On Sunday, North Korea announced that it has reached an agreement with Russia to enhance both strategic and tactical cooperation, aiming to contribute to the establishment of a new multi-polar international order. The collaboration is seen as a joint effort to form a united front in response to the escalating tensions each country faces independently in their relationships with the United States.
The North Korean Foreign Ministry detailed the recent meetings between North Korean Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow last week. According to the statement, Putin expressed his commitment to further collaboration and even discussed the possibility of visiting Pyongyang in the near future.
Kim’s pursuit of closer relations with Russia is part of a broader strategy to break free from diplomatic isolation and bolster his position amid an increasingly complex nuclear standoff involving Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo.
The growing partnership between Pyongyang and Moscow has triggered international apprehensions, particularly regarding suspicions of arms cooperation. There are concerns that North Korea might be supplying munitions to Russia, potentially aiding its military efforts in the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. In return, it is speculated that Russia could be offering essential economic aid and military support to assist North Korea in upgrading its forces. Both nations, however, have consistently denied allegations made by Washington and Seoul regarding any illicit transfer of arms from North Korea to Russia.
The historical roots of Russian/Soviet relations with North Korea trace back to the aftermath of World War II and the division of the Korean Peninsula. Following Japan’s surrender in 1945 and the end of its control over Korea, which it had begun to annex after the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese War, the Korean Peninsula was split at the 38th parallel north, with American and Soviet forces occupying the southern and northern parts, respectively.
As the Cold War took hold, attempts at diplomatic resolution, including efforts at the United Nations, to establish a unified Korean state failed. In 1948, the southern part conducted democratic elections under American supervision, leading to the establishment of the Republic of Korea (South Korea) with its capital in Seoul. Meanwhile, the northern part, politically controlled by Soviet-backed communists, formed the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) with its capital in Pyongyang, led by Premier (later President) Kim Il-sung from 1948 to 1994.
The divided Korean Peninsula became a focal point of Cold War tensions. In 1950, with reluctant approval from Soviet General Secretary Joseph Stalin and promises of military support from the newly formed communist People’s Republic of China under Chairman Mao Zedong, Kim Il-sung’s forces launched a surprise invasion of South Korea. The Soviet Union played a role in training, equipping, and providing military assistance to North Korean (and Chinese) forces during the Korean War, which concluded in 1953 with an armistice shortly after Stalin’s death.
The Korean War marked the beginning of the Cold War in Asia, establishing a long-lasting geopolitical landscape with significant consequences for the region.
The relationship between Moscow and Pyongyang went through various phases in the post-Korean War era. While Moscow continued to support Pyongyang in the aftermath of the conflict and into the 1960s, tensions emerged due to factors such as the purging of perceived Soviet-friendly figures within the Workers’ Party of North Korea, concerns over Soviet ideological changes, and a shift towards more balanced ties with Beijing.
In the 1970s, amid the ongoing Sino-Soviet split, North Korea sought to utilize its ties with Moscow for support and also emphasized its independence through the ideology of Juche, advocating for self-reliance. However, as the Cold War drew to a close, Russia reduced financial and military aid to North Korea due to its domestic challenges, economic difficulties, and shifts in foreign policy, including the establishment of diplomatic relations with South Korea. This contributed to the unravelling of the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance, signed by Premier Nikita Khrushchev and Kim Il-sung in 1961, which included a mutual defence pact. Russia officially terminated the treaty in 1995.
The loss of Soviet assistance, coupled with natural disasters and the failure of communist agricultural and economic policies, led to a severe economic downturn in North Korea during the 1990s, resulting in a historic famine. In the early 2000s, Russian President Vladimir Putin changed course and reengaged with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-il, who had succeeded his father, Kim Il-sung. Since then, the relationship between Russia and North Korea has improved, with notable events including a visit by Kim Jong-un, the current North Korean leader and son of Kim Jong-il, to the Russian Far East in 2019 for his first meeting with President Putin.
RUSSIA UKRAINE WAR
North Korea’s political support for Russia, including recognizing the independence of Russia-installed governments in breakaway provinces in Ukraine, serves to strengthen Moscow’s position on the international stage. In return, Russia’s political backing provides North Korea with protection and a degree of impunity from further condemnation by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), especially concerning its long-range missile and satellite launches that violate UNSC resolutions.
While North Korea offers significant weapons stockpiles, its potential as a base for future weapons production is constrained by inefficiencies in its plants and limited procurement capacity. Consequently, North Korea’s immediate contributions to Russia may come from functional but outdated artillery and rocket systems lacking modern guidance systems.
Recent visits by Kim Jong Un to military production facilities following the Russian defence minister’s visit suggest a potential desire by North Korea to become a manufacturing base for supplying weapons to Russia. North Korean requests for support from Russia may span a range of areas, including assistance in procuring and deploying advanced missile and satellite technologies, as well as food aid and other critical items to support Kim’s leadership. The success of this collaboration will depend on whether both sides can fulfill each other’s expectations regarding the levels and types of military support, and how these align with their respective strategic objectives.
NORTH KOREAN NEEDS
North Korea wants to ensure the survival of the Kim regime, now in its third generation, a goal that necessitates a consistent influx of hard currency. This financial support is crucial for sustaining the extravagant lifestyle of the ruling elite and securing their loyalty through access to foreign luxury goods. Russia is positioned to provide substantial quantities of both, reinforcing the political stability of the North Korean leadership.
The country faces challenges in meeting the nutritional needs of its population due to geographical, political, and economic isolation, compounded by misguided agricultural and economic policies. In response, North Korea would quietly appreciate assistance from Moscow in the form of food aid, farming support, and assistance in the energy and industrial sectors to ameliorate its dire situation.
With one of the world’s largest militaries, North Korea’s conventional forces are considered outdated. Despite this, the Korean People’s Army remains a potent force. Committed to the goal of unifying the peninsula under the DPRK flag, Pyongyang is interested in modernizing its military capabilities. The transfer of advanced Russian weaponry, including fighters and air defence systems, through barter arrangements or at friendly prices, would align with North Korea’s ambitions in this regard.
North Korea’s regime seeks multifaceted assistance from Moscow, spanning intelligence capabilities, space technology, and military expertise. The recent struggles in its spy satellite program have prompted North Korea to turn to Russia for support. Beyond intelligence gathering, collaboration on space launch vehicles becomes pivotal, as it not only aids the satellite program but also contributes to North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) development, given the technological parallels.
Addressing Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions, the Korean People’s Navy seeks Moscow’s guidance for its submarine and nascent submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) programs, leveraging Russia’s extensive experience in these areas. Additionally, North Korea seeks broader diplomatic acceptance of its nuclear weapons status. Russia, as a major power, stands in a position to offer this recognition, further solidifying its role as a diplomatic ally.
Diplomatically, North Korea is on the lookout for allies, particularly within international organizations where condemnation or punishment may be proposed. Moscow’s strategic position, including its Security Council veto at the United Nations, provides a shield for Pyongyang. The regime’s pursuit of political legitimacy is underscored by its desire to reduce economic dependence on China, its primary aid donor. In this context, cultivating a stronger relationship with Moscow not only counterbalances Beijing but also diversifies North Korea’s sources of assistance, potentially granting Pyongyang increased clout in its relations with China.
Moscow, grappling with a high consumption rate of war materiel, notably artillery shells, in the conflict in Ukraine, seeks alternative sources to meet its demand. North Korea, known for its substantial artillery capabilities rooted in Soviet-origin systems compatible with Russian weaponry, emerges as a plausible supplier for artillery shells and rockets.
The compatibility of Russian and North Korean small arms opens avenues for ammunition exchange, enhancing the military collaboration between the two nations. While rumours circulate about the transfer of ballistic missiles, these claims remain unverified. U.S. officials express concerns about large shipments across the Russian border, potentially exacerbating the conflict in Ukraine if true.
Beyond weaponry, the prospect of utilizing North Korean workers abroad, a longstanding practice to generate hard currency for Pyongyang, could further intertwine the interests of the two nations. If employed in the Russian arms industry or other sectors, North Korean workers may indirectly contribute to Moscow’s military efforts, allowing more Russian citizens to be available for service against Ukraine.
The U.S. government has taken the unusual step of confirming speculations regarding a potential North Korea-Russia summit. This move appears to be an effort to shine a spotlight on the situation, with the hope that increased visibility will generate pressure on both North Korea and Russia, ultimately containing and deterring their cooperation. U.S. officials assert that previous endeavours to exert such pressure have been effective deterrents. By bringing attention to a possible Kim-Putin meeting, the U.S. aims to portray it as a summit between two leaders who are perceived as lonely and isolated on the global stage.
The prospect of a North Korea-Russia summit raises concerns, as it could signify a heightened level of strategic cooperation between the two nations. Such collaboration, based on their perceived mutual benefit, would mark a departure from the limited engagement seen since the end of the Cold War. Washington is expected to vehemently oppose this cooperation and work to discourage other global powers, particularly Beijing, from providing additional support to either Pyongyang or Moscow. The United States overarching goal is to prevent North Korea from becoming more emboldened and to thwart Russian efforts to sustain its military capacity, particularly in the context of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine