From Reluctant Enforcer to Outright Saboteur: Russia’s Crusade Against North Korea Sanctions

Source: KCNA

On June 19, Russian President Vladimir Putin met with North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang. Putin’s visit to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) reciprocated Kim’s September 2023 trip to the Russian Far East and was his first visit to Pyongyang since July 2000. Putin’s trip culminated in Russia signing a comprehensive strategic partnership agreement with North Korea, which included a vow of mutual aid if either country was attacked. This upgrade in relations was a throwback to the 1961 North Korean-Soviet Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty, which underpinned Moscow-Pyongyang cooperation during the Cold War.

Although it received much less attention than the mutual assistance pledge, Russia’s overt willingness to sabotage the United Nations (UN) sanctions regime against North Korea was equally striking. Putin expounded on these arguments during his trip to Pyongyang, as he called for a review of “the indefinite restrictive regime of the UN Security Council regarding the DPRK.” Putin also derided the inappropriateness of stiff sanctions for a country of North Korea’s level of economic development and compared the hardships in North Korea to those that his brother suffered during the World War II Siege of Leningrad.

Russia’s conversion from an uneven enforcer to an outright saboteur of the UN sanctions regime against North Korea mirrors the breakdown in Russia-West relations since the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea. Russia’s disregard for sanctions on North Korea opens the door to expanded military-technical cooperation and tighter economic ties between the two countries. This allows North Korea to revive its Cold War-era strategy of balancing patronage from Moscow and Beijing.

Russia’s Stealth Crusade Against the UN Sanctions Regime on North Korea

Although Russia signed a Treaty on Friendship, Good-Neighborly Relations and Cooperation with North Korea in February 2000, Putin refused to condone North Korea’s nuclear weapons tests. In October 2006, Russia voted for UN Resolution 1718, which imposed an embargo on goods and technologies that support North Korea’s missile and WMD programs, as well as luxury goods—a way to inconvenience the lives of the elite to put pressure on the regime. In June 2009, President Dmitry Medvedev supported more intense sanctions on North Korea to deter Pyongyang’s nuclear program and subsequently authorized the deployment of a Russian S-400 air defense system to the Russia-North Korea border.

The Kremlin’s willingness to isolate North Korea over its nuclear program provoked polarizing reactions within the Russian expert community and political circles. In 2014, Konstantin Asmolov, an expert at the Institute of Far Eastern Studies, supported containment. Asmolov feared that North Korean aggression would trigger nuclear war and that North Korea’s low technological development could trigger a man-made nuclear disaster. Political scientist Alexander Ptitsyn argued in 2014 that North Korea would prevail over South Korea and further ensconce Chinese influence in Northeast Asia. Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) leader Gennady Zyuganov defended North Korea’s self-defense policies. After Kim Jong Il’s death in December 2011, Zyuganov lionized the North Korean Supreme Leader’s commitment to “peace, stability and security” in Asia.

After the US and its closest allies sanctioned Russia for its illegal March 2014 annexation of Crimea, a flurry of senior Russian officials visited Pyongyang. Alexander Galushka, the minister responsible for economic development in the Russian Far East, and Tatarstan President Rustam Minnikhanov were especially involved in promoting Russia-North Korea economic cooperation. In a clear display of their defiance of UN sanctions, Russia increased its trade target with North Korea from the 2014 level of $112 million to $1 billion by 2020. Russia also agreed to write off 90 percent of North Korea’s $11 billion Soviet-era debt.

Russia’s economic overtures towards North Korea, however, failed to produce concrete results. Although Russia was willing to push the limits of the UN sanctions regime, North Korean officials chafed at the market economy-based trade proposals and wanted Russia to revive Soviet-style commercial dealings. Despite this setback, Russia contradictorily positioned itself as a vocal exponent and stealth violator of the UN sanctions regime. Although the Russian Foreign Ministry claimed that it “fully and strictly observed the sanctions regime,” Western European security sources highlighted alleged illicit Russian fuel transfers to North Korea in October and November 2017.

The February 2022 invasion of Ukraine and Russia’s reliance on North Korean military hardware converted these stealth violations into overt ones. Russia’s March 2024 decision to torpedo the UN Panel of Experts monitoring body on North Korean sanctions set the tone for Putin’s comments in Pyongyang about a broader review of sanctions policy.

How Russia Subverted UN Restrictions on Arms Procurements from North Korea

While it is impossible to quantify exactly how much military aid Russia has received from North Korea, external estimates point to large-scale war materiel transfers. In March 2024, South Korean Defense Minister Shin Won-sik asserted that North Korea had supplied 7,000 containers of munitions to Russia. If these containers were filled with 152mm shells, this would amount to three million shells reaching Russia. By May of that year, North Korea was believed to have supplied 50 missiles to Russia. Although Ukraine asserts that nearly half of these missiles exploded in mid-air, the ones that hit their target killed at least 24 people.

Russia’s procurement of North Korean military equipment is enabled by a vast labyrinth of sanctions evasion mechanisms. Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin initially tried to position himself as the primary arms broker between Russia and North Korea. The US accused Wagner of procuring North Korean weapons in December 2022, but Ukraine only acknowledged the arrival of North Korean weapons on the frontlines in September 2023.

As Prigozhin’s relationship with the Russian Defense Ministry boiled over in early 2023, the Kremlin turned to alternative arms brokers. The US Department of the Treasury has singled out three individuals as intermediaries between Russia and North Korea. Slovakian national Ashot Mkrtychev was initially Russia’s primary arms broker with North Korea. Rafael Gazaryan liaised between the Kremlin and Mkrtychev. Alexey Budnev has brokered deals to supply North Korean communications equipment to the Russian military. These individuals own and coordinate with a network of corporations and shell companies, such as Trans Kapital LLC, Rafort LLC and Teknologiya.

Although the US sanctioned these individuals and companies in May 2024, the Russia-North Korea security partnership is institutionalized enough to counter these restrictions. From August to December 2023, at least 25 North Korean vessels docked at Najin (Rajin) Port to supply weapons to Dunai and Vostochny Port in Russia. Due to growing scrutiny of this transit route, North Korea began making use of “dark vessels” that lacked an Automatic Identification System (AIS). A further nineteen vessels without AIS have transited to Vostochny Port. Satellite imagery around Najin revealed no vessels transiting from December 2023 to February 2024, which exemplified the ability of these ships to evade detection.

The Prospects for Expanded Russia-North Korea Military-Technical and Economic Cooperation

Putin’s visit to Pyongyang fueled a plethora of speculation about Russian military technology provisions to North Korea. US officials believe that North Korea is seeking to procure fighter jets, armored vehicles, and surface-to-air missiles from Russia. State Duma Deputy Vyacheslav Nikonov highlighted plans to expand Russia-North Korea cooperation in space. This builds on Putin’s pledge at the September 2023 Vostochny summit to aid North Korea’s satellite program. US officials are concerned that Russia could help North Korea complete its goal of fielding a submarine that can launch a nuclear missile. These fears are not entirely new, as National Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg had previously expressed alarm about possible Russian assistance to North Korea’s nuclear program.

While Russian technological assistance to North Korea is likely, as Pyongyang continues its arms shipments, the Kremlin will be careful to keep any assistance within parameters that are acceptable to Beijing. Chinese media outlets hailed Putin’s meeting with Kim as a defiant display of resistance to Western efforts to isolate Russia and North Korea. Russia’s compromise on allowing Chinese access to North Korea’s Tumen River was also welcomed in Beijing. However, China does not fully concur with Russia’s support for North Korea’s nuclear program, as it fears a reciprocal intensification of US military infrastructure deployments in the Indo-Pacific and wants to maintain a workable diplomatic relationship with South Korea.

Aside from military-technical cooperation, Russia is also seeking to expand its economic ties with North Korea. Since North Korea began supplying arms to the Russian military, Moscow has become an increasingly important guarantor of its food security. In May 2024, Russia delivered 2,000 tons of flour and corn to North Korea, which was a small step towards alleviating food insecurity. Russia wants sanctions-proof trade that extends well beyond this food-for-arms barter exchange. Before Putin touched down in Pyongyang, Putin aide Yury Ushakov hailed the nine-fold increase in Russia-North Korea trade to $34.4 million and vowed a further expansion of bilateral commercial ties. Russian Natural Resources Minister Alexander Kozlov accompanied Putin during his trip to North Korea and bizarrely dismissed the notion that North Korea has draconian rules for the press.

While propagandistic Russian assessments of North Korea as a land of economic opportunity should be greeted with skepticism, North Korea’s dire economic conditions would make even small-scale Russian investment a significant win. Deeper financial integration between Russia and North Korea should also be watched. O In Chun, a Russia-based representative of Daesong Bank, and Jong Song Ho, a Russia-based representative of Jinmyong Joint Bank, have been sanctioned by the US Treasury Department for aiding North Korea’s WMD programs. Jong Song Ho’s leverage of his banking presence in Russia to invest in North Korean coal briquette production and facilitate North Korean coal exports is especially noteworthy. As Russian and North Korean banks are both ostracized from the SWIFT system, their cooperation in illicit financing schemes should be watched.


Putin’s trip to Pyongyang was a watershed moment for Russia-North Korea relations, which precipitously collapsed after the end of the Cold War and incrementally expanded in the new millennium. If North Korean arms transfers to Russia continue and Russia responds with military-technical assistance, Kim Jong Un’s vision of taking Pyongyang’s partnership with Russia above Cold War-era heights could come to fruition.

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