Russia has increased its alliance with North Korea, despite being isolated from the international community and in need of weapons and ammunition to continue its fight in Ukraine. Recent developments suggest deepening military cooperation, which could prolong the war in Ukraine and increase provocations on the Korean peninsula.
Russia reaffirmed its intentions on 26 October 2023, pledging to develop close relations with Pyongyang. North Korea’s Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui warned that North Korea’s relations with Russia would act as a “powerful strategic” element if security in the region is endangered due to the US-led trilateral military alliance with South Korea and Japan.
The deepening of the North Korea-Russia alliance began in July 2023 when North Korean leader Kim Jong-un welcomed a Russian delegation to Pyongyang, headed by Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu. Shoigu proposed trilateral naval exercises involving China and North Korea, highlighting Moscow’s willingness to deepen cooperation. Kim Jong-un expressed his interest in deepening ties with Moscow in a public manner by making a personal visit to Russia on 12 September 2023.
The US accuses North Korea of supplying arms to Russia for its war in Ukraine and threatens severe consequences if Kim strikes an arms deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Putin expressed his intention to help North Korea build satellites and develop its space program, and to discuss further cooperation on a broad range of topics with Kim Jong-un. The fruits of the summit seem to be materializing, with an October 2023 report indicating a dramatic increase in freight railcar traffic at North Korea’s Tumangang Rail Facility.
Russia may provide advanced military technology and food aid to North Korea in exchange for weapons and assistance in developing its military capabilities. North Korea’s visit to Russia serves to show the world that the ‘hermit kingdom’ is not as isolated as many may think. Deepening ties with Moscow also serves Pyongyang’s interests in reducing its dependence on China for aid and trade.
China faces a difficult balance between maintaining North Korea as a buffer state to counter the US and preventing escalating tensions on the Korean peninsula. Denuclearization of North Korea is in Beijing’s interests, as it would challenge the need for US troops in South Korea. Russia’s provision of advanced military technologies to North Korea could lead to a more dangerous weapons program, potentially escalating tensions near China’s border. However, North Korea’s support for Russia in Ukraine could prevent Moscow from suffering defeat, containing US power.
Given China’s influence, North Korea and Russia are unlikely to engage in actions that directly harm China’s interests. Both North Korea and Russia are likely to maintain close communication with China. The Kremlin is calling for closer policy coordination between Moscow and Beijing to counter Western aims at the ‘double containment of Russia and China’. Cold War-era blocs are becoming increasingly solidified, raising tensions across Europe and Asia.