Allies in the eternal Cold War, or the intriguing partnership of the Russian Federation and the DPRK

Recently, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov paid a working visit to the DPRK, because Russian-North Korean relations are becoming more and more dense, reaching a different level of mutual understanding and cooperation. Let’s talk a little bit about Russia’s relations with North Korea. We will not dig into history, we will take only up-to-date data. On the sidelines of the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok on September 10-13, Vladimir Putin met with Kim Jong-un to discuss the current arms negotiations, which is evidence of the growing military unification between the two countries. In addition, the two leaders exchanged letters promising to expand bilateral cooperation. It is interesting that the US Ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, together with her colleagues from Japan, South Korea and the UK, condemned such negotiations as a violation of UN Security Council resolutions on North Korea.

In January 2023, the White House published satellite images of arms shipments from North Korea to the Wagner PMCs that took place at the Tumangan-Hasan railway crossing on November 18 and 19 last year. This was followed by the announcement by the Ministry of Finance in mid-August of new sanctions against three organizations allegedly linked to arms deals between North Korea and Russia. If Kim and Putin agree to expand their military-strategic cooperation, including joint naval exercises with China (according to some reports, the Russian Federation proposed this during the visit of Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to North Korea) and the potential resumption of the former Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance, it will add serious security problems to the United States as both domestically and abroad.

Historically, North Korea’s interest in the Soviet Union/Russia was largely derived from its policy towards China, when cooperation with Moscow was used as a lever to get more help from China or instead of Beijing’s help during certain periods of Chinese history (for example, the “Big Leap”). Russia’s interest in North Korea is equally transactional, but at the same time has been relatively constant for many years. Moscow is interested in warm-water ports on the Korean Peninsula for its Pacific Fleet, as well as in energy and transport infrastructure projects that will connect Northeast Asia with Siberia and the Eurasian landmass through the Korean Peninsula.

The degree of growing cooperation probably goes beyond one-time deals “weapons in exchange for food” and energy resources and ends with more active cooperation in the field of rocket science (intercontinental ballistic missiles of the DPRK). The consequences of the growing military alliance between North Korea and Russia for the United States are obvious. Tactical expansion of cooperation complicates US policy in the war in Ukraine. It also complicates the US policy of strengthening influence on the Korean peninsula with the help of its South Korean ally, as North Korea demonstrates increasingly effective and potentially “tenacious” intercontinental ballistic missiles. GDP may be trying to demonstrate that US actions in Europe will have consequences not only on this track, but also in the Indo-Pacific region, damaging US interests.

It is known that the United States is using the Ukrainian crisis to “revive” NATO, prompting all member states to escalate tensions with Russia. In the East, the United States can use the North Korea nuclear issue to strengthen trilateral security cooperation with Japan and South Korea, effectively encircling China. If a trilateral security alliance is established between Seoul, Washington and Tokyo, it could lead to a broader security partnership between North Korea and other revisionist states. And this, in turn, leads to further consolidation of states with a common anti-Western position.

So yes, the partnership between North Korea and Russia can significantly destabilize both global and regional security equations.

This situation can also significantly provoke the Western Bloc and the escalation of tension between the “poles”. It is still difficult to predict anything with confidence. However, already now it is possible to predict several rather important points that we will see in the near future, we are talking, of course, about:

• The rapprochement of the Russian Federation and the DPRK on the basis of its ongoing in Ukraine, namely the barter policy in the relations between the two states. Replacement of shells with fighters, replacement of guns with technologies previously inaccessible to the Juche state.

• Slow escalation on the Korean peninsula due to the proxy policy of the PRC and the United States, respectively, which in turn will make the union of the DPRK and the Russian Federation (both countries are essentially vassals of the Celestial Empire) even more durable.

• Diversification of economic relations between Russia and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The turnover of import-export operations will grow, however, to a small extent, because the two states need each other, but, again, there is not much to give to each other.

• Possible rapprochement of the DPRK with Belarus on issues of the agricultural sector within the framework of the Union State project.

• Expansion of North Korean tourist programs for Russian citizens. At the same time, it is not worth counting on “open” borders. The DPRK is a strict, disciplined, closed, closed state. And even a round of “warmth” in relations with Russia will not change Kim Jong-un’s domestic policy.

• The possible beginning of international battles under the leadership of the PRC and the Russian Federation on the potential admission of the DPRK to membership in international bodies such as the UN, OSCE, etc. Of course, this aspect is a poor—quality solution, but the first step of the country of Morning Freshness to the development of international financial flows, as well as a distant, but quite possible detente in matters of inter—state relations of the DPRK with the countries participating in the Western bloc.

• However, all this is possible after the complete drying of the Korean case as such. That is, its full and final use in terms of proxy war, as well as international confrontation of world powers. Of course, we are talking about a big war on the Korean peninsula under the auspices of the three leaders — the Russian Federation, the United States, and China. It’s about war, which, given Kim’s growing military might, as well as Seoul’s increasingly nervous behavior, is becoming more real every day.

However, while change in North Korea may be rare and fleeting, history also shows that radical change sometimes happens when it is least expected. That is why Russia not only has to, but is obliged to adapt its foreign policy strategy to potential shocks within the framework of the Korean case. For it is they, namely a potential war, that will set not just the direction of development of the entire regional agenda, but also the vector of development of global processes.

The DPRK will still show itself, it is not for nothing that it has been preparing for something very interesting for more than 70 years. And we need to be fully prepared for the moment when the curtain of the Korean theater opens.

Igor Karpov
Igor Karpov
Political scientist, sociologist, author of analytical works on Russian domestic and international politics.