Russia-North Korea: brothers in arms?



Perhaps one of the most notable events of last week was the three-day visit of a Russian delegation headed by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to the DPRK.

It is noteworthy that the invitation to visit this country, which recently opened its borders after the COVID pandemic, came directly from the North Korean Ministry of Defense. Characteristically, it was not the head of the Foreign Ministry or the Prime Minister of the government who was invited. It was the Russian and Chinese delegations that became the first official visitors to the country after a long break.

There is a logical explanation for the latter circumstance. Officially, the reason for the visit was the celebration of the 70th anniversary of the end of the Korean War, in which North Korea confronted the Western coalition led by the United States. And the USSR and China provided invaluable assistance to Pyongyang in this war. China — with the direct participation of almost 1 million “volunteers”, and the USSR — with weapons, military advisers and air cover. Few people know, but Russian aces shot down many American airplanes in the skies of Korea. This assistance prevented the young people’s democratic republic from being destroyed, as well as from using atomic weapons on the peninsula. Such plans were already being hatched by Washington at that time. Later, a massive nuclear strike was also planned against the USSR. Only the development of its own nuclear weapons saved the country from annihilation. The historical parallels here are obvious.

Since then, U.S. policy in the region has changed little. The same threats to wipe out the North Korean regime using thermonuclear weapons are still in effect. And legally, the war here is not yet over, as Washington refuses to conclude a peace agreement with Pyongyang and give security guarantees. Relative stability here is based on the armistice agreement, and now also on North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons and means of their delivery. By the way, the North Korea officially withdrew from the armistice agreement a few years ago, motivating its move by the failure of the U.S. to fulfill its conditions. Pyongyang is referring to the presence of the U.S. military contingent in South Korea, the threats posed by the U.S. fleet, which operates near the DPRK’s borders with nuclear weapons on board. And also the regular maneuvers of the Western coalition near the North Korean coast, which have as a training goal the destruction of North Korea and its leadership. So the war there is not over yet.

This background of the festivities is seen from the North Korean side, and it seems to be shared by the Russian Defense Ministry, since they accepted the invitation to pay such a significant visit.

In the current historical context, the gathering of old allies in the anti-Western struggle has an understandable logic. Especially on the part of Russia, which is not spoiled by allied relations and which at the current stage has to confront the Western coalition, as North Korea once did. Now Russia’s closer look into the North Korean side has a number of symbolic nuances.

First, North Korea has been not only under military tension but also under sanctions for all these 70 years after the war. At the same time, it managed to withstand, create a powerful army and nuclear shield. We think that Russia could use this experience.

In 2016, in an interview with the author of this note, DPRK Ambassador to the Russian Federation Kim Hyun Joong said: “I believe that sanctions are the most primitive and sinister form of international politics. Nothing can be achieved through sanctions. Our principled position is that any sanctions should be lifted.” At that time Russia was just beginning to experience sanctions restrictions, it seemed that it was temporary and not significant. But from the Ambassador’s side it was a clear hint to the Russian leadership. It was as if he was looking to the future. However, in 2017, Russia (and China, too) supported a new voluminous package of sanctions against North Korea imposed by the UN Security Council. And five years later, Russia itself came under comprehensive sanctions from the West. China has also been subjected to thousands of trade restrictions since then.

Sanctions were imposed on North Korea in connection with its nuclear program and tests of their delivery means. Explaining his country’s position, Ambassador Kim in 2016 quite reasonably noted: “We are improving and increasing our nuclear deterrent forces in order to reliably protect the country’s sovereignty and right to life of the nation, peace on the Korean Peninsula, and security of the region from the increasing threat and blackmail of hostile forces led by the United States. In accordance with the UN Charter, a country has the right to defend itself against aggression by any means.” How consonant this is with Russia’s explanation of the conflict in Ukraine, which is based on a direct threat to Russia’s security.

The issue of Russia’s withdrawal from the DPRK sanctions regime has long been raised among Russian political scientists and even some left-wing politicians. The motivation is that the West and the UN Security Council are ignoring Russian concerns and failing to implement the resolutions they have adopted.

In the late 1980s, the Soviet Union was the largest trade and economic partner of North Korea, even surpassing China, which, despite sanctions, is still not shy about developing economic cooperation with the DPRK. Russians and Koreans had special forms of cooperation, when their factories worked on Russian raw materials, Koreans cut timber on its territory and engaged in agriculture.

Many observers now say that Russia could receive from North Korea some weapons that have reached a high level of perfection there, primarily artillery systems and munitions. There is also talk about the participation of North Korean volunteers (on Russia’s side, of course) in the conflict in Ukraine. Moreover, somebody predicts a triple alliance consisting of China, Russia, and North Korea.

As stated by the Russian Defense Ministry following the Russian delegation’s visit to Pyongyang, “this visit will contribute to strengthening Russian-North Korean military ties and will be an important stage in the development of cooperation between the two countries.” Let’s see what political decisions will be made. But it is unlikely that Russia is ready to start buying North Korean weapons right now and allow North Koreans on the frontlines of the special military operation. This could mean direct involvement of North Korea in the conflict. Although the opposing side does not shy away from this, it seems that Russia is not ready for such steps yet. Rather, this is a signal to the West, a kind of declaration of intentions.

It is more realistic for North Koreans to participate in the reconstruction of new regions of Russia, to resume normal trade and direct railroad exchange without much concern about sanctions. As we know, most of the iceberg is underwater, so relations with this neighboring country could have a double bottom. Especially since any UN Security Council resolution imposing sanctions on the DPRK excludes the deterioration of the situation of ordinary citizens. But the reports of international organizations on the situation in North Korea show that there has been a noticeable deterioration. First of all, in terms of food supply. North Korea is a mountainous country, the area under crops is small, and it is difficult to increase food production. North Korea is experiencing a food shortage of about 1 million tons annually.

According to The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2023, a report published by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 45.5% of North Koreans will be food insecure between 2020 and 2022. What other moral justification is needed for resuming trade? That’s where excess of Russian grain can and should be sent in exchange for the products needed. North Korea also needs fertilizers, agrochemicals, agricultural machinery. And, of course, raw materials for energy. Another thing is that there should be no altruism here, it is necessary to proceed from national interests, as the North Koreans themselves do. They are not simple and cunning partners, who are often called “the Jews of the East”.

By the way, as reported by the Voice of America radio station with reference to the General Administration of Customs of China, in May of this year China sent to North Korea 58 items of goods prohibited for delivery by resolutions of the UN Security Council. The total value of the cargo weighing about one hundred tons was $225000. So, it is possible? In fact, as the Americans admit, the export of Chinese goods banned by UN Security Council resolutions has been going on for more than three years, but its volumes have increased in recent months. China justifies it on humanitarian grounds. And there is no problem.

And certainly there is no need to listen to statements by such figures as U.S. Secretary of State Blinken, who, in connection with the visit of the delegation headed by Shoigu, said that both Russia and China have a potential role to play, including through the UN Security Council. In particular, Moscow and Beijing, according to Blinken, could urge Pyongyang to “refrain from threatening illegal behavior and return to the negotiation process.” The U.S. itself is not willing to give up “threatening behavior.” As in the case of Ukraine, any negotiations with the West here mean capitulation to it. The “Washington obkom” does not accept any other options.