Cooperative Security, Arms Control and Disarmament By Herbert Wulf  |  19 June, 2024

Russian-North Korean Cooperation of Convenience

Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un in April 2019. 
Image credit: Alexei Nikolsky, The Presidential Press and Information Office/ wikicommons reproduced under Creative Commons License

In mid-June 2024, Russian President Vladimir Putin travelled to North Korea for a two-day visit. In mid-September 2023, Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, visited Russia's Far East for his first trip abroad since the Corona pandemic. No doubt, the top priority behind this new-found friendship between Putin and Kim is arms supplies. The Russian armed forces has a great need for conventional artillery ammunition and missiles in the war against Ukraine.

Undoubtedly, Russia's own production of weapons is significantly larger than what North Korea can supply. Still, North Korean arms deliveries could make a difference. After more than two years of war, supplies are short, not only in Ukraine. According to New York Times, when Kim visited Russia three-quarters of a year ago, U.S. officials claimed that North Korea had shipped more than 1,000 containers of arms to Russia. In March, the U.S. stated that North Korea had delivered nearly 7,000 containers of weapons.

Artillery shells and other conventional ammunition are apparently abundant in the empire of the Kim Dynasty. In return, North Korea, with its ambitious nuclear, missile and satellite programs, is particularly keen on Russia's technology. In 2023, Putin spoke of the "possibilities" of military cooperation. North Korea was one of only five countries to vote against the UN General Assembly resolution disapproving of Russia's attack on Ukraine in 2022. Now the government in Pyongyang, which is largely isolated internationally, has shown solidarity with a commitment to Russia's "fight for sovereignty and security". Will this become a pact of pariahs? In any case, it could benefit the two military hardliners.

Kim's program for the September 2023 visit was enlightening. Putin received Kim at the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Siberia. After the meeting with Putin, the North Korean dictator visited a military airport near Vladivostok where Russia's then Defence Minister Sergei Soigu showed him the modern supersonic fighter jets, which can deliver nuclear weapons, and  missiles of the Kinzhal type, which can be equipped with conventional and nuclear warheads. Kim, accompanied by Shoigu, also visited the Russian Pacific Fleet with its nuclear submarines in Vladivostok.

Putin did not make any commitment to arms deliveries to North Korea. He even promised to comply with UN sanctions, which include a ban on the supply of weapons and military technology. But who believes Moscow's promises in view of the invasion of Ukraine. If it serves Putin's interests, he will quickly forget his promise. The visits by Kim and now Putin imply a double challenge: Russia could overcome shortages in the supply of ammunition in the war against Ukraine, and North Korea could receive long-term support for its nuclear, missile, and satellite programs. The intensified cooperation is therefore a win-win situation for both sides.

Relations between Russia (and formerly the Soviet Union) and North Korea are marked by multiple ups and downs. They are not without strain. Obviously, today there is again a military-strategic interest in cooperation on both sides. As an occupying power after World War II, the Soviet Union was North Korea's closest ally. Cooperation in the nuclear sector dates back to the 1960s. With Soviet assistance, North Korea set up a nuclear research centre and built a research reactor, which went into operation in 1967. Until 1973, the Soviet Union supplied the necessary fuel rods.

In a first phase of arms control negotiations, in the early 1980s, the United States and the Soviet Union successfully persuaded North Korea to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation­ Treaty and allow inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The Soviet Union, and later Russia, also repeatedly pushed for a halt to North Korea's nuclear program.

With Gorbachev's dramatic political reforms and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian-North Korean relations changed­ fundamentally. ­­Gorbachev reduced military aid, industrial cooperation, food aid and energy supplies to almost zero. North Korea's inability to pay its trade debts in Moscow caused political strain­. It was also during this phase that there was an unexpected rapprochement between former wartime enemies the Soviet Union and South Korea. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Yeltsin government suspended the security ­pact with North Korea ­and made no attempt to renew it. With the dissolution of the network of relations between socialist states, North Korea lost a cornerstone ­of its economic existence.

At the end of the 1990s, Moscow re-examined relations with the two Koreas and concluded that, on the one hand, not all expectations of cooperation with South Korea had materialized and, on the other hand, Russian interests had­ not been considered in the so-called agreed­ framework. In this 1994 agreement, the U.S. pledged economic aid to North Korea. International pressure prompted the largely isolated regime to make concessions on its nuclear and missile programs. President Putin paid ­a widely acclaimed visit to Pyongyang in 2000 and received Kim Jong-il, then president of North Korea and father of the current leader, in Moscow in 2001 and 2002 to enhance relations between the countries.

From 2003 onwards, Moscow was finally included as a partner in the so-called six-party talks on the denuclearization of North Korea between China, the USA, North and South Korea, Japan and Russia. Within this framework, Russia pushed for both concessions from the United States and a halt to North Korea's nuclear program. However, Moscow did not make North Korea's withdrawal from the nuclear ­program a condition for its own economic cooperation and offered­ North Korea a way to bridge its energy shortages with gas supplies subsidized by South Korea. In 2006, North Korea agreed to revive a consortium to expand and modernize the railway line between Russia and North Korea.

The cooperation was abruptly halted after North Korea conducted its first nuclear weapons test in October 2006. With the subsequent UN resolution, which was also approved by China and Russia, the UN Security Council imposed comprehensive sanctions that are still in force today.

It is interesting that Kim first travelled to Russia, and not to China. For many years, China was the only supporter of North Korea, both politically and with economic aid. A closer relationship between Russia and North Korea could weaken Beijing's influence on both governments. In July 2023, Russia's defence minister proposed joint military exercises between China, Russia and North Korea to counter trilateral cooperation between the United States, South Korea and Japan in the region. China's government reacted reservedly. Such a policy would undermine China's own criticism of the U.S. "bloc politics". China is once again trying a balancing act. For a long time, Beijing's focus was on the denuclearization of North Korea. The hope was that China could use its influence on the government in Pyongyang and persuade North Korea to stop its nuclear program. This is certainly no longer the top priority. Beijing is now subordinating everything to the geopolitical competition with the U.S.

It’s possible that the rapprochement between Moscow and Pyongyang could have unpredictable consequences. Whether this relationship goes beyond the present practicalities of energy and military technology supplies by Russia and conventional weapon supplies by North Korea remains to be seen. This Russian war against Ukraine is a war of attrition, therefore North Korean supplies could help Russia to outgun Ukraine. But internationally quarantined North Korea is certainly not able to ameliorate Russia’s political isolation.


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Herbert Wulf is a Professor of International Relations and former Director of the Bonn International Center for Conflict Studies (BICC). He is presently a Senior Fellow at BICC, an Adjunct Senior Researcher at the Institute for Development and Peace, University of Duisburg/Essen, Germany, and a Research Affiliate at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Otago, New Zealand. He serves on the Scientific Council of SIPRI.