North Korea and Russia took another step in advancing their close relationship in November. Officials from both sides participated in a meeting of the Committee for Cooperation in Trade, Economy, Science and Technology, which last met four years ago in 2019. The bilateral meeting, first established in 1991, comes as Pyongyang and Moscow have reinvigorated their diplomacy. Washington and Seoul must carefully watch how this partnership evolves, and prepare for a North Korea that is even less inhibited than it already is.
The delegation led by Minister of Natural Resources and Ecology Alexandr Kozlov, participated in several activities that underscored the growing alignment between North Korea and Russia. In addition to offering a flower arrangement at a statue of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, the delegation also visited the Liberation Monument, which commemorates the lives of Soviet soldiers who died fighting Imperial Japan. According to state media, the hotel reception “proceeded in a comradely and warm atmosphere,” and saw officials from both sides reaffirm their desire for strengthened North Korea-Russia relations. Russian Minister Kozlov thanked his North Korean hosts for supporting Moscow in “regional and international issues,” while North Korean Minister of External Economic Relations Yun Jung Ho said Pyongyang would “further revitalize the bilateral relations in all fields and develop them onto a new high stage.”
The meetings between Ministers Yun and Kozlov addressed several economic, educational, and industrial policy areas. North Korean state media was reticent about the details, reporting the meeting built upon the discussions previously held when Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visited Pyongyang in October. The North Korean and Russian officials discussed “measures for revitalizing and expanding the multi-faceted bilateral exchange and cooperation in different fields, including trade, economy, science and technology,” according to KCNA. The Russian side released further details on the cultural and educational exchanges with North Korea. Citing a statement published by the Russian natural resources ministry, NK News further reported that the two sides also reached an agreement on exploring geological mineral resources like gold, iron, and rare earth metals, as well as offshore hydrocarbons. They also discussed deepening Russian food exports, including flour, corn, and soybean oil, and exploring the possibility of meat products next year.
There is some uncertainty as to what kind of advances North Korea has made from its stronger partnership with Russia. In late November, the North successfully launched a Malligyong-1 satellite into orbit. This longstanding goal was under discussion earlier this year, when Chairman Kim Jong-un met with President Vladimir Putin in September. Bruce Klingner, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, pointed to state media claims that the satellite and launcher were indigenously developed and writes that the launch occurred “too quickly” after the Kim-Putin summit for Russia to have helped.
But South Korean officials indicate they are considering it a possibility. South Korean Defense Minister Shin Won-sik said in a radio interview that the successful launch suggests that “Putin’s offer to help appears to not have been empty words.” While it remains to be seen to what extent Russia has provided North Korea technical support for developing its satellite launch technology, the United States has strongly warned Russia against doing it. “Those transfers in some cases violate multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions, including resolutions that Russia itself voted for,” said Department of State Spokesman Matthew Miller. “We will continue to monitor them closely and take whatever actions are appropriate with our allies in the region to monitor and respond to North Korea’s destabilizing behavior,” he also said.
What is clear is that Russia is becoming a less productive partner in addressing tensions on the Korean Peninsula. Dr. Rüdiger Frank of the University of Vienna told NK News that “UNSC sanctions against North Korea are effectively dead, at least from Moscow’s perspective.” He also told the outlet that Russia seems to be building its own alliance system, to counter pressure from the United States and its partners. Comments by Russian state media presenter Sergey Mardan during a recent broadcast emphasize this point. He criticized South Korea’s response to Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, and warned that Russia would arm North Korea if Seoul expanded its military support to Kiev. “It seems to me that this is how a fair world works,” Mr. Mardan said. “A symmetrical response to the South Koreans. They shouldn’t be surprised.” Although this statement may not be the official view of the Russian government, the possibility that Russia could become a spoiler on the Korean Peninsula cannot be a welcome development to South Korea.
China’s reaction to stronger North Korea-Russia relations has been quiet so far. Public media reports say that such a trilateral dialogue was discussed when Foreign Minister Lavrov visited Pyongyang previously. However, Beijing has been reticent in its public comments. At a press briefing at the end of November, Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokeswoman Mao Ning simply said that “the cooperation between Russia and the DPRK is a matter between those two sovereign states.” Her colleague Wang Wenbin previously repeated China’s boilerplate position, that “China is committed to peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula and the process of settling issues through dialogue.” A trilateral Russia-China-North Korea axis would significantly complicate the situation on the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia region.
Going forward, the United States and South Korea should continue coordinating on managing the convergence between North Korea and Russia. Given Russia’s priority on its western front, it remains to be seen if it has the bandwidth to deploy personnel to the Far East. But providing technical support and turning a blind eye to North Korean bad behavior may be enough to prevent further provocations by Pyongyang. If North Korea has indeed developed space capabilities, allied officials must discuss how they will respond to better targeting abilities by Pyongyang. Although the United States, Japan, and South Korea have said they are making progress sharing information on ballistic missile launches, further cooperation in the space domain may rise in priority.
Terrence Matsuo is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
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