For more than two years, since the start of the pandemic in early 2020, relations between Russia and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) had been uneventful, almost frozen. Fearing the spread of the coronavirus, North Korea went into extreme self-isolation. As a result, Russia’s trade and human contact with the North came to a nearly complete halt. At the same time, the diplomatic process on the Korean Peninsula, in which Russia is one of the stakeholders, also stalled. However, in recent months there have been clear signs that the Russia-DPRK relationship is starting to pick up.
With Pyongyang having declared victory over coronavirus, there are reasons to believe at least some of the border restrictions on the North Korean side will start to be lifted soon, making it possible for the North to resume physical contacts with Russia. Meeting with the governor of Russia’s Primorsky Region in Vladivostok, the DPRK’s ambassador to Russia, Sin Hong Chol, announced that the North was preparing to resume rail traffic with Russia in September. The border reopening will only apply to cargo traffic via rail. It is still unknown when passenger traffic between the two countries will be resumed. Before the pandemic, Russia and North Korea had maintained regular passenger service via Vladivostok (by air) and Khasan (by rail).
Apart from the normalization of the COVID-19 situation, there is another, perhaps more significant, reason for the activization of Russia-North Korea contacts. Moscow’s “special military operation” in Ukraine has ushered in a new geopolitical reality in which the Kremlin and the DPRK may become increasingly close, perhaps even to the point of resurrecting the quasi-alliance relationship that had existed during the Cold War.
From the very beginning of the crisis over Ukraine, North Korea unequivocally sided with Russia. The DPRK was among the five countries that voted against the United Nations (UN) General Assembly resolution demanding that Russia withdraw all of its military forces from the territory of Ukraine. The other four opponents of the resolution were Russia itself, Belarus, Eritrea and Syria. Since then, the North has repeatedly expressed its support for Russia’s actions in Ukraine, putting all the blame for the crisis on the United States, NATO and Ukraine. According to an article posted on the DPRK’s foreign ministry website:
Russia had no choice but to carry out a military operation against Ukraine. This is totally attributable to the NATO’s tightened encirclement ring around Russia by its continuous eastward expansion and its forward deployment of military infrastructures…which present a serious security threat. The current Ukrainian situation clearly shows that the regime that turns its back on its own people and fellow countrymen while kowtowing to the foreign forces is doomed to a miserable fate…The West may desperately try to maintain the West-led world order, but it has no way of checking the growing international trend towards independent development.
Of note, Pyongyang has recently begun to use a new formula to characterize the DPRK-Russia relationship. It is now described as “tactical and strategic collaboration.”
Pyongyang’s most significant gesture of support for Russia so far has been the diplomatic recognition of the Moscow-backed Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics (DNR/LNR). The letters sent by Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui to her counterparts in the DNR/LNR expressed “the will to develop the state-to-state relations” with the Russian-backed entities “under the ideas of independence, peace and friendship.” Apart from Russia itself, North Korea became only the second UN member state, after Syria, to recognize the Donbas (Donbass) republics. For Pyongyang, the recognition of Donetsk and Lugansk was a low-cost, low-risk act. In retaliation, Kyiv predictably severed diplomatic relations with Pyongyang, but the DPRK doesn’t have any substantial ties with Ukraine anyway. North Korea allegedly sourced valuable rocket and military technology from Ukraine back in the 1990s and 2000s, but it has been a long time since the Ukrainian route was closed for North Koreans. Similarly, Pyongyang was not concerned about a reaction from Kyiv’s Western allies, given that there are hardly any penalties left to the West to impose on North Korea.
The diplomatic recognition of the DNR/LNR being mostly a symbolic move, it is unclear if Pyongyang is actually willing, and able, to provide material support to Russia’s military operation in Ukraine. Some Russian media and experts discussed the possibility of North Korea sending “up to 100,000” troops to Ukraine, a topic quickly picked up by Ukrainian and Western media. The Russian foreign ministry called such speculations “completely fake.”
North Korea has some history of sending its military to fight overseas. The most prominent case was the Vietnam War. More recently, North Korean military advisors and commandos were reportedly engaged in conflicts in Africa and the Middle East. However, those were fairly limited contingents. To make a difference in the Ukraine war, North Korea needs to send not hundreds and thousands of troops, but tens of thousands. It is extremely unlikely Kim Jong Un would dispatch the North’s soldiers to Europe’s most intense armed conflict since World War II. The risk that not an insignificant number of them would not return home from the Ukrainian battlefields is too high. Quite apart from the risk of high casualties, there are challenges, such as a lack of interoperability with Russian forces due to the language barrier and the complete absence of joint training.
Another hypothetical contribution the DPRK could make to Russia’s military operation is weapons supplies. North Korea has vast stockpiles of munitions and a massive arms industry. Considering that many of North Korea’s weapons are based on Soviet standards, its munitions could be compatible with weapons systems used by the Russian army and the units of the DNR/LNR. If Pakistan, as some reports allege, sends ammunitions to Ukraine and South Korea strikes major arms deals with Poland, why can’t the DPRK sell weapons to the opposite side of the conflict? The Pentagon claims Russia has approached North Korea for ammunition. So far, no proof has been provided to substantiate those allegations. Russia’s envoy to the UN characterized it as “another fake,” while Pyongyang also issued an emphatic denial of Washington’s “reckless remarks.” Of course, any arms deals between Russia and North Korea would violate the UN sanctions on Pyongyang, even though this restriction could be finessed by supplying arms not to Russia, but to the DNR/LNR that are outside the UN system.
Whereas Russian and the DNR/LNR officials deny any plans for military cooperation with North Korea, they are talking up the prospects for economic collaboration with the DPRK. According to the Russian ambassador to North Korea, Alexander Matsegora, there are “extensive” possibilities for such cooperation between the Donbas republics and North Korea. Matsegora singled out North Korean construction workers, who are “highly skilled, industrious and ready to work in very difficult conditions.” As the Russian diplomat suggested, North Korean labor could make an important contribution to the reconstruction of the damaged infrastructure and industrial facilities in Donbas. In exchange, the Donbas republics could export coking coal, wheat and industrial equipment to the North.
Russian officials dismiss concerns about possible breaches of the UN sanctions regime in case the Donbas republics enter into commercial deals with the DPRK. The head of the international organizations department at the Russian foreign ministry, Pyotr Ilyichev, opined that Moscow is not going to act as a “self-appointed watchdog” to press the DNR/LNR into compliance with the sanctions. Illyichev advised those concerned about the sanctions enforcement to talk directly to Donetsk.
While economic interactions between the DPRK and the DNR/LNR look rather hypothetical at this point, the prospects for resumed commerce between North Korea and Russia are far more realistic, given that the two countries share a land border and have a long history of economic collaboration. That said, the Russia-North Korea economic relationship will face the same set of limitations that inhibited its growth prior to the pandemic. In a nutshell, North Korea has little to offer its northern neighbor. The Russian Federation wants cash and high-tech goods, which North Korea lacks. Labor is perhaps the only resource of significance North Korea can share with Russia. The Soviet Union and then Russia used to import a lot of the North Korean workforce.
In the last few months, Russian officials have been openly discussing the possibility of resuming labor imports from the North, even though the UN Security Council resolutions explicitly ban the use of North Korean workers. Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin, who oversees Russia’s construction industry, recently said Russian authorities are “working on political arrangements” to employ North Korean labor. According to him, DPRK workers, numbering between 20,000 and 50,000, may be invited to Russia, mainly to develop the infrastructure in the Russian Far East. In the past, DPRK workers and their “supervisors” used to convert their rouble (ruble) earnings into US dollars. With Russia now all but detached from the dollar financial system, an alternative method of payment may be via the Chinese yuan. Shipments of Russian oil and petroleum products are another possible option to pay for North Korean labor. Incidentally, a Russian foreign ministry official recently suggested that Russia is ready to resume exports of oil and petroleum products to the DPRK. Another promising area of bilateral cooperation, albeit a less strategic one, could be tourism. With Russians no longer able to go to Ibiza, they might appreciate the beautiful beaches of Wonsan.
The cataclysmic events unfolding since February 24, 2022 have substantially changed Moscow’s calculus toward Pyongyang. As the Russian Federation finds itself in an existential struggle with the West over Ukraine, the importance of the DPRK, which is one of the few countries ready to openly partner with the Kremlin to counter the US, has increased for Moscow. At the same time, for Russia, the significance of the Korean Peninsula denuclearization agenda has decreased. Full compliance with the sanctions imposed on the DPRK may no longer be Russia’s policy, if only because Russia itself has been subjected to heavy sanctions initiated by the US and the EU.
Moscow and Pyongyang may be on the verge of reestablishing an alliance that existed during the Cold War but unraveled with the demise of the Soviet Union. However, their new bond is more likely to be a strategic alignment rather than a formal alliance based on a binding treaty. Having achieved a nuclear deterrence capability, Pyongyang no longer needs defense commitments from Moscow. Furthermore, the Moscow-Pyongyang entente is set to be nested within the bigger trilateral alignment of China, Russia and the DPRK, which will be led by Beijing. The modus operandi of this emerging trilateral alignment remains to be seen, but it is clear that a Sino-Russian-North Korean bloc will have profound implications for the balance of power in Northeast Asia.