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Legal Barriers to the North Korea-Russia Arms Trade – and the Loophole That Could Allow it to Expand 

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Legal Barriers to the North Korea-Russia Arms Trade – and the Loophole That Could Allow it to Expand 

The significant benefits that both Russia and North Korea have to gain by expanding their arms trade provides strong incentives to explore means of circumventing the U.N. sanctions regime. 

Legal Barriers to the North Korea-Russia Arms Trade – and the Loophole That Could Allow it to Expand 

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 Office

Since February 2022 the escalation of hostilities between Russia and Ukraine to full scale war, and simultaneous escalation of Western economic warfare efforts against Moscow, pressed the Russian government to renew its focus on ties with a number of strategic and economic partners across the non-Western world. The beginning of war in Ukraine in early 2014 had led Moscow to assign much greater importance to its ties with Beijing, ranging from defense sector cooperation to energy exports. With Sino-Russian ties and trade volumes already high and fast rising by the early 2020s Russian attentions from 2022 were focused elsewhere in the non-Western world. 

Moscow has accordingly consolidated ties with states ranging from Israel and the United Arab Emirates to India and Indonesia, as well as multiple countries across much of the African continent, in an effort to bolster its diplomatic and economic standings. Russia has had some successes in this regard, as evidenced by the strong expressions of frustration by Western leaders and commentators at forums such as the Munich Security Conference regarding how little support Western objectives in Ukraine had received from the non-Western world. Significant examples of actions by third parties that helped Moscow counter Western efforts included India’s steep surge in Russian oil acquisitions and Saudi Arabia’s reduction of oil production, which were leading factors in ensuring the failure of Western economic warfare efforts from 2022. 

As part of its efforts to strengthen ties across the non-West, Russia’s easternmost neighbor North Korea has increasingly proven a valuable partner. While the two benefitted from improving ties in the 2010s, ranging from use of Korean labor across much of the Russian Far East to joint work on Korean air defense systems, cooperation further increased from 2022. Moscow had distanced itself from Pyongyang after 1992 primarily as a means of improving ties with the West and South Korea. A breakdown in relations with the former, and Seoul’s growing support for Western strategic objectives against Russia ranging from hosting U.S. strategic missile interceptors near Russian borders to supporting critical artillery transfers to Ukraine, has given Moscow little incentive to continue to support their efforts to isolate North Korea. 

For Pyongyang, this has provided tremendous opportunities to strengthen its economy and its armed forces, while at the same time helping to frustrate the United States’ and its allies’ objectives in Eastern Europe, which itself could be seen to have direct benefits for the country’s security situation in East Asia. 

The North Korean and Russian economies are in many ways complementary, with North Korea short in natural resources but having large pools of internationally highly regarded skilled and unskilled labor available at some of the lowest rates in the world. Russia, although among the wealthiest countries in natural resources, faces labor shortages particularly in its underdeveloped Far Eastern regions, while still being affected by the sharp decline in education levels that ensued after 1991. 

Although there is significant room for longer term economic and technological cooperation, however, North Korea’s greatest immediate value for Russia is that it has perhaps the greatest potential other than China itself to meet Moscow’s immediate defense needs in relation to its war effort in Ukraine and broader geopolitical tensions with NATO. The North Korean defense sector is among the largest and most diverse in the world, while its strengths lie in areas which have proven particularly important in the Ukrainian theater such as howitzers, rocket artillery, and tactical ballistic and cruise missiles. North Korea’s active artillery force was notably considerably larger than Russia’s own before the war started, while its tactical ballistic missile arsenal is many times more diverse than Russia’s own. 

Current Russia-North Korea Arms Cooperation

Since the summer of 2022 the White House has reported on multiple occasions that North Korea was transferring ammunition to Russian forces for the ongoing war effort in Ukraine, including to both regular forces and to Wagner Group contractors. It was speculated from that time that Russia could seek to acquire complete North Korean systems, such as KN-09 and KN-25 rocket artillery or even KN-23 ballistic missile systems, which would not only supplement efforts to increase output of equivalent platforms from the domestic defense sector, but in many cases also provided significantly greater performances and often much longer ranges compared to the top Russian equivalents. 

Russia’s ability to either make acquisitions of complete North Korean systems, or to offset the costs of doing so by exporting its own military equipment to the country, has nevertheless faced international legal obstacles due to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) sanctions regime against Pyongyang. 

The UNSC first imposed an arms embargo on North Korea on October 14, 2006, with the adoption of Resolution 1718. Passed in response to Pyongyang’s first nuclear test, the resolution banned exports of “battle tanks, armored combat vehicles, large caliber artillery systems, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, missiles or missile systems,” or of “related materiel including spare parts.” This was bolstered by the adoption of Resolution 1874 on June 12, 2009, again following a North Korean nuclear test, which extended the arms embargo to include all weapons exports from the country and most imports, with the exception of small arms, light weapons, and related material. 

While no part of customary international law prohibits weapons trade between Russia and North Korea, as member states of the United Nations both are in the opinion of most legal experts bound by treaty law to abide by Security Council resolutions. Russia has nevertheless, alongside China, repeatedly called for a lifting of UNSC sanctions on North Korea since the country began a moratorium on ballistic missile and nuclear testing in early 2018 and sought to negotiate a gradual lifting of sanctions in return for concessions on its strategic weapons programs. 

Indeed, when allowing for the adoption of Resolution 1874 in June 2009 Russian representatives at the Security Council insisted that these sanctions be lifted once North Korea cooperated with the international community on its weapons programs, meaning when Pyongyang began making conspicuous efforts to do so. From 2018 the sanctions regime increasingly lost Moscow’s support. While the diplomatic efforts of 2018 quickly fell apart – and North Korea scrapped its moratorium in favor of a record-setting number of missile launches – Russia and China have still favored a loosening of sanctions to set the scene for a new round of talks.

A significant turning point in Russian arms acquisitions from North Korea came on January 4, 2024, when White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby informed reporters that the East Asian state had provided Russian forces with ballistic missiles, which were utilized in separate strikes on Ukrainian targets on December 30 and January 2. The first strike involved a single missile, and the second one multiple missiles. 

The description of the missiles used perfectly matched the capability of the North Korean KN-23B, the most capable short range ballistic missile in its arsenal, which was first test launched on March 25, 2021. The missile uses an irregular semi-ballistic depressed trajectory, similar to those from the Russian Iskander-M system, with the ability to conduct extensive in-flight maneuvers throughout. However, the KN-23B benefits from 180 percent the range and a warhead considerably larger than that of its Russian counterpart – reportedly over three times the size. 

Upon its introduction, the KN-23B immediately represented the most formidable surface-launched ballistic missile in the theater, with the ability to engage targets across an area 324 percent the size of that over which an Russia’s Iskander-M launcher could due to its 900 km range. 

A White House graphic released on January 4 also indicated that Russia had begun to deploy KN-25 rocket artillery systems, which have the longest ranges of any such system in the world outside China and around double the range of Russia’s own top system, the 9A53-S Tornado. This doubling or near doubling of the ranges of Russia’s top tactical ballistic missile and rocket artillery units are among the many benefits that North Korea’s defense sector can provide Russian forces, with greater supplies of artillery and 115 mm tank rounds being notable others. 

When announcing Russia’s landmark first use of North Korean ballistic missiles on January 4, the White House notably indicated that Russia would pay for these acquisitions not only with technology transfers, but also potentially with fighter plane exports. Russia is producing fighters in considerable quantities – more than sufficient to replace losses in Ukraine – and potentially seeking to doubly benefit by both reducing expenditures on arms imports and bolstering the air forces of its strategic partners. Such an exchange with North Korea would mirror Russia’s prior reported arrangement to offset the costs of Iranian drone acquisitions with exports of Su-35 fighters. 

As fighters are the most outstanding area where North Korea’s defense sector cannot produce for its own needs, aside from its prior production of Russian MiG-29 fighters under license in the 1990s and 2000s, such a deal would likely be accepted by Pyongyang, which has seen the standing of its manned combat fleet diminish considerably since it stopped receiving new Russian aircraft. 

A key obstacle to this, however, remains the arms embargoes imposed by the United Nations Security Council, which would make any such transfers illegal. While the fog of war and the pretext of desperate wartime necessity could help to justify Russian arms purchases from North Korea for immediate combat use, transferring fighter planes to the nuclear-armed state would be an arguably far more brazen violation of UNSC resolutions by one of its permanent members. 

Potential Loopholes

Despite the obstacles posed by U.N. Security Council arms embargoes to arms trade between them, the significant benefits that both Russia and North Korea have to gain by continuing and further expanding this trade provides strong incentives to explore loopholes and other means of circumventing the sanctions regime. 

In the case of fighter exports to North Korea, one of the most obvious means would be to export fighters from classes the country already fields, such as the MiG-29, with any externally identifiable upgrades on the newer models. This would allow any new aircraft to be plausibly deniable as having been made domestically. With only a single regiment of these aircraft already in service, North Korea could claim that any more units viewed on satellite imagery have merely been brought out of storage and were delivered before the embargo was imposed – although new units could benefit from new avionics, radars and weaponry passed off as indigenous upgrades. Violations of the arms embargo would thus retain a degree of plausible deniability, while modernized MiG-29s are likely to still be considered among the best suited fighters to North Korea’s defense needs. 

An option with significantly greater promise to legitimize a far broader range of arms trades between Russia and North Korea would be to use the premise of sharing weapons systems and the formation of joint units between the two countries. For example, it could be claimed that North Korea has not sold artillery and ballistic systems to Russia, but rather that these are being either operated by Korean personnel or, perhaps more feasibly, that they are jointly operated by personnel from the two countries. Even one North Korean officer in the vicinity could be sufficient to claim it is a joint operation. 

This would itself be far from unprecedented, with a notable example being North Korean personnel’s operation of Syrian artillery in the Lebanon War, and supervising of Syrian artillery during counterinsurgency operations in the 2010s in battles such as that in the insurgent stronghold of Qusair in 2013. Russian media sources have widely reported since mid-2022 that North Korean personnel would be deployed to Eastern Ukraine, specifically leveraging their expertise in artillery operations, and it is far from unthinkable that Korean officers are at the front to supervise, observe, or even actively contribute to operations of their hardware. This would mirror the reported deployment of Iranian personnel to assist with Russian operations of newly delivered drones, although the nature of the assets in question means North Korean personnel  providing such support would need to be deployed much closer to the frontlines.  

Announcement of a sharing of weapons systems or of the formation of joint units has provided pretext for politically controversial military deployments on multiple occasions in the past. One of the most brazen examples was the creation of joint Sino-Soviet fighter units, which allowed the Soviet Air Force to deploy its latest MiG-15 fighters for air defense duties in the Korean War while allowing Moscow to deny that it was an active belligerent. 

One of the most controversial was the United States’ entry into nuclear sharing agreements in the late 2000s with NATO members Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey, allowing countries to host American nuclear weapons on their territory, train to use these weapons, and field suitable delivery vehicles to conduct nuclear strikes. This was done with the intention that in the case of war, nuclear warheads would be immediately transferred to the hosting countries – for most intents and purposes turning them into nuclear weapons states. Russia entered into a similar sharing arrangement with Belarus in 2023, with warheads in Belarus remaining under Russian control, but for most intents and purposes being Belarusian as they would be transferred to local forces should war break out. 

Should controversies over North Korean weapons systems in Russia continue to grow, and should Pyongyang seek to avoid being presented as a full belligerent in the conflict, presenting Korean assets as being operated jointly by Russia and North Korea provides a degree of deniability. 

Similarly, should North Korea acquire Russian combat aircraft other than MiG-29s, such as the more advanced Su-35 and Su-57 fighters recently inspected by its leader Kim Jong Un on a visit to Russia in September, these could be accompanied by Russian personnel at North Korean bases and presented as operating under a joint Russian-led unit – whatever the reality of the command structures under which they actually function. Such long range fighters, which are very easily capable of flying across Korea from airfields across the Russian border, could even be deployed between bases in the two countries to further this perception – while retaining duties such as interceptions of U.S. bombers near the peninsula and flyovers during military parades in Pyongyang. 

Emphasizing that such units are equipped solely for air defense duties, and are not capable of deploying nuclear weapons and perhaps no air-to-surface weapons at all, would be key to dispelling any criticisms that Russia was in any way condoning the North Korean nuclear weapons program – which has been the premise for all UNSC resolutions sanctioning the country. This could significantly reduce the fallout that could ensue from such a decision. Much as nuclear weapons sharing does not technically violate treaty laws governing the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, so too would such joint units arguably not violate U.N. Charter obligations to abide by UNSC arms embargoes. 

Ultimately, while many of the future avenues Russian-North Korean defense cooperation may take may appear quite fantastical, just two years ago the idea of Russia importing North Korean ballistic missiles and artillery – or of Western combat troops making active frontline deployments to fight Russian forces, as they have from 2022 – would itself have sounded highly implausible. Geopolitical trends indicate that what was once dismissed as highly unlikely in the three decades after the Cold War will increasingly appear possible as great power conflict intensifies. 

Finding ways around UNSC arms embargoes for both arms acquisitions from and transfers to North Korea without directly violating these embargoes thus provides a means for Russia to balance its interest in the preserving of the U.N. system, in which it maintains strong stakes, and the need to increase its benefits from expanded defense cooperation with its easternmost neighbor.