With the Ukraine conflict isolating Russia, its ties with North Korea are gaining importance. While not as strong as during the Soviet era, North Korea is now benefiting from Moscow’s search for allies.
Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s leader, intends to visit Russia this month to hold discussions with President Vladimir Putin. The talks will center around the potential supply of weaponry to Russia to support the war effort in Ukraine, as Russia expresses its desire for stronger military cooperation with North Korea. During their meeting in Vladivostok, the two leaders intend to explore the possibility of North Korea providing artillery shells and antitank missiles to Russia. In return, Moscow would offer advanced technology for satellites and nuclear-powered submarines to North Korea, as per the newspaper’s report.
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As Russia faces growing isolation due to its involvement in the conflict in Ukraine, experts suggest that it has come to place a higher premium on its relationship with North Korea. While North Korea’s historical ties with Russia haven’t always been as close as they were during the peak of the Soviet Union, the country is currently experiencing tangible advantages from Moscow’s quest for allies.
North Korea’s Role in Joint Drills Amid Tensions
Last week, on August, the United States voiced apprehensions about the progressing arms talks between Russia and North Korea. Reports indicated that during his visit, Shoigu had attempted to convince Pyongyang to sell artillery ammunition to Russia.
On 4th September, Russia’s ambassador to North Korea, Alexander Matsegora, conveyed to the TASS news agency that he was unaware of North Korea’s plans to participate in trilateral military drills alongside China and Russia. Nevertheless, he expressed his opinion that such involvement would be ‘suitable,’ particularly given the ongoing U.S.-led activities in the region.
Despite Russia and North Korea expressing an interest in strengthening their military relations, North Korea has denied any involvement in ‘arms transactions’ with Russia. Recently, the United States imposed sanctions on three entities, alleging their connection to arms deals between North Korea and Russia.
It’s worth noting that North Korea has conducted six nuclear tests since 2006 and has carried out numerous missile tests in recent years. However, it rarely engages in joint military exercises with its neighboring countries.
Conversely, the United States and its ally, South Korea, regularly conduct joint military exercises, which North Korea often criticizes, viewing them as preparations for a potential conflict against North Korea.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Vladivostok, Russia in this undated photo released on April 25, 2019
How deep are the political ties?
North Korea, a communist state, emerged during the early years of the Cold War, receiving support from the Soviet Union. It subsequently engaged in the Korean War from 1950 to 1953, resulting in a stalemate, with substantial assistance from China and the Soviet Union.
For many years, North Korea heavily depended on Soviet aid, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the 1990s contributed to a severe famine in the country. Pyongyang’s leadership has often sought to balance its relationships with Beijing and Moscow. Initially, Kim Jong Un had relatively cool relations with both Russia and China, as both nations joined the United States in imposing strict sanctions on North Korea in response to its nuclear tests.
However, following North Korea’s nuclear test in 2017, Kim took steps to mend these ties. In 2019, he held his first meeting with Vladimir Putin in Vladivostok, Russia. Kim also expressed a commitment to strengthen strategic cooperation in a message commemorating Russia’s National Day in June.
Russia, alongside China, has opposed new sanctions against North Korea, blocking a US-led initiative and publicly dividing the UN Security Council, marking the first such division since sanctions were imposed on Pyongyang in 2006.
One of the most notable indicators of the deepening relationship between North Korea and Russia occurred in July, 2023 when Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu visited Pyongyang. During his visit, he toured a weapons exhibition that included North Korea’s prohibited ballistic missiles. Subsequently, he stood alongside Kim Jong Un and saluted as these missiles passed by during a military parade.
How has the Ukraine war affected the relationship?
In response to Russia’s movements in Ukraine, North Korea has publicly shown support for Moscow. Notably, North Korea recognized the independence of Russian-claimed Ukrainian regions and endorsed Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian territory.
The United States has accused North Korea of providing military support to Russia, although it remains uncertain whether any such deliveries have taken place. Both Russia and North Korea have denied these allegations.
Artyom Lukin, a professor at Far Eastern Federal University in Vladivostok, noted (wrote in a report for 38 North} that Moscow’s military operation in Ukraine has set the stage for a new geopolitical dynamic in which Russia and North Korea may forge closer ties, potentially even stimulating a quasi-alliance relationship reminiscent of the Cold War era. It’s worth mentioning that Pyongyang has recently begun using the term “tactical and strategic collaboration” to characterize its relationship with Russia.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu stated on Monday, 4th September to Russian media that Moscow is in discussions about conducting joint military exercises with North Korea. He emphasized the importance of harmonious coexistence with neighboring countries, quoting an old Russian saying that underscores the value of peaceful relations with neighbors.
What are the economic ties?
In 2022, Russia and North Korea resumed train travel after a Covid-related hiatus, notably transporting 30 high-quality horses. Following this, United Nations data confirmed Russia’s renewed oil exports to North Korea, the first such shipments since 2020.
Last year, Russia and North Korea resumed train travel, marking the first such journeys since the onset of the Covid pandemic. Interestingly, the train transported a cargo of 30 high-quality horses. Shortly thereafter, United Nations data revealed that Russia had recommenced oil exports to North Korea, the first reported shipments of this kind since 2020.
While China remains the primary trading partner for North Korea, experts have pointed out that Russia could be a momentous partner, particularly in the monarchy of oil. Moscow has reliably denied any violations of UN sanctions, although Russian tankers have faced allegations of supporting in dodging limits on oil exports to North Korea. Additionally, sanctions monitors have reported the continued presence of North Korean laborers in Russia, despite a ban on such arrangements imposed by UN Security Council resolutions.
Russian officials have openly discussed the possibility of ‘working on political arrangements’ to employ between 20,000 to 50,000 North Korean laborers, a move that runs counter to UN sanctions. Furthermore, discussions have taken place between Russian officials and leaders in occupied regions of Ukraine about the prospect of utilizing North Korean workers in the reconstruction efforts of war-torn areas.