Monday, July 15, 2024
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The quick transformation of Russia-North Korea ties

‘For North Korea, grappling with economic challenges and international sanctions, Russia has emerged as a potential saviour’
| Photo Credit: Reuters

In the middle of a series of actions that are fuelling tensions in the Korean peninsula, including the abandoning of the decades-long unification goal with Seoul, Pyongyang is quickly deepening its ties with Russia. The pace and the depth appear to have gained momentum since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 which led to a strain in most of Moscow’s international ties. It gathered further fuel during the visit, in July 2023, of a delegation from Russia led by Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu to Pyongyang, which was followed soon after by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s subsequent visit to Moscow in September 2023.

The Russian President, Vladimir Putin, is expected to visit Pyongyang once again in 2024, with both countries preparing for a summit between the two leaders where “very good” deals are expected to be signed. With 2023 having been a year in which bilateral ties were fast-tracked, Russia’s Ambassador to North Korea, Alexander Matsegora, anticipates 2024 to be a breakthrough year for the two countries. Just last month, Mr. Putin gifted the North Korean leader a luxury Russian-made car, a type that is used by Mr. Putin himself.

Warming ties, greater collaboration

While historically, the two nations maintained diplomatic ties during the Cold War era, largely driven by shared ideological affinities as communist states, relations between Moscow and Pyongyang experienced fluctuations as the geopolitical landscape shifted. In recent years, there has been a noticeable warming of ties between Russia and North Korea, manifesting itself in diplomatic engagements and strategic collaborations, with Pyongyang emerging as a key arms, munitions, artillery shells and another conventional weaponry supplier to Moscow during the ongoing Ukraine crisis.

Reports also suggest that the two countries are discussing cooperation in sensitive areas that cannot be disclosed, with Mr. Putin also offering technical support for the development of spy satellites (a feat that North Korea has been aiming for some time now). There are also talks of trilateral naval exercises with Beijing although these are unconfirmed. In February 2024, Pyongyang also welcomed the first group of tourists from Russia since the COVID-19 pandemic.

For Russia, as a country that is an outcaste in world politics and yet a nuclear power, North Korea is a useful neighbour to cultivate. For North Korea, grappling with economic challenges and international sanctions, Russia has emerged as a potential saviour for development in sectors such as energy and transportation, and even in addressing Pyongyang’s chronic food shortages. Earlier, infrastructure projects such as the Rajin-Khasan railway linking Russia to North Korea’s Rajin port, underscored the tangible efforts to bolster economic cooperation.

The energy link

Energy collaboration has also formed another crucial aspect of the partnership. Russia has been a key supplier of fuel to North Korea, and discussions have been under way to explore further cooperation in the energy sector. The mainstay of bilateral cooperation is, however, a food-for-arms agreement, evidence of which surfaced during August 2023, although both countries have not confirmed the existence of such an agreement. The utility of a deal such as this is undeniable though, as Moscow needs arms to sustain its invasion of Ukraine while Pyongyang is in dire need of commodities and food. Satellite images in October 2023 tracked a significant increase in freight railcar traffic at the Tumangang rail facility located near the North Korea-Russia border, pointing to North Korea’s transfers of ammunition to Russia.

The American factor

Among other factors contributing to this rapprochement is the shared challenge posed by the United States and its allies in the region. North Korea and Russia have faced varying degrees of strain in their relations with the West, prompting a pragmatic recalibration of their foreign policy priorities. Moscow perceives engagement with North Korea as a means to influence the broader security landscape in northeast Asia.

The diplomatic initiatives undertaken by Russia, often in collaboration with China, underscore a desire to shape regional security architecture independently of western influence. The North Korean Foreign Minister, Choe Son-hui, observed in October 2023 that powerful ties between Moscow and Pyongyang could potentially offset the U.S.-led efforts of a strong alliance between Washington, Tokyo and Seoul.

Developments in 2023, and indications thus far in 2024, point to the ‘solidification’ of bilateral ties between Russia and North Korea, with both countries having found instinctive collaborators in each other. This partnership, forged amid common challenges and shared strategic objectives, has far-reaching implications for regional stability and global geopolitics. As both nations deepen their engagement and cooperation across various sectors, their relationship is likely to exert a significant influence on the dynamics of the Korean Peninsula and the broader northeast Asian region. As such, Russia-North Korea ties represent a notable development in the geopolitical landscape, with ramifications that extend beyond the immediate bilateral relationship.

Harsh V. Pant is Vice-President for Studies and Foreign Policy at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi and Professor of International Relations at King’s College London. Pratnashree Basu is an Associate Fellow, Indo-Pacific, at the Observer Research Foundation

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