The revival of the Russia-North Korea alliance
Author: Artyom Lukin, Federal University of the Far East
Moscow’s “special military operation” in Ukraine ushered in a new geopolitical reality. The Kremlin and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) could become increasingly close, perhaps even to the point of resurrecting the quasi-alliance that existed during the Cold War.
From the start of the Ukrainian crisis, Pyongyang unequivocally supported Moscow. The DPRK was among the five countries that voted against the UN General Assembly resolution demanding Russia’s withdrawal from Ukraine. Pyongyang has repeatedly expressed support for Russia’s actions, blaming the Ukraine crisis for the United States, NATO and Kyiv.
Apart from Russia, Syria and North Korea are the only UN member states to recognize the Russian-sponsored Donetsk and Lugansk republics. In retaliation, Kyiv severed diplomatic ties with Pyongyang, but the ties weren’t substantial anyway. Kyiv’s Western allies are also of no concern to the DPRK since the West has virtually no sanctions left to impose on North Korea.
The DPRK is also the only UN member state to have recognized Moscow-backed referendums in Donetsk, Lugansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. Pyongyang quickly approved referendums, stating that an “overwhelming majority of voters supported integration with Russia”. Since these moves are mostly symbolic, it’s unclear whether Pyongyang is willing — and able — to provide military support to Russia.
Speculation swirled among pundits and media that North Korea would send up to 100,000 troops to Ukraine, but the Russian Foreign Ministry pushed back this. North Korea has previously sent troops on overseas combat missions, but these were limited contingents. To make a difference in Ukraine, Pyongyang should send tens of thousands of troops.
North Korea is unlikely to send its troops into Europe’s most intense armed conflict since World War II. Besides the risk of high casualties, there are interoperability issues with Russian forces due to the language barrier and lack of any joint training. Moreover, the “partial mobilization” of Russia – ordered by President Vladimir Putin at the end of September 2022 – seems to eliminate the need for foreign troops.
Another hypothetical DPRK military contribution concerns arms supplies. North Korea has vast stockpiles of ammunition and a massive arms industry. Many of its weapons are based on Soviet standards, so Pyongyang’s ammunition might be compatible with Russian weapons.
If Pakistan, as some reports claim, sends ammunition to Ukraine and South Korea is supplying equipment to Poland, so maybe the DPRK could sell weapons to Russia. The Pentagon says Russia has approach North Korea for ammunition, but so far no evidence has been provided. Russia’s UN envoy called the claim “fake‘while Pyongyang denied Washington’careless remarks‘.
While the military agreements between Russia and the DPRK seem rather hypothetical, the resumption of trade is more realistic since the two countries share a land border and have a long history of economic collaboration. But the relationship will face the same limitations that had hampered its growth before the COVID-19 pandemic — North Korea lacks the money and high-tech goods that Russia wants.
Manpower is perhaps the only resource North Korea can share with Russia. The Soviet Union, and later Russia, imported many North Korean workers. Russian officials have considered resuming labor imports from the DPRK, even despite a ban on the practice by the UN Security Council.
Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin – who oversees Russia’s construction industry – said Russian authorities were “working on political arrangements” to employ North Korean labor. Between 20,000 and 50,000 workers from the DPRK could be invited to Russia, mainly to develop infrastructure in the Russian Far East.
Yet economic relations between Russia and North Korea have remained frozen since the start of 2020, when direct transport links were suspended by Pyongyang due to COVID-19[feminine]. It was expected that the Khasan-Rajin rail traffic route could resume in September 2022, but so far North Korea has kept its border with Russia closed.
Events unfolding since February 24, 2022 have changed Moscow’s reckoning towards Pyongyang. As Russia finds itself in an existential struggle with the West over Ukraine, the DPRK’s prominence has risen as one of the few countries willing to join forces with the Kremlin to counter the U.S. United.
At the same time, the importance of Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula decreased for Russia. Complying with the sanctions imposed on the DPRK may no longer be Russia’s policy, as Russia is also targeted by the sanctions launched by the United States and the EU.
Moscow and Pyongyang may be on the verge of restoring the Cold War alliance that crumbled with the fall of the Soviet Union. But it will likely be a strategic alignment rather than a formal alliance. Having obtained a nuclear deterrent capabilityPyongyang no longer needs Moscow’s defense commitments.
Furthermore, the Moscow-Pyongyang deal will be intertwined with the Beijing-led trilateral alignment between China, Russia and the DPRK. How this trilateral alignment will work remains to be determined, but a Sino-Russian-North Korean bloc will have a profound impact on the balance of power in Northeast Asia.
Artyom Lukin is Associate Professor at the Oriental Institute – School of Regional and International Studies, Far Eastern Federal University, Vladivostok.
A version of this article first published here in 38 North.