The Perils of a Renewed North Korea-Russia Relationship

In Brief

The Perils of a Renewed North Korea-Russia Relationship

Warming relations between the two pariah states could foster a mutually beneficial weapons and technology trade and raise tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

How have North Korea-Russia relations evolved in recent years?

Until Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the North Korea-Russia relationship was characterized by narrow transactionalism and diplomatic misconnects despite the legacy of close relations that existed between North Korea and the Soviet Union through the 1970s.

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In 2015, Vladimir Putin invited Kim Jong Un to Russia’s commemoration of the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II, but Kim was not yet ready to engage in summitry at that time. Russia also backed UN Security Council (UNSC) sanctions against North Korea through 2017 and failed to make headway in identifying mutually beneficial areas of economic cooperation. The 2019 summit between Kim and Putin, held months after the failure of the Hanoi summit between Kim and former U.S. President Donald Trump, resulted in Putin’s solo media briefing on the meeting, reflecting the failure of the two sides to find compatibility in their respective interests.

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Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine has provided a basis for the convergence of political needs and material interests between the two countries. North Korea has provided political support to Russia by recognizing the independence of Russia-installed governments in breakaway provinces in Ukraine under Moscow’s control. Russian political support for North Korea provides the latter with protection and impunity from further UNSC condemnation for long-range missile and satellite launches that contravene UNSC resolutions.

What is North Korea’s capacity to aid the Russian war effort in Ukraine?

North Korea offers significant weapons stockpiles and a possible base for future weapons production, but that would be limited by low North Korean plant efficiency and procurement capacity. Thus, North Korea’s most immediate contributions to Russia will be from stockpiles of old artillery and rocket systems that remain functional and deadly but lack modern guidance systems.

Kim Jong Un’s tours of military production facilities following the Russian defense minister’s recent visit could signal a North Korean desire to become a manufacturing base for sourcing weapons to Russia. In turn, North Korean requests for support from Russia will be wide-ranging and include assistance in the procurement and deployment of advanced missile and satellite technologies, as well as food assistance and requests for other items deemed critical to support Kim’s leadership. But it remains to be seen whether both sides can deliver the levels and types of military support to each other that is commensurate with their respective expectations.

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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands during a bilateral meeting.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands during a bilateral meeting. Sergei Ilnitsky/Pool/Reuters


How would expanded ties with Russia affect dynamics on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia?

The renewal of the North Korea-Russia military relationship will restore two-way procurements of military goods, including technologies that the North Korean military has long desired but been starved of for decades due to Chinese and Russian adherence to international sanctions. These include items such as upgraded aircraft and advanced weapons systems.

In this respect, the Western sanctions imposed on Russia because of its invasion of Ukraine have unintentionally expanded and enabled North Korea’s prospects for accessing critical military support from abroad. In addition, North Korea signaled the geopolitical significance of closer China-North Korea-Russia relations by hosting both Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee Member Li Hongzhong in late July on the seventieth anniversary of the signing of the Korean armistice, which North Korea marks internally as “Victory Day.” The reported possibility of North Korea joining regular China-Russia military exercises would mark an additional step forward for this coalition.

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The China-North Korea-Russia coalition remains less cohesive than the depth of coordination signaled by the United States, Japan, and South Korea at Camp David in August. However, the emergence of opposing coalitions (but not yet blocs) in Northeast Asia deepens inter-Korean and regional tensions in Northeast Asia. Stronger North Korea-Russia relations partially alleviate North Korea’s political isolation, enhances Kim Jong Un’s domestic political legitimacy, and emboldens North Korea to pursue its missile and satellite development with impunity. The symbolism behind Kim’s expected return to summitry with Putin in 2023 suggests Kim intends to navigate North Korean diplomacy in a geopolitical context of rising confrontation, rather than the climate of tension reduction that existed during his summitry in 2018 and 2019 — though with the same aims of enhancing North Korea’s legitimacy and international standing.

How would you expect the United States and its regional allies to respond?

The U.S. government took the unusual step of confirming speculations of a North Korea-Russia summit in apparent hopes that shining a spotlight would generate pressure on both sides that might contain and deter North Korean-Russian cooperation. U.S. officials claim that past efforts to do so have been an effective deterrent, while the rest of the world could regard a Kim-Putin meeting as a summit between two lonely and isolated leaders.

But a North Korea-Russia summit could clearly signal a new level of strategic cooperation based on their perceptions of mutual benefit that has eluded both sides since the end of the Cold War. Washington will continue to oppose such cooperation and discourage other powers, especially Beijing, from enhancing support for either Pyongyang or Moscow. The United States’ aim will be to prevent North Korea from being further emboldened and to block Russian efforts to sustain its capacity to wage war in Ukraine. 

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