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KEI Spotlight

[Op-Ed] Rethink North Korea-Russia relations

July 10, 2024

This article was published in The Korea Times on July 10, 2024.

The June 2024 announcement that North Korea and Russia were upgrading their relationship and entering into a new mutual defense treaty caught many off guard. The move was concerning enough that South Korean National Security Advisor Chang Ho-jin suggested that Seoul would reconsider its long-standing policy of not providing lethal aid to Ukraine. However, Russia and North Korea’s growing partnership is a rational, if disturbing, development in the current geostrategic environment.

When Kim Jong-un and Vladimir Putin met in September 2023, the shift in the relationship was largely viewed as temporary, driven by Russia’s need for munitions in its war with Ukraine. Then U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley said, “It looks to me as if Putin has gone to North Korea with a tin cup in hand asking for weapons, munitions and support, which is an inverse of their previous relationship.”

Many analysts at the time believed that North Korean aid would be restricted to old stocks of munitions, putting a limit on the relationship. Milley went further in his comments, suggesting that North Korean support would likely be ineffective as well. When asked whether North Korean munitions would make a difference on the battlefield Milley said, “I’m skeptical of that… I doubt that it would be decisive.”

We can see now that each of these assumptions is either under strain or proving to be incorrect. Prior to the recent summit meeting between Kim and Putin, South Korea estimated that North Korea had provided Russia with 10,000 containers of weapons. Depending on the specific weapons contained, North Korea could have provided Russia with more than 3 million 152-millimeter shells or half a million 122-millimeter rocket rounds. In addition, fragments of short-range Hwasong-11A missiles have been found on the battlefield in Ukraine, and Pyongyang is suspected of potentially also supplying Russia with rifles and rocket launchers.

While there have been reports suggesting a high failure rate for North Korean weapons, at least some of the equipment is relatively new. Components from North Korean ballistic missiles found on the battlefield were produced within the last three years. North Korean munitions factories are operating at full capacity to produce weapons for Russia. It is now clear that the arms relationship is more extensive than a simple drawdown of old North Korean stockpiles.

These weapons have given Russia a significant advantage. Ukraine has suffered from Russia’s five-to-one artillery advantage, but this advantage has been significantly enhanced by North Korean artillery. Without North Korea’s artillery, Russia would likely be able to deploy only two-and-a-half times Ukraine’s artillery.

What is driving the development of North Korea’s growing relationship with Russia? On a tactical level, Russia’s need for armaments and North Korea’s willingness to openly support Russia’s invasion has brought the two countries closer together. However, there are deeper forces at work that are shaping this relationship and will maintain it after the war in Ukraine ends.

China’s rise and geopolitical competition with the United States are reshaping post-Cold War relationships. China has sought to establish alternatives to traditional global governing institutions with the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the expansion of the BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. China is also working with Russia and some emerging economies to develop an alternative financial system to limit the ability of the United States to use its dominant financial system to sanction other states. It has also sought to deepen its partnership with Russia to what both now refer to as a “no limits” partnership.

Whether China’s geopolitical objective is to degrade U.S. influence only in Asia or globally is unclear, but Russia has been outspoken in its desire to shape a multilateral world in which the U.S. is diminished. In the European context, this is emboldening Russia’s revisionist approach to the extent that European states believe Russia would seek to expand further into Europe militarily after defeating Ukraine and rearming.

In this geopolitical context, regardless of how the war in Ukraine ends, Moscow likely will maintain deeper ties with North Korea. It will be different from the current relationship, but Russia is unlikely to go back to enforcing U.N. sanctions or serving as a partner for North Korea’s denuclearization. Moscow will be unable to provide the economic support to North Korea that China does, but in terms of trade, fuel supplies and a range of official contacts and support, Russia can play an important role in sustaining the Kim regime.

Dealing with these shifts in geopolitics will require a change in our thinking and our approach to both North Korea and Russia’s role on the Korean Peninsula, but it is time to set aside the idea that Russia will abandon North Korea after the war in Ukraine. Policy needs to be built around this new reality.