit of all. In this respect, China has fallen behind the United States and the free world.”

For the European Space Agency, the Chang’e-6 may be their last lunar exploration experiment in cooperation with China, according to an interview posted on the website SpaceNews.

“For the moment there are no decisions to continue the cooperation on the Chang’e-7 or -8,” Karl Bergquist, ESA’s international relations administrator, he told SpaceNews.

China plans its next lunar probes in the Chang’e series around 2026 and from 2028.

Bergquist also told SpaceNews the ESA will not be involved in the China-led ILRS.

“ESA will not cooperate on ILRS as this is a Sino-Russian initiative and space cooperation with Russia is at present under embargo,” he said.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, the European Union, together with the U.S., has imposed embargoes and sanctions on several Russian industries, including a technical embargo on the Russian space industry. The European Space Agency has also terminated its planned lunar exploration project with Russia.

Meanwhile, China has stepped-up its space cooperation with Russia, including allowing Moscow Power Engineering Institute to open a branch at its newest spaceport on southern Hainan Island.

Europe and China’s space technology cooperation will continue at least until the Chang’e-6 probe lands back on Earth. The ESA is offering ground support for the return flight from its Maspalomas space station in Gran Canaria island in Spain.

The probe is scheduled to land at a site in Inner Mongolia around June 25.  

Putin to arrive in North Korea, with new treaty in focus

Seoul, South Korea — Russian President Vladimir Putin is set to arrive Tuesday in North Korea, where he is expected to sign a treaty outlining Moscow’s expanded cooperation with Pyongyang, according to Russian state media.

Putin has decided to sign a comprehensive strategic partnership agreement with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during his two-day visit, reported the Russian news agency TASS.

The report provided no details of the document, though earlier the agency quoted a Putin foreign policy aide as saying it would likely cover defense matters.

Earlier Tuesday, Putin vowed to work with North Korea to counter sanctions as both countries expand their “many-sided partnership,” according to a letter published in North Korean state media.

In the letter, Putin said the two countries would develop trade mechanisms “not controlled by the West” and would “jointly oppose illegitimate unilateral restrictions.”

Russia is a long-time supporter of North Korea. Though ties have sometimes been rocky, both countries recently found more reasons to work together, especially following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

U.S. officials say North Korea has provided Russia with 11,000 containers of munitions, as well as ballistic missiles, for use in the Ukraine battlefield. Both North Korea and Russia deny such weapons deals even though a growing number of independent observers have documented North Korean weapons being used against Ukrainian forces.

“Moscow and Pyongyang will likely continue to deny violations of international law but have notably shifted from hiding their illicit activities to flaunting their cooperation,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.

Defense ties

U.S. officials have expressed concerns that Russia may provide advanced weapons or other help related to North Korea’s nuclear program.

Such worries intensified last September when Kim inspected numerous advanced Russian weapons while touring several military sites in eastern Russia, including a modern space launch facility.

Though North Korea’s latest satellite launches showed signs of Russian assistance, analysts debate how far defense cooperation would go, noting that Russia does not often share its most advanced military technology.

“These states do not share durable alliance institutions and values; they are only weakly bound together by resistance to the enforcement of international laws and norms,” said Easley.

Treaty history

Analysts will closely parse the language of any new treaty signed by Putin and Kim.

Russia currently has comprehensive strategic partnerships with countries including Vietnam, Mongolia, and some Central Asian nations.

While such documents form the basis for Russia’s “highest type of interstate relations,” they do not amount to alliance treaties, observed former Russian diplomat Georgy Toloraya.

“I don’t think that this treaty would include a clause which directly calls for military assistance, but it will certainly give room to imagine a situation where this could be provided,” he said in an interview with VOA.

In 1961, North Korea and the Soviet Union signed a friendship and mutual assistance treaty that included a provision for automatic military intervention in emergencies.

That deal was abolished after the Soviet Union’s collapse. The two countries signed a new treaty in 2000, but it focused on economic rather than military matters.

According to Putin aide Yuri Ushakov, the treaty being negotiated by Kim and Putin would replace all other bilateral treaties.

Obstacles

If Putin’s letter is any indication, his visit will also likely focus on expanding economic ties, including by ramping up exchanges related to education, culture, and tourism.

However, this plan faces obstacles due to United Nations Security Council resolutions that prohibit a wide range of economic engagement with North Korea.

While Russia says it no longer supports U.N. sanctions on North Korea, it has not formally announced that it will stop observing them.

Instead, Russia may search for what it sees as loopholes that facilitate cooperation even in areas that are subject to U.N. sanctions, such as North Korean laborers earning income abroad.

For instance, North Korean IT specialists could work remotely from their home country without technically receiving income abroad, said Toloraya, a former member of the U.N. Panel of Experts, which was meant to monitor enforcement of the North Korea sanctions.

Russia earlier this year effectively abolished the U.N. panel – one of its boldest steps to unilaterally degrade the U.N. sanctions regime it once supported.

What North Korea wants

For Kim, Putin’s visit is meant to provide a boost in domestic legitimacy, especially amid North Korea’s increasingly public frictions with its main economic backer China, said Kim Gunn, who earlier this year stepped down as South Korea’s top nuclear envoy.

“North Koreans feel nervous about that, because their economy is 99% dependent on China,” said Kim, who is now a member of South Korea’s National Assembly. “Kim Jong Un’s answer is to say, ‘Don’t worry, we still have Russia.”

In the lawmaker’s view, Kim Jong Un also likely hopes that Putin’s visit will give him leverage with Chinese President Xi Jinping, creating a situation where both Russia and China vie for North Korea’s favor.

But, Kim Gunn added, the new Russia-North Korea relationship is likely a “marriage of convenience,” rather than a restoration of Soviet-era ties.

“Russia is not the former Soviet Union,” he said. “And Russia is at war in Ukraine – they are pouring all their energy into this war. There’s not so much room for Russia to do anything with North Korea.”

Biden hosts NATO chief ahead of Ukraine-focused security alliance summit

U.S. President Joe Biden hosted NATO’s chief on Monday, less than a month before the newly enlarged security alliance converges in Washington for its annual summit. At the White House, the two leaders spoke of how they will “ensure predictable support to Ukraine for the long haul.” VOA’s Anita Powell reports from the White House.

Biden hosts NATO chief ahead of Ukraine-focused summit of security alliance

The White House — President Joe Biden hosted NATO’s chief at the White House on Monday, less than a month before the newly enlarged security alliance convenes in Washington to tackle how allies will continue to support Ukraine as it battles Russia’s invasion.

The aim at the July summit, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said, is to “ensure predictable support to Ukraine for the long haul.”

But how to make that a solid and durable reality – amid the political baggage and diverse laws and systems of governance of all 32 NATO members – is likely to be a complex feat. Ukraine badly wants the one thing it most certainly won’t get at this three-day convening: to join.

Among the arguments against Ukraine’s NATO membership are that its fragile and developing institutions need more time to mature, and the fact that the nation is being currently invaded. The alliance’s most important tenet – Article 5 – says that an armed attack against one member is an attack on all. This has been invoked only once before, when members rushed to the U.S.’s defense after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Earlier Monday, VOA asked Stoltenberg how soon Ukraine would get its wish.

“It is difficult, of course, to invite Ukraine when there is a war going on,” he said. “On the other hand, it’s also hard to say that there is no way to do that as long as there is a conflict with Russia, because that (gives) Russia incentive to continue the conflict.

“So what we say is that we are going to move Ukraine closer by helping them to meet all NATO standards to be more and more interoperable with NATO by removing the requirements for Membership Action Plan, and also by deepening political cooperation in the NATO Ukraine Council, and then we will make a decision when the time is right,” Stoltenberg added.

And when pressed for when that time might be, he replied: “I don’t expect any dates. At the end of the day, this has to be negotiated among NATO allies and we are working on that language now. So that will be agreed when we meet in Washington in a few week’s time,” he said. “I expect that we will find an agreement on some language which sends a clear message about Ukraine’s membership perspectives and that Ukraine will become a member of the alliance.”

Biden, in welcoming Stoltenberg, hailed the 75th anniversary and touted what he cast as a victory: a “record number” of members, he said, are meeting NATO’s commitment to spend at least 2% of their GDP on defense.

“I think the lessons we’ve learned then, and about standing together to defend and deter aggression, have been consequential,” he said, seated beside Stoltenberg in the Oval Office. “And we’ve made NATO under your leadership larger, stronger and more united than it has ever been.”

Earlier Monday, Stoltenberg, the former Norwegian prime minister, said NATO allies have given “unprecedented” support to Ukraine. He estimates this will cost the alliance at least $45 billion per year going forward.

“At the (upcoming NATO) summit, I expect other leaders to agree for NATO to lead the coordination and provision of security assistance and training for Ukraine,” Stoltenberg said, speaking at the Wilson Center, a Washington think tank. “It is also why I proposed a long-term financial pledge with fresh funding every year. The more credible our long-term support, the quicker Moscow would realize it cannot wait us out and the sooner this war can end. It may seem like a paradox, but the path to peace is, therefore, more weapons for Ukraine.”

Analysts say these discussions set the stage for the major questions of the upcoming summit.

“The main issues, still, are what does the alliance say to Ukraine after pledges of support over the last few weeks? What is the nature of the NATO-Ukraine relationship going forward?” said Dan Hamilton, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “NATO is taking over from the United States the military assistance and coordination of military training for Ukraine. That’s a major step that’s happening right now.”

Last week, Ukraine’s president praised a 10-year security agreement with the U.S., saying he believes it lays a path to NATO membership.

“The issue of NATO is covered through the text of the agreement,” said President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. “It states that America supports Ukraine’s future membership in NATO and recognizes that our security agreement is a bridge to Ukraine’s membership in NATO.”

Washington, Seoul sound alarm over Putin’s visit to Pyongyang

washington — Washington and Seoul have expressed alarm about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s upcoming visit to Pyongyang, while Beijing says it has no intention of interfering with the cooperation between Russia and North Korea.

Putin will pay a state visit to North Korea on Tuesday and Wednesday, the North’s official KCNA news agency announced on Monday. His trip to Pyongyang will be followed by a two-day state visit to Vietnam, where discussions will touch on trade and economic cooperation, the Kremlin said Monday.

The South Korean Foreign Ministry said it opposes Moscow and Pyongyang deepening their military cooperation through Putin’s trip to the country.

“All cooperation and exchanges between Russia and North Korea will need to abide by relevant U.N. Security Council resolutions and contribute toward the peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula,” a spokesperson told VOA’s Korean Service on Monday.

Putin’s visit to the country, the first in 24 years, comes amid increased military cooperation between Moscow and Pyongyang.

North Korea has transferred approximately 10,000 containers that could hold nearly 5 million artillery shells to Russia to fight against Ukraine, South Korean Defense Minister Shin Won-sik said in an interview with Bloomberg News on Friday.   

All arms exports and imports by North Korea are sanctioned by the U.N. Security Council.

Both Pyongyang and Moscow have denied any arms dealings between them.

Putin’s trip to Pyongyang is expected to increase military cooperation that officially kicked off when North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visited Russia in September 2023. Kim invited Putin to Pyongyang during his visit to Russia.

“We discourage any government from receiving President Putin,” a State Department spokesperson told VOA’s Korean Service on June 12.

“If he is able to travel freely, it could normalize Russia’s blatant violations of international law and inadvertently send the message that atrocities can be committed in Ukraine and elsewhere with impunity,” the spokesperson said.

Deepening cooperation between Russia and North Korea poses concern for the Korean Peninsula as well as for Ukraine as it defends its “freedom and independence against Russia’s brutal war,” the spokesperson added.

After the International Criminal Court in The Hague issued an arrest warrant for Putin in March 2023 for Russia’s alleged war crimes in Ukraine since its unprovoked invasion of the country in February 2022, Putin is limited in his international travels to allied countries.

Since his new presidential term began in May, Putin has visited Belarus, China and Uzbekistan.

In the meantime, Liu Pengyu, a spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, told VOA on Thursday that “China has no intention [of] interfer[ing] with the exchange and cooperation between two sovereign countries.”

He said, “Both DPRK and Russia are China’s friendly neighbors.” North Korea’s official name is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

China and Russia, both veto-wielding permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, have supported North Korea at council meetings held in the past several years by opposing new U.S.-led resolutions condemning North Korea’s ballistic missile launches banned by the U.N.

In March, Moscow vetoed a resolution granting the annual extension of a U.N. panel of experts that monitors sanctions on North Korea while Beijing abstained.

Michael Kimmage, who served on the U.S. State Department’s Policy Planning staff on Russia and Ukraine from 2014 to 2016, said, “Putin wishes to forge a long-term relationship with North Korea, and this would be reflected” in his visit to Pyongyang.

“Not only does North Korea supply Russia with weaponry to use in its war against Ukraine, but a more radical North Korea will pin the resources of Russia’s archenemy, the United States, in East Asia, helping to create a third zone of difficulty for Washington, in addition to Europe and the Middle East,” Kimmage said.

Kimmage, currently the chair at Catholic University of America’s history department, added that Russia’s other partner, China, may not want Pyongyang to be more provocative and may not be pleased with deepening ties between Moscow and Pyongyang.

Earlier this month, Putin threatened to arm the West’s adversaries with long-range missiles that could target the West in response to NATO members, including the U.S., allowing Ukraine to use Western-supplied weapons to target inside Russia.

Evans Revere, a former U.S. State Department official with extensive experience negotiating with North Korea, said Putin’s meeting with Kim in Pyongyang “could reveal the details of Russian support for North Korea.”

“Pyongyang is reportedly interested in missile guidance, engine and fuel technologies, avionics upgrades for its aircraft and assistance with its nuclear program,” he said.

Revere added, “Russia has a significant strategic and tactical interest in complicating the security calculus of the United States and its allies in Northeast Asia. Putin’s visit will soon demonstrate how far Moscow is prepared to go in pursuing that interest.”

VOA’s Soyoung Ahn contributed to this report.

Russia and the West battle for Georgia’s democratic future

The European Union granted official candidate status to Georgia last year, but analysts say that led by the country’s richest man, the government has turned toward Russia following the 2022 invasion of Ukraine. Critics warn that Georgia’s democratic future is at stake in October’s elections. Henry Ridgwell reports from Tbilisi.

EU countries approve landmark nature law after delays

BRUSSELS — European Union countries approved a flagship policy to restore damaged nature on Monday, after months of delay, making it the first green law to pass since European Parliament elections this month. 

The nature restoration law is among the EU’s biggest environmental policies, requiring member states to introduce measures restoring nature on a fifth of their land and sea by 2030. 

EU countries’ environment ministers backed the policy at a meeting in Luxembourg, meaning it can now pass into law. 

The vote was held after Austria’s environment minister, Leonore Gewessler of the Greens, defied her conservative coalition partners by pledging to back the policy — giving it just enough support to pass. 

“I know I will face opposition in Austria on this, but I am convinced that this is the time to adopt this law,” Gewessler told reporters. 

The policy aims to reverse the decline of Europe’s natural habitats — 81% of which are classed as being in poor health — and includes specific targets, for example to restore peat lands so they can absorb CO2 emissions. 

The move by Austria’s minister angered Chancellor Karl Nehammer’s conservative People’s Party, which opposes the law. The OVP minister for EU affairs, Karoline Edtstadler, said Gewessler’s vote in favor would be unconstitutional. 

Belgium, which holds the EU’s rotating presidency and chairs meetings of ministers, said the Austrian government dispute would not affect the legality of the EU ministers’ vote. 

EU countries and the European Parliament negotiated a deal on the law last year but it has come under fire from some governments in recent months amid protests by farmers angry at costly EU regulations. 

Finland, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland and Sweden voted against the law on Monday. Belgium abstained. 

EU countries had planned to approve the policy in March but called off the vote after Hungary unexpectedly withdrew its support, wiping out the slim majority in favor. 

Countries including the Netherlands had raised concerns the policy would slow the expansion of wind farms and other economic activities, while Poland on Monday said the policy lacked a plan for how nature protection would be funded.

Stoltenberg: Record number of NATO allies hitting defense spending targets during war in Ukraine

Washington — A record more than 20 NATO member nations are hitting the Western military alliance’s defense spending target this year, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Monday, as Russia’s war in Ukraine has raised the threat of expanding conflict in Europe.

The estimated figure is a nearly fourfold increase from 2021 in the number of the 32 NATO members meeting the alliance’s defense spending guideline. Only six nations were meeting the goal that year, before Russian President Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

“Europeans are doing more for their collective security than just a few years ago,” Stoltenberg said in a speech at the Wilson Center research group before meeting with President Joe Biden later Monday at the White House.

NATO members agreed last year to spend at least 2% of their gross domestic product on defense. The surge in spending reflects the worries about the war in Ukraine.

Some countries also are concerned about the possible reelection of former President Donald Trump, who has characterized many NATO allies as freeloading on U.S. military spending and said on the campaign trail that he would not defend NATO members that don’t meet defense spending targets.

Stoltenberg’s visit is laying the groundwork for what’s expected to be a pivotal summit of NATO leaders in Washington next month. The mutual-defense alliance has grown in strength and size since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine two years ago, with both Sweden and Finland joining.

Defense spending by many European countries fell after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union seemed to neutralize what was then the prime security threat to the West.

But after Russia seized Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014, NATO members unanimously agreed to spend at least 2% of their GDP on defense within a decade. The full-scale invasion that Putin launched in 2022 spurred European countries newly on the front line of a war in the heart of Europe to put more resources into meeting that target.

Much of the focus of the summit is expected to address what NATO and NATO member governments can do for Ukraine as it faces unrelenting air and ground attacks from its more powerful neighbor. They so far have resisted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s appeals to take his country into the bloc as long as the war is still on.

Stoltenberg pointed to efforts to bolster Ukraine in the meantime. That includes NATO streamlining the eventual membership process for Ukraine, and individual NATO nations providing updated arms and training to Ukraine’s military, including the U.S. giving it F-16s and bringing Ukrainian pilots to the U.S. for training on the advanced aircraft.

“The idea is to move them so close to membership that when the time comes, when there is consensus, they can become a member straight away,” Stoltenberg said.

However Russia’s offensive concludes, only taking Ukraine into the alliance will dissuade Putin from trying again in the future to conquer Ukraine, the NATO chief said.

“When the fighting ends, NATO membership” for Ukraine “assures that the war really ends,” he said.

The prospect of Ukraine joining NATO has long been anathema to Putin, and it was one of his stated motivations for seizing Crimea. He offered last week to order an immediate cease-fire if Ukraine renounced plans to join the alliance, an offer that was dismissed by Ukraine.

A weekend conference held in Switzerland was billed as a first step toward peace and ended with pledges to work toward a resolution but had few concrete deliverables. It was attended largely by Western nations and Russia was not invited. China sat it out and then India, Saudi Arabia, South Africa and Mexico did not sign the meeting’s final document Sunday.

Kyiv’s outgunned and outnumbered forces are battling to hold back the bigger Russian army, which has taken over chunks of territory after pollical squabbles led to delays in delivering U.S. and European military aid. Ukraine has been short of troops, ammunition and air defenses in recent months as the Kremlin’s forces try to cripple the national power supply and punch through the front line in eastern parts of the country.

Homesick refugees risk return to Ukraine despite war

Nearly 6.5 million – that is the number of Ukrainian refugees the United Nations counts in the third year of Russia’s full-scale invasion. According to the world body’s latest report, most of them hope to return home one day. Lesia Bakalets talked to Ukrainians who have already done so. VOA footage by Vladyslav Smilianets.

China launches anti-dumping probe into EU pork imports

BEIJING — China said Monday it had launched an anti-dumping investigation into imports of pork products from the European Union.

The probe is in response to an application submitted on behalf of domestic producers, Beijing said, and comes in the face of mounting trade tensions between China and the EU.

“The Ministry of Commerce has opened an anti-dumping investigation into imports of relevant pork and pig by-products originating from the European Union,” the ministry said in a statement.

China has criticized the bloc’s decision last week to slap additional tariffs of up to 38 percent on Chinese electric car imports from next month after an anti-subsidy probe.

The European Commission pointed to “unfair subsidization” in China, which it said “is causing a threat of economic injury” to EU electric car makers.

Beijing warned the tariffs would “harm Europe’s own interests” and condemned the bloc’s “protectionism”.

Pork is China’s most popular meat and a staple of diets in the world’s second most populous nation.