Russia and North Korea: A Growing Strategic Partnership

Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin meet in Vladivostok, Russia, in 2019.

On November 1, South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) revealed that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) had supplied over 1 million artillery shells to Russia. The NIS alleged that North Korea had transferred these shells to Russia in ten shipments and was operating its munitions factories “at maximum capacity to meet Russia’s demand for military supplies.” The NIS concluded that at Russia’s current rate of fire, North Korean shell shipments would allow it to sustain two months of war in Ukraine. These shipments were likely paired with North Korean ammunition, short-range ballistic missile, anti-tank missile and portable anti-air missile shipments to Russia.

The NIS’s revelations alarmed Western policymakers, as they significantly exceeded prior estimates of North Korean military assistance to Russia. On October 20, Colonel Ants Kiviselg, the head of the Estonian Defense Forces Intelligence Center, estimated that North Korea had supplied 350,000 artillery shells to Russia. The NIS’s figures also confirmed fears that North Korean artillery shell shipments to Russia outstripped European military assistance to Ukraine. On the sidelines of the October 26-27 European Council summit, Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas admitted that the European Union (EU) had not yet fulfilled its promise to supply one million artillery shells to Ukraine and expressed concern about ammunition production.

Notwithstanding the utility of additional ammunition and shell shipments, Russia’s strengthened partnership with North Korea is not just about gaining a war materiel advantage over Ukraine. Russia sees North Korea as a strategically valuable partner in its struggle against North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) influence in the Indo-Pacific region and an auxiliary to its burgeoning alignment with China. Russia’s assessment of North Korea’s strategic importance, which differs markedly from its historical dismissal of Pyongyang, will likely lead to military technology transfers and strengthened bilateral economic ties.

The Strategic Value of North Korea for Russia

Even though the Soviet Union and North Korea were Cold War-era ideological partners, Moscow often viewed Pyongyang as more of a liability than an ally. Nikita Khrushchev was frustrated by Kim Il Sung’s strenuous opposition to the 1956 Soviet-Japanese rapprochement, which he saw as a critical step toward “peaceful coexistence” with the West. The Sino-Soviet split increased North Korea’s strategic value, as the Soviet Union wanted military support from Pyongyang in the event of a border war with China. But Kim Il Sung’s bellicosity antagonized Soviet officials. When North Korea’s Navy and Air Force attacked the USS Pueblo in January 1968, the Soviet Union feared that Kim Il Sung would drag it into a broader war with the US.

Kim Il Sung capitalized on these fears by extorting increased Soviet military and economic aid to North Korea in exchange for deescalation. Nevertheless, the seeds for a potential rupture between Moscow and Pyongyang were sown. After Kim Il Sung’s 1986 trip to Moscow, Mikhail Gorbachev scaled back the Soviet Union’s assistance to North Korea and courted South Korea. Boris Yeltsin continued Gorbachev’s policy, and despite more cordial bilateral relations under Vladimir Putin, Russia consistently voted for United Nations (UN) sanctions over North Korea’s nuclear program.

Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine commenced in February 2022, Moscow’s partnership with North Korea has deepened and gained strategic depth. This transformation can be explained by North Korea’s solidarity with Russia, ultranationalist support for closer bilateral relations and Moscow’s sharply anti-Western Indo-Pacific strategy.

Alongside Syria and Belarus, North Korea has voted with Russia on every UNGA resolution pertaining to the Ukraine War and concurred with the Kremlin’s account of the war’s outbreak. On February 28, 2022, North Korea blamed the Ukraine War on the US’s “high-handedness” and “hegemonic policy.” North Korea has used similar rhetoric to express opposition to NATO arms transfers to Ukraine. After Ukraine struck Russian airfields with US-supplied Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) long-range missiles in October 2023, North Korean Ambassador to Russia Sin Hong Chol accused the US of sacrificing Europe’s interests to maintain unipolarity and warned that the US imposed “the most disastrous war on all mankind.”

The rising influence of Russian ultranationalists, who lobbied Putin to invade Ukraine, also explains closer Russia-North Korea relations. Even during Yeltsin’s dissociation from North Korea, Russian ultranationalists courted closer ties with Pyongyang. In October 1994, the far-right Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky traveled to Pyongyang. Zhirinovsky bonded with Kim Jong Il over their shared disdain for the US and Japan, but the Russian Foreign Ministry rebuked his visit, saying, “his has absolutely nothing to do with us.”

Russian ultranationalists have also expressed admiration for North Korea’s Juche ideology and cited it as a model for wartime Russia. Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) leader Gennady Zyuganov has consistently defended North Korea’s right to its own development path, which includes weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), rockets and space technology. The now-deceased Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, who possibly procured North Korean artillery shells in December 2022, declared in May 2023: “Russia needs to live like North Korea for a number of years, close all the borders, stop playing nice, bring all our kids back from abroad and work our asses off. Then we will see some results.”

Given these sentiments, it is unsurprising that ultranationalists have been the main cheerleaders of closer Russia-North Korea relations. Fascist philosopher Alexander Dugin claimed that Russia had three international allies: Belarus, North Korea, and Iran. State Duma Deputy Andrei Gurulyov expressed regret over Gorbachev and Yeltsin’s detachment from North Korea and hailed Pyongyang’s enduring gratitude for the Soviet Union’s role in “liberating” Korea. Kim Jong Un’s red carpet welcome during his September 13-17 visit to Russia and Sergey Lavrov’s subsequent October 18-19 trip to Pyongyang were hailed by Putin’s ultranationalist coalition.

As tensions between the US and China persist, Russia sees its partnership with North Korea as a useful counterweight to US influence. At the August 15 Moscow Security Conference, Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) chief Igor Kostyukov asserted that the US was putting pressure on Indo-Pacific countries to counter Russia and China. Kostyukov lambasted South Korea for supplying 500,000 155 mm artillery shells to Ukraine via the US and supported North Korea’s assertion that its nuclear program is its sole security guarantee.

Taking cues from Kostyukov, Russian defense commentator Igor Korotchenko argued that the Russia-China-North Korea axis is a counterweight to AUKUS. Gurulyov warned that a war between the US and China over Taiwan would drag the entire Indo-Pacific region and Russia into battle. Gurulyov’s praise of Kim Jong-Un’s military readiness efforts and Russia-North Korea military cooperation can be viewed as preparation for this scenario.

Prospects for Military and Economic Cooperation

As it prepares for a multi-year war in Ukraine, Russia sees North Korea as a long-term supplier of munitions. Despite official Kremlin denials of North Korean arms transfers to Russia, long-term military cooperation is being actively discussed in Russia’s pro-war information space. Ahead of Kim Jong Un’s Vladivostok visit, Colonel Mikhail Khodaryonok, a prominent Russian defense commentator, declared that North Korea has millions of 152 mm shells in its arsenal, which could be dispensed to Russia. North Korea’s KN-25 multiple-launch rocket system (MLRS) is also high on Russia’s bucket list, as its 400-km strike radius is longer than Ukraine’s ATACMS.

In exchange for these munitions, Russia will likely provide technological upgrades to the North Korean military. After meeting with South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin on November 9, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed concern about possible Russian assistance to North Korea’s ballistic missile programs, nuclear technology, and space launch capacity. The worst-case scenario would consist of Russia supplying up to 1,000 kilograms from its Fissile Material Storage Facility to Pyongyang, as this would allow North Korea to exponentially expand its nuclear arsenal. But of the advanced technologies that Blinken highlighted, Russian assistance is most likely in the realm of space satellites.

After two failed satellite launches in May and August 2023, North Korea likely asked Russia for help. Kim Jong-Un’s decision to meet with Putin at the Vostochny Cosmodrome provides circumstantial evidence for an arms-for-satellite technology swap between North Korea and Russia. Lee Yong-joon, a former South Korean Foreign Ministry official, argues that Russian assistance would likely rectify North Korea’s satellite launch challenges, as the failed launches were caused by a flawed part. The NIS’s confirmation that North Korean technicians inspected the Chollima-1 satellite’s rocket engines and launcher provides rationale as to why they would seek Russian assistance.

While Putin has acknowledged “certain restrictions” could limit technology transfers to North Korea, influential Russian commentators have mused about eviscerating the extant UN sanctions regime against North Korea. The Razumnaya Rossiya Telegram channel contended that Russia’s long-term goal is to increase trade with North Korea to the 2006 level of $230 million and asserted that Russia was constructing eleven rapid assembly plants in the Khasan facility near the North Korea border.

These plants would produce 155 mm ammunition, missiles for MLRS systems and howitzers, and military equipment, which would then be transferred to Russia through camouflaged trucks. The White House has also warned that North Korea could disguise its munitions deliveries to Russia as shipments to the Middle East. North Korea’s strengthening ties with Belarus, exemplified by President Alexander Lukashenko’s September 15 conceptualization of a Russia-Belarus-DPRK trilateral axis, could also lead to Belarus acting as a middleman in the Russia-DPRK arms trade.

Beyond military technology transfers, Russia is likely to expand its agricultural exports to North Korea and deepen North Korea’s integration with its network of surrogates in the post-Soviet space. In June 2023, the Siberian region of Kuzbass exported 1,080 tons of wheat to North Korea and grain-for-arms shipments have been mooted. North Korea could also pursue closer ties with Russian-backed breakaway regions in Georgia and Ukraine, as these occupied territories are exempt from sanctions as UN non-members. In 2019, North Korea had 400 guest workers stationed in Abkhazia, situated in the construction sector. Russian Ambassador to North Korea Alexander Matsegora has discussed hiring North Korean workers to rebuild destroyed infrastructure in Donetsk and Luhansk.

While Russia’s courtship of North Korea has often been framed as a desperate measure to secure arms, the Moscow-Pyongyang relationship has genuine strategic depth. As Russia and North Korea’s prospects for escaping isolation from the West fade, their progress toward a sanctions-proof partnership will continue unabated.

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