North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s first foreign visit after the pandemic was in Russia on 10 September 2023, marking a shift in his prioritization of Russia over China. This six-day trip was his longest-ever visit to a foreign country, and Russian President Vladimir Putin also travelled 4,300 miles to meet Kim at Vostochny Cosmodrome.
The growing proximity between North Korea and Russia can be seen in the fact that Russia sent its Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu to participate in the 70th-anniversary celebration of the Korean War Armistice Agreement in July 2023, contrasting with the Chinese delegation led by Li Hongzhong. Despite Russia’s prolonged war, Putin and Shoigu spared time to meet Kim.
From Russia’s perspective, North Korea has more significance for its foreign policy due to its ongoing military expedition in Ukraine. Reports suggest that North Korea has been supplying artillery and other military equipment to Russia, which Russia may want to continue or increase. Pyongyang is expected to supply ammunition to replenish Moscow’s inventory, which has drained substantially during the war.
North Korea is considering increased economic activities to boost its ammunition production, relying on Russia for energy and fuel. The country also expects to receive new military and space technologies from Russia, which could enhance its defense capacity. Russia’s defiance of international norms, particularly in Ukraine, may make Moscow less concerned about lending assistance to Pyongyang despite sanctions.
North Korea also perceives China’s economic situation as challenging, as it has reportedly restrained itself from providing military assistance to Russia and North Korea. The US has suggested that any Chinese assistance to Russia and North Korea would be considered an evasion of sanctions. This suggests that North Korea sees this opportunity as an opportunity to open up towards Russia.
Kim Jong-un’s recent visit to Russia is primarily due to an arms deal between North Korea and Russia. He visited arms production factories in North Korea, inspecting the quality and quantity of arms for shipment to Russia. Kim and Putin met at a space launch centre in Russia and visited Russian military sites, appreciating advanced weapons, production centres, and nuclear-capable bombers.
Both countries pledged to expand strategic and tactical coordination between their armed forces. Kim invited Putin to Pyongyang for a reciprocal visit, which Putin accepted. Despite the unlikely scenario of Russia sharing its high-tech weapon technologies with North Korea, Pyongyang is happy with limited success. Food, economic aid, and bilateral trade were not prioritized during Kim Jong-un’s visit, but they may still happen if North Korea-Russia’s defense cooperation proximity increases.