Are Russia and North Korea Now Brothers In Arms?
September 16, 2023
  • Aleksander Golts
Alexander Golts writes about the prospects for cooperation between Moscow and Pyongyang in the field of arms and whether Russia can go back on the UN Security Council obligations it has signed on to.
President Putin greets North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at the Vostochny Cosmodrome. September 2023. Source: Wiki Commons
The Eastern Economic Forum was conceived as a demonstration of Russia’s “turn to the East.” However, the times when Vladimir Putin was able to gather the leaders of the most important Asia-Pacific countries in Vladivostok seem to be over. Heads of other states do not even participate in the forum nowadays.

Nevertheless, Putin did meet with one foreign leader: North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un came to the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Amur Region.

Mutual interest between Russia and North Korea

When preparations for this meeting became known, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said that arms negotiations between Moscow and Pyongyang were “actively advancing,” promising that providing weapons to Russia “is not going to reflect well on North Korea and they will pay a price for this in the international community.” As for Moscow, he said it is now “looking to whatever source they can find” to buy scarce ammunition.

Indeed, the protracted war in Ukraine requires constant, huge amounts of ammunition. According to various estimates, Russian troops go through 20,000-60,000 artillery shells per day. And though the country’s leaders stubbornly insist that the production of shells has increased more than tenfold, reports periodically appear about a rising “shell shortage.”

Meanwhile, powerful artillery is an important element of North Korean strategy. After all, Seoul, the South Korean capital, sits just 24 kilometers from the 38th parallel that divides the Korean Peninsula. North Korea has more than 20,000 artillery pieces, most of which are copies of Soviet weapons systems. For decades, North Korean military factories have been producing the 152 mm and 122 mm shells that Russia so desperately needs today.

Last year, US intelligence already reported the purchase of “millions” of shells from North Korea. At that time, it was suggested that the ammunition was purchased by PMC Wagner. However, many analysts noted that the total volume of transport traffic between North Korea and Russia does not correspond to supplies of “millions” of shells.

Suspicions about the possibility of such a deal surfaced with renewed vigor when Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu went on an official visit to North Korea (for the first time since the collapse of the USSR!). He met with Kim Jong-un and attended an arms exhibition where the North Korean leader proudly demonstrated drones made in North Korea, as well as ICBMs produced in defiance of UN bans. In early September, Shoigu did not rule out that the Russian and North Korean armies might conduct joint exercises.

Shoigu’s North Korean colleague Kang Sun-nam, addressing the audience at an “international conference” organized by the Russian Ministry of Defense, announced plans to “develop strategic cooperation between the two countries in the field of defense security.”

Experts suggest that in exchange for ammunition, Pyongyang could request not only food and energy, but also technology for building nuclear submarines and missiles. On September 8, Kim Jong-un took part in the launching ceremony of a nuclear-armed submarine. According to experts, it can carry missiles with a range of up to 2,500 km. However, the submarine itself is not nuclear. Judging by photographs, it is a converted diesel-electric submarine of the Soviet Project 633 class, already more than 70 years old. We should assume that Pyongyang, which has achieved considerable success in developing ground-based ballistic missiles (which, incidentally, trace their origins to Soviet Scud-B missiles), is now in dire need of the technologies necessary to develop a nuclear submarine fleet.

To be clear,
“The purchase of ammunition from North Korea, as well as the supply of military technology to it, would mean the Kremlin’s complete and final refusal to follow the principles of international law.
Apparently, after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, international law from Russia’s point of view boils down to the implementation of resolutions of the UN Security Council, where Moscow has veto power.

In 2006, the UN Security Council imposed a ban on the supply, sale or transfer to North Korea of any military equipment and weapons, as well as materials, equipment, goods and technologies that could be used by Pyongyang to create weapons of mass destruction. In 2009, in the wake of Pyongyang’s second nuclear test, the UN Security Council approved additional sanctions. In particular, the export of all types of weapons from the country, as well as their import – with the exception of small arms and light weapons – was prohibited. Russia voted for both sanctions packages. And now, if Washington’s suspicions are correct and Russia intends to purchase North Korean missiles and transfer nuclear submarine technology to North Korea, this means that Moscow is refusing to comply with Security Council resolutions, thereby ceasing to follow international law in any form.

After the cosmodrome meeting, no statements about an arms deal were made. However, there were many hints. Vladimir Putin said that the North Korea leader showed great interest in missile technology, and that the “North Korean delegation will be shown new objects.” As for compliance with UN sanctions against North Korea, Russian officials spoke rather vaguely.

On the one hand, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov offered assurances that there would be no new sanctions. On the other, Putin’s press secretary Dmitri Peskov said that Russia’s position on UN Security Council sanctions against North Korea is not an obstacle to relations between Moscow and Pyongyang developing. Putin said that Russia is in compliance with all restrictions on military-technical cooperation with North Korea, though “there are things that we can talk about, we are discussing, we are thinking about, and there are prospects here.” If an “arms deal” does take place, then it will not be possible to keep it secret for long, as the new contracts would immediately translate into a sharp increase in transport traffic between North Korea and Russia.
President Putin meets North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang. July 2000. Source: Wiki Commons
Russia and rogue countries

The whole story with the possibility of purchasing North Korean ammunition shows how Russian foreign policy has developed (or rather degraded) in recent years. In the 1990s and early 2000s, a theory circulated in Moscow that, using its old connections in rogue states, it could act as a negotiator on behalf of the “civilized world.”

At that time, many former Soviet clients – North Korea, Libya, Syria and others – began to pose serious problems for the world. After the collapse of the USSR, these countries began to assert themselves in the new conditions, creating weapons of mass destruction and supporting terrorists. Moscow hoped to play an important role in the international arena, talking down these states on acceptable terms. Such hopes proved unfounded. The dictators made it clear that if they decide to negotiate with the powers that be, they prefer to do it directly, without intermediaries.

Vladimir Putin had to be convinced of this during his first moves in the international arena. In 2000, he visited the father of current dictator Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang. Following the meeting, Putin proudly announced at the G8 summit in Okinawa that the North Korean leader had agreed to abandon his missile program. Literally the next day, Kim Jong-il said that he had been joking.

A similar story happened in 2006 with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. After tough negotiations behind closed doors, Putin was relieved that Tehran was accepting proposals to end its nuclear program. But then Ahmadinejad said that Iran only intended to carefully study these proposals.

For some time, Moscow tried to follow the policy of the world’s leading states while influencing the “problem states.” However, having found itself seriously isolated internationally in 2014 after the annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of hostilities in the Donbass, the Kremlin significantly changed its attitude toward the fact that North Korea had developed nuclear weapons.

Thus in 2017, at a press conference after a BRICS summit, Putin said with obvious pleasure that Kim Jong-un’s development of ICBMs and most importantly nuclear warheads is, generally speaking, an excusable and even natural reaction to the US’s interventionist policy: “Everyone remembers well what happened to Iraq and Saddam Hussein. Hussein abandoned the production of weapons of mass destruction. Nevertheless, under the pretext of searching for these weapons, Saddam Hussein himself and his family were killed during the well-known military operation… North Koreans are also aware of it and remember it. Do you think that following the adoption of some sanctions, North Korea will abandon its course on creating weapons of mass destruction?… They will eat grass, but they will not abandon this program unless they feel safe.”

A year later, Vladimir Putin spoke about his North Korean colleague, no longer hiding his approval: “I think that Kim Jong-un clearly won this round. He has achieved his strategic goal. He has a nuclear warhead, and now he also has a missile with a global range of up to 13,000 km, which can reach almost any part of the globe, at least the territory of his potential adversary. And now he wants to clear up, smooth over and calm down the situation.”

From that time on – and it has become increasingly true with time – common features began to emerge in Russian and North Korean policy. The official rhetoric of each country affirms national exclusivity. For the North Korean dictatorship, it is Juche, symbolized by the winged horse Qianlima. Russia has its own ideas about a special civilization.

From the belief in exclusivity come declarations of total independence. Putin has repeatedly argued that Russia is one of the few countries in the world that has absolute sovereignty – other countries cannot have any influence on the decisions it makes.

This Kim also does not depend in any way on the opinions of the outside world.
“The source of this absolute sovereignty is nuclear weapons, combined with constantly demonstrated readiness to use them.”
Since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Putin’s statements have repeatedly hinted at his readiness to use nuclear weapons. In this way, Russian policy has begun to increasingly resemble that of North Korea. Moscow has long forgotten the times when it wanted to negotiate with rogue countries on behalf of the civilized world. Today, it is from these countries that it finds support. The list of states that voted against the UN resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine speaks for itself: Belarus, Syria, North Korea, Nicaragua, Mali, Eritrea.

In addition, Moscow has resorted to “problem countries” to replenish its arsenal. For example, it began purchasing drones from Iran. Iran’s foreign minister acknowledged the purchases while insisting that they took place before the conflict began. In this situation, a large-scale purchase of ammunition from North Korea no longer seems incredible.
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