Russia and North Korea: Moving towards Alliance 2.0?

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(Source: Ministry for the Development of the Russian Far East and the Arctic)

For more than two years, since the beginning of the pandemic in early 2020, relations between Russia and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) have been uneventful, almost frozen. Fearing the spread of the corona virus, North Korea went into extreme self-isolation. As a result, Russian trade and human contacts with the north were almost completely stopped. At the same time, the diplomatic process on the Korean peninsula, in which Russia is one of the actors, has stalled. However, in recent months there have been clear signs that relations between Russia and the DPRK are beginning to recover.

With Pyongyang declaring victory over the coronavirus, there are reasons to believe that at least some border restrictions on the North Korean side will soon begin to be lifted, allowing the North to resume physical contact with Russia. At a meeting with the governor of Russia’s Primorsky Krai in Vladivostok, the DPRK’s ambassador to Russia, Sin Hong Chol, announced that the North is preparing to resume rail traffic with Russia in September. The reopening of the border will only apply to freight traffic by rail. It is still not known when passenger traffic between the two countries will be restored. Before the pandemic, Russia and North Korea maintained regular passenger services via Vladivostok (by air) and Khasan (by rail).

In addition to the normalization of the situation with COVID-19, there is another, perhaps more significant reason for the activation of contacts between Russia and North Korea. Moscow’s “special military operation” in Ukraine has ushered in a new geopolitical reality in which the Kremlin and the DPRK may become increasingly close, perhaps even to the point of reviving the quasi-alliance relationship that existed during the Cold War.

From the very beginning of the crisis over Ukraine, North Korea has unequivocally sided with Russia. The DPRK was among five countries that voted against a United Nations (UN) General Assembly resolution demanding that Russia withdraw all its military forces from the territory of Ukraine. The other four opponents of the resolution were Russia itself, Belarus, Eritrea and Syria. Since then, the North has repeatedly expressed support for Russian actions in Ukraine, placing all the blame for the crisis on the United States, NATO and Ukraine. According to an article published on the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the DPRK:

Russia had no choice but to launch a military operation against Ukraine. This is entirely attributable to NATO’s tightening ring around Russia with its continued eastward expansion and advanced deployment of military infrastructure…which poses a serious security threat. The current situation in Ukraine clearly shows that a regime that turns its back on its own people and countrymen while bowing to foreign powers is doomed to a miserable fate… The West may be desperately trying to maintain a Western-led world order, but there is no way to check the growing international trend toward independent development.

It should be noted that Pyongyang has recently started using a new formula to characterize relations between the DPRK and Russia. It is now described as “tactical and strategic cooperation”.

Pyongyang’s most significant gesture of support for Russia so far has been the diplomatic recognition of the Moscow-backed Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republic (DNR/LNR). The letters that Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui sent to her counterparts in the DPR/LNR expressed “the will to develop state-to-state relations” with Russian-backed entities “based on the ideas of independence, peace and friendship.” Apart from Russia itself, North Korea became only the second UN member state, after Syria, to recognize the Donbas (Donbas) republic. For Pyongyang, the recognition of Donetsk and Luhansk was a cheap and low-risk act. In retaliation, Kiev predictably severed diplomatic relations with Pyongyang, but the DPRK has no significant ties to Ukraine anyway. North Korea reportedly acquired valuable missile and military technology from Ukraine back in the 1990s and 2000s, but it has been a long time since the Ukrainian route was closed to the North Koreans. Similarly, Pyongyang was unconcerned about the reaction of Kiev’s Western allies, given that the West has hardly any punishments left to impose on North Korea.

Diplomatic recognition of the DPR/LNR is mostly a symbolic move, so it is unclear whether Pyongyang is really willing and able to provide material support to the Russian military operation in Ukraine. Some Russian media and experts discussed the possibility of North Korea sending “up to 100,000” troops to Ukraine, a topic that was soon picked up by Ukrainian and Western media. The Russian Foreign Ministry called such speculations “completely false.”

North Korea has some history of sending its military to fight overseas. The most prominent case was the Vietnam War. More recently, North Korean military advisers and commandos have reportedly been involved in conflicts in Africa and the Middle East. However, these were quite limited contingents. To make a difference in the Ukraine war, North Korea needs to send not hundreds and thousands of troops, but tens of thousands. It is extremely unlikely that Kim Jong Un would send the North’s soldiers into the most intense armed conflict in Europe since World War II. The risk that not a small number of them will not return home from the Ukrainian battlefields is too great. Quite apart from the risk of high casualties, there are challenges, such as the lack of interoperability with Russian forces due to the language barrier and the complete absence of joint training.

Another hypothetical contribution that the DPRK could make to the Russian military operation is the supply of weapons. North Korea has huge stockpiles of ammunition and a huge arms industry. Since many of North Korea’s weapons are based on Soviet standards, its ammunition could be compatible with weapons systems used by the Russian military and DNR/LNR units. If Pakistan is sending ammunition to Ukraine, as some reports suggest, and South Korea is making major arms deals with Poland, why can’t the DPRK sell arms to the other side of the conflict? The Pentagon claims that Russia approached North Korea for ammunition. So far, no evidence has been provided to support these allegations. Russia’s UN envoy characterized it as “another fake”, while Pyongyang also firmly denied Washington’s “reckless remarks”. Of course, any arms deal between Russia and North Korea would violate UN sanctions against Pyongyang, although this restriction could be punished by supplying weapons not to Russia, but to the DPR/LNR which is outside the UN system.

While Russian and DPR/LNR officials deny any plans for military cooperation with North Korea, they talk about prospects for economic cooperation with the DPRK. According to the Russian ambassador to North Korea, Alexander Macegora, there are “wide” possibilities for such cooperation between the Republic of Donbass and North Korea. Matsegora singled out the construction workers from North Korea, who are “highly qualified, diligent and ready to work in very difficult conditions.” As suggested by a Russian diplomat, the North Korean workforce could make an important contribution to the reconstruction of damaged infrastructure and industrial facilities in Donbass. In return, the Donbas republics could export coking coal, wheat and industrial equipment to the north.

Russian officials dismiss concerns about possible violations of the UN sanctions regime should the Donbass republics enter into commercial deals with the DPRK. Head of the Department for International Organizations at the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Pyotr Ilyichev, believes that Moscow will not act as a “self-appointed watchdog” to pressure the DNR/LNR to comply with sanctions. Ilyichev advised those concerned about the application of sanctions to speak directly with Donetsk.

While economic interactions between the DPRK and DPR/LNR seem rather hypothetical at this point, the prospect of continued trade between North Korea and Russia is far more realistic, given that the two countries share a land border and have a long history of economic cooperation. In addition, the economic relationship between Russia and North Korea will face the same set of constraints that hampered its growth before the pandemic. In short, North Korea has little to offer its northern neighbor. The Russian Federation wants cash and high-tech goods, which North Korea lacks. Manpower is perhaps the only resource of significance that North Korea can share with Russia. The Soviet Union and then Russia imported a lot of North Korean labor.

In recent months, Russian officials have openly discussed the possibility of resuming labor imports from the North, even though UN Security Council resolutions explicitly prohibit the use of North Korean workers. Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin, who oversees Russia’s construction industry, recently said Russian authorities were “working on political arrangements” to employ North Korean workers. According to him, DPRK workers, numbering between 20,000 and 50,000, may be invited to Russia, mainly for infrastructure development in the Russian Far East. In the past, DPRK workers and their “superiors” converted their ruble (ruble) earnings into US dollars. Given that Russia is now completely separated from the dollar financial system, an alternative payment method may be through the Chinese yuan. Shipments of Russian oil and petroleum products are another possible option to pay for North Korean labor. Incidentally, an official of the Russian Foreign Ministry recently suggested that Russia is ready to resume exports of oil and petroleum products to the DPRK. Another perspective area of ​​bilateral cooperation, although less strategic, could be tourism. Since Russians can no longer go to Ibiza, they could appreciate the beautiful beaches of Wonsan.

The cataclysmic events that have unfolded since February 24, 2022 have significantly changed Moscow’s calculation towards Pyongyang. As the Russian Federation finds itself in an existential struggle with the West over Ukraine, the importance of the DPRK, which is one of the few countries willing to openly partner with the Kremlin to counter the US, has increased for Moscow. At the same time, the importance of the denuclearization agenda of the Korean Peninsula has decreased for Russia. Full compliance with the sanctions imposed on the DPRK may no longer be Russian policy, if only because Russia itself has been subject to heavy sanctions initiated by the US and the EU.

Moscow and Pyongyang may be on the verge of re-establishing an alliance that existed during the Cold War but fell apart with the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, their new relationship is more likely to be a strategic alignment rather than a formal alliance based on a binding agreement. Having achieved a nuclear deterrent capability, Pyongyang no longer needs Moscow’s defense commitments. Furthermore, the entente between Moscow and Pyongyang should be nested within the larger trilateral alliance of China, Russia and the DPRK, which will be led by Beijing. The modus operandi of this emerging trilateral alignment remains to be seen, but it is clear that the Sino-Russian-North Korean bloc will have profound implications for the balance of power in Northeast Asia.



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