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Russia, China and North Korea have new dynamics. And it’s bad for Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Sept. 13, 2023. (Photo by Contributor/Getty Images)
by Katie Marie Davies October 14, 2023 6:12 PM 9 min read
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The White House announced on Oct. 13 that North Korea had delivered more than 1,000 containers of military equipment and ammunition to bolster Russia's war against Ukraine.

Washington published pictures tracking a set of containers as it traveled from Najin, North Korea, to Dunay, Russia, by a Russian-flagged vessel.

The supplies were then reportedly moved by rail to an ammunition depot in southwestern Russia near Tikhoretsk, roughly 200 kilometers from Ukraine's state border.

"We condemn (North Korea) for providing the Russians with this military equipment," U.S. National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said. The weapons would be "used to attack Ukrainian cities and kill Ukrainian civilians and further Russia's illegitimate war," Kirby added.

While the news of an armaments delivery from North Korea to Russia was unsettling, it was not unexpected.

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North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un arrived in Russia for a six-day tour of the country's far east last month, visiting an aircraft plant, inspecting the Admiral Shaposhnikov frigate, and meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.

Experts suggested that Moscow could furnish North Korea with the technology they needed for its struggling spy satellite program in return for Pyongyang's stockpile of Soviet-era weaponry – primarily artillery shells that could be used by Russian guns in Ukraine.

The news of military cooperation confirms that we have entered a new era of Russia-North Korea relations.

But it also poses a new question: What happens next for Moscow, Pyongyang, and the silent Beijing?

An uncertain exchange

Russia and North Korea have a longstanding relationship despite Pyongyang's zealous isolationism.

In 2000, the two countries signed a treaty on "Friendship, Good-Neighborly Relations and Cooperation," and Moscow is one of just a handful of countries to maintain an embassy in Pyongyang. There have been multiple reports of North Korean hackers working from Russian territory, and North Korean laborers working in industries such as logging.

But Russia and North Korea's relationship is not as simple or straightforward.

Moscow has also supported numerous UN resolutions imposing sanctions on Pyongyang, including in 2010, 2013, and 2017.

President Putin told reporters after Kim Jong-Un's visit that Moscow would uphold these sanctions, despite earlier remarks from Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that the resolutions had been made during "a completely different geopolitical situation."

Rather than an ongoing commitment, the latest chapter is more likely to consist of both sides exploiting global events to further their own ends.

Moscow is looking not only for ammunition but also support for its aggression in Ukraine.

North Korea is one of only a handful of countries to recognize Russian illegal territorial gains and consistently vote against UN resolutions supporting Ukraine.

"For now, the situation is still purely based on the idea that we'll give you something, and we want something in exchange. There's no ideological cooperation," says Natalia Matiaszczyk, an expert at the Polish think tank Institute of New Europe.

"Support from North Korea is something Russia uses to legitimize its illegal actions on Ukraine territory."

In many ways, this is as important as receiving the weapons themselves — particularly as North Korea's ammunition stockpile is believed to be not only outdated but also of low quality.

It is by no means certain that such ammunition could make a significant difference on the front line.

But many outsiders underestimate North Korea's own agency.

Pyongyang is also seizing a new "diplomatic space" that has opened up as a result of the invasion of Ukraine, says Yong-Chool Ha, director of the Center for Korea Studies at the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington.

"North Koreans have been suffering from the severe impact of the sanctions that have been imposed upon them," he says. "But this is a new sort of opportunity and the evolution of a new diplomatic horizon, and we can see that in North Korea's behavior toward Russia."

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And while the invasion of Ukraine has given North Korea new opportunities, it doesn't mean that it's an issue that holds a particular imperative for Pyongyang.

For North Korea, Kim Jong-Un's visit to Russia was more of a signal of the country's re-opening after Covid 19 than of the country's stance in European affairs.

"After more than three years of closed borders due to Covid, North Korea is now opening back up slightly. North Koreans who were based abroad are now being allowed to come back, there has been news that soon, even foreigners will be allowed to visit. This is a huge change in domestic policy," says Tereza Novotna, a Korea-Europe Center Fellow at the Free University Berlin.

Novotna points out that it wasn't just military facilities that featured in Kim Jong-Un's Russian itinerary. Kim Jong-Un also visited both an aquarium (where the North Korean leader was applauded by a walrus) and the ballet (although Russian news outlets reported he left after the first act).

"After the lockdown ended in Europe, we were so happy to finally go on vacation," says Novotna. "Well, Kim Jong-Un's lockdown just ended now, and he went on vacation too."

North Korea, however, is unlikely to provide Moscow with ammunition purely as thanks for a pleasant post-Covid trip. If Pyongyang shipped shells to Russia, what can it expect in return?

Despite Putin's public remarks, it remains unclear whether the Kremlin could defy international sanctions and supply military technology to Pyongyang.

In his Oct. 13 press conference, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said that the U.S. believed Pyongyang wanted advanced Russian technologies for the North Korean military and nuclear program.

Other experts believe that other types of technological exchange could be more likely. North Korea has recently been working on a satellite program but has so far faced two failed launches, says Matiaszczyk.

"Maybe that's what North Korea wants from Russia, a new technology that will help successfully send these satellites into orbit," she says.

Other loyalties

Real exchange between Moscow and Pyongyang is also likely to be hampered by the reaction of officials in Beijing.

China is North Korea's largest trade partner, and Pyongyang relies heavily on Beijing's economic aid. Increased cooperation with Russia could be an attempt to reduce that dependency — but China will not want its influence in the region to be diminished by the Kremlin and could make their displeasure known.

Beijing currently also hopes to maintain stability on the Korean Peninsula and good relations with a number of other global powers, says Matiaszczyk.

Russian tech deliveries to North Korea could endanger both of these goals.

"In the context of the Korean Peninsula, the Chinese authorities primarily seek to prevent escalation. That's why in the past, when North Korea pursued aggressive politics and nuclear testing, China supported the UN Security Council resolution against North Korea," says Matiaszczyk.

"Tightening cooperation between North Korea and Russia will also force the U.S., Japan, and South Korea to deepen their cooperation, including militarily, and that's something China really doesn't want."

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Then there is the question of the UN Security Council.

If Russia violates UN sanctions, then the council will be forced to meet to discuss the situation.

Although Moscow would be able to veto new sanctions, the scenario would still see Beijing in a difficult position.

If Chinese officials voted in favor of a resolution, it would damage ties with Moscow. Still, if it were to abstain or vote against, China's international reputation and relationship with the West could be further damaged.

"China would be in a very awkward position," says Matiaszczyk.

That's not to say that North Korea would be unhappy to see Beijing face such an uncomfortable diplomatic conundrum.

In fact, Pyongyang has always been skilled at playing international powers off each other, says Novotna. North Korea could well try to exploit such a situation to gain maximum benefit from both Moscow and Beijing.

"I don't think there's ever been much love lost between North Korea and China. China has always been seen as a country that North Korea is dependent on — and that there's no way to avoid that," she says.

Yet, ultimately, it remains unlikely that Russia could replace China as a partner for North Korea.

"I don't think North Koreans would like to alienate China at this point, frankly. I don't think Russia could be a substitute for China either," says Ha. "China accounts for more than 90 percent of North Korea's trade — not Russia."

Some commentators have raised the prospect that closer North Korean-Russia ties could pave the way for a new geopolitical power bloc comprising of Moscow, Beijing and Pyongyang.

But, most regional experts believe this risk is largely overstated. Rather than having a single outlook, each of these three countries has its own goals, needs, and relationships with each other.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa speaks during the closing day of the BRICKS summit during a press conference with fellow leaders Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Brazil's president, Xi Jinping, China's leader, Narendra Modi, India's prime minister, and Sergei Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister, on the closing day of the BRICS summit at the Sandton Convention Center in the Sandton district of Johannesburg on Aug. 24, 2023, South Africa. (Per-Anders Pettersson/Getty Images)

Moscow, Beijing, and Pyongyang also have their own separate relationships with other Asian countries.

Rather than China, Russia, and North Korea rushing to form their own three-state bloc, a looser Eurasian alignment that involves other nations, such as certain Central Asian states, could be a more likely geopolitical outcome, says Ha.

He believes that Kim Jong-Un is increasingly concerned about North Korea's place in southeast Asia, particularly after the Camp David summit in August when leaders from the U.S., South Korea, and Japan met to discuss greater military cooperation.

The North Korean leader would later describe the alliance as the "Asian version of NATO, the root cause of war and aggression," and claimed the start of a "new Cold War."

"I think Kim Jong-Un's perception of the emerging regional world and what's happening surrounding the Korean Peninsula was a factor in this meeting with Putin," says Ha.

"With the outbreak of war in Ukraine, the strategic world map also changed dramatically. The Camp David summit was a clear indication of that drastic change in the security environment not only around the Korean Peninsula, but in East Asia in general."

But this wider regional picture means that European nations should also try to engage in wider dialogue on North Korean-Russian issues.

"NATO should maintain close cooperation with allies like South Korea and Japan both in political, economic, and also military aspects," says Matiaszczyk, "and should at least try to work with China."

Europe also shouldn't dismiss the idea of engaging with North Korea itself.

"I would advise the West not to see North Korea through the lens of Russia or Moscow's war on Ukraine," says Novotna.

"Now that North Korea is re-opening, it's a good moment to kind of restart European engagement with North Korea, and to think again about how to do it better than we did before," she says.

"It would be good to think about how to do this without putting Pyongyang into the same basket as Russia or Beijing and thinking of them as one entity because once we start doing this, that is what is actually going to happen," Novotna adds.

"We still have a chance for different policies."

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