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What Comes Next for North Korea-Russia Relations?

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What Comes Next for North Korea-Russia Relations?

The visit by Kim Jong Un to Russia shows the world North Korea has its own “bloc” alliance comprising its two closest diplomatic partners.

What Comes Next for North Korea-Russia Relations?

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (left) shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a meeting at the Vostochny Cosmodrome, Sep. 13, 2023.

Credit: Russian Presidential Press and Information Office

North Korea and Russia have taken their relations to a new level after the leaders of the two countries held an in-person summit meeting on Wednesday. While Pyongyang and Moscow have enjoyed close ties since the foundation of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in 1948, the relationship is seeing a significant upgrade. 

The visit by Kim Jong Un to Russia shows the world that North Korea has more than just China to rely on and, in fact, has its own “bloc” alliance comprising its two closest diplomatic partners. The development is particularly noteworthy in the context of an increasingly strong Japan-South Korea-U.S. trilateral. 

Short-term Gains

For now, Pyongyang is likely to focus its diplomatic energy on further deepening cooperation with Moscow on various fronts. At the summit on Wednesday, Kim made clear that relations with Russia were “the very first priority for our country.” 

The big win for Kim was Russian President Vladimir Putin’s pledge to help North Korea with its space program. Pyongyang has seen difficulty in this area due to a lack of advanced technologies. After two failed attempts to launch a military satellite into orbit, it plans to make a third attempt in October. It was notable, then, that the summit took place at the Vostochny Space Launch Center, putting space cooperation at the center of the summit.

In addition to military technological support, the two countries also discussed plans to launch joint projects in the fields of tourism, construction, and agriculture. 

Besides material gains, the summit also marks a win for Kim in terms of boosting his status in the international arena. Although North Korea is always seen as the lesser, dependent partner vis-a-vis its alliance with China, the current partnership with Russia sees North Korea rising to the level of an equal ally. Given the dire situation in Ukraine for the Russian military, it is arguably Putin who needs Kim’s help more urgently than the other way around. 

While Pyongyang desires technological assistance and aid, it is not a question of life and death. The situation for Putin, however, seems more volatile. It was widely expected that expanded arms sales from North Korea to support Russia’s ongoing war effort would be a top priority during the summit. In other words, the optics played significantly in North Korea’s favor. 

Military Cooperation

As a result of the summit, North Korea-Russia relations have shifted from a strategic partnership in the direction of a military alliance. The two countries are set to comprehensively expand their cooperation to enhance their military capability to counter increasingly strengthened South Korea-United States military cooperation.  For example, Pyongyang and Moscow could agree to conduct joint military exercises on a regular basis, just like the U.S. does with South Korea. 

In addition, North Korea will likely amp up its military support of Russia’s war in Ukraine, sending artillery shells, rockets, and other conventional weapons. The military cooperation between the two states could reach even deeper levels through further negotiations, especially if Putin does decide to visit North Korea. 

Although North Korean media reported Putin accepted Kim’s invitation, whether the Russian leader will actually go remains to be seen. A second in-person meeting, however, could result in North Korean support going beyond weapons. Depending on the situation on the ground for the Russian military, Putin may even request North Korean support in the form of soldiers. 

In exchange, Russia will likely be providing the North with advanced military technologies to aid in the further development of solid-fuel missiles, hypersonic missiles, nuclear submarines, reentry vehicles, and the country’s space program. What’s more, the two countries could even offer each other mutual support for a first-use policy of nuclear weapons if either is threatened by an external actor such as the United States. This would mark a highly concerning turn in the wrong direction, not just for security on the Korean Peninsula but for global security as a whole.

The China Factor

Throughout the pandemic, North Korea has become even more isolated due to its self-imposed border closure. As a result, it has come to rely almost completely on China for a wide range of necessary imports, especially food and energy. Despite being its biggest aid provider, however, Beijing does not approve of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons development. 

From China’s perspective, North Korea’s persistent nuclear threat and numerous missile tests have accelerated security tensions on the Korean Peninsula and, as a result, increased U.S. military influence in the region. This is not in the best interests of Beijing. That is why China will not necessarily agree with Russia providing technological support to North Korea to help further develop its nuclear and weapons programs.

In turn, North Korea also dislikes China’s apprehensive stance regarding its nuclear weapons program. For nearly a year now there have been predictions of another nuclear test by the North, but the test has yet to happen. One reasonable argument is that Beijing’s pressure has made Pyongyang delay the scheduled test, even if China may not necessarily influence North Korea’s final decision to eventually hold the test. Still, given its massive economic leverage, Beijing may keep Pyongyang from conducting a test for now.  

Given this situation, for North Korea, the improvement of its relations with Russia would help reduce Beijing’s overwhelming political and economic influence over its country.

Diplomacy With the United States

While the United States attempts to double down on deterrence efforts targeting the North, Pyongyang has made it clear it is not afraid and has no intention of backing down any time soon. On the contrary, it is acting more emboldened than ever. Whether this will last, however, remains to be seen.  

The security environment in the region could see major changes in the upcoming years due to the many uncertainties, such as the Taiwan issue and the ongoing war in Ukraine. North Korea’s strategies will also be heavily influenced by regional security developments. Most importantly, the state of its relations with China and Russia will likely play a major role in North Korea’s strategy calculations. 

In the worst-case scenario for North Korea, Russia would suffer a defeat in Ukraine and China would plunge into an economic crisis. These two hypothetical scenarios would be a complete disaster for the North. If serious political turmoil were to arise in China and Russia, Pyongyang could be left with no more economic sponsors or military allies. As a result, North Korea would be in a very vulnerable and unstable position. This would likely open the doors for resumed diplomacy with the United States.

This would be further facilitated if Donald Trump is reelected as U.S. president in 2024, as the two leaders could pick up where they left off a few years ago. Kim would be much more likely to consider re-engaging with the U.S. diplomatically if Trump is the winner, instead of having to start from zero with another president. 

In the meantime, however, North Korea will continue to advance its nuclear weapons program and the development of stronger intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), solid fuel engines, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, etc. at least until 2026 in accordance with its Five-Year Military Plan. This could also result in heightened military tensions in 2025, as seen in 2017. Kim could choose to show off the country’s military advancements through various tests, for example.  

If Kim does take this route, future North Korea-U.S. nuclear negotiations could be expected to resume in 2026, which also marks the final year of the Five-Year Military Plan. Talks this time around, however, would have to focus on the disarmament of the entire peninsula, not just the denuclearization of North Korea in order for Kim to play ball.