Quick Take: Some Musings on Eve of Putin-Kim Summit in Pyongyang

(Source: KCNA)

As important as North Korea-Russia military cooperation is, perhaps the more important question is what the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) ultimately seeks to achieve through an improved relationship with Moscow. Is Pyongyang merely driven by short-term interests, namely Russia’s advanced military technology in exchange for its weapons? Or does North Korea have longer-term strategic interests in sight?

In that vein, a pre-summit article penned by Putin, published on the front page of the party daily, offers some good food for thought going forward. The relevant passage runs as follows:

To that end, we will develop a trade and mutual settlement system that is not controlled by the West and will jointly oppose [the West’s] one-sided, illegal restrictive measures.[1]

On the surface, this is a less than subtle attempt by two countries subjected to international sanctions to circumvent the US dollar-centered global financial system. The feasibility and sustainability of such a system is unclear. But more important is the question of how closely aligned Pyongyang’s and Moscow’s interests may be even in the economic realm, and what this might signal about North Korea’s longer-term calculus toward its economy and its relations with the United States.

While the article was penned by Putin, it implies that there is an opportunity for North Korea’s economic growth within an anti-West economic bloc led by Russia—a message that is likely appealing to Kim Jong Un. It is almost certainly not a coincidence that since June 2023, just as North Korea was aligning itself more closely with Russia, there has been a significant uptick in state media coverage of moves by BRICs and Russia to explore alternative economic arrangements that do not require the US dollar. Historically, one of the main reasons North Korea has pursued improved relations with Washington was to broker sanctions relief and regain access to the international financial system. If Pyongyang views Russia as a viable longer-term partner for improving its economy—as irrational as this may seem to some—there is even less of an incentive for it to try to improve relations with the United States. This would be consistent with the analysis that North Korea’s policy change toward the US observed over the past three years is of a fundamental rather than tactical nature.

North Korea has characterized its relations with Russia as “invincible comrade-in-arms relations and the ever-lasting strategic relations.” Meanwhile, in his article, Putin referred to Russia’s relations with the North as a “many-sided partnership.” Regardless of the brand of the relationship, the agreements (or a treaty) the two countries sign during Putin’s visit (should they be made public) will shed light on their current and future thinking not only about each other but also other key regional players like the United States and China.

  1. [1]

    Translated from “로씨야와 조선민주주의인민공화국: 년대를 이어가는 친선과 협조의 전통—로씨야련방 대통령 웨.뿌찐 [Russia and the DPRK: Tradition of Friendship and Cooperation Continued Over Decades—Russian Federation President V. Putin],” Rodong Sinmun, June 18, 2024.

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