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Russia and North Korea Build a “Comprehensive” Relationship: The Driving Logic, Spillover Effects, and Structural Shortcomings


This piece, written prior to the Putin-Kim summit in June 2024, analyzes deepening ties between Russia and North Korea amid an increase in high-level diplomatic visits. The authors argue that the bilateral relationship is entering a new stage, driven by shared assessments of the regional and global order, Russia’s strategic reorientation away from Europe and the West, and mutual diplomatic and economic needs. The authors warn that increasingly close Russia-North Korea ties may further destabilize regional security in Northeast Asia.

Key takeaways
  • Researchers from the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies analyze evolving ties between Russia and North Korea on the back of recent high-level diplomatic engagements, in this article written before the Putin-Kim summit of June 2024.
  • The authors argue that this bilateral relationship has evolved meaningfully since the Cold War, as a function of factors such as ideology, the strategic environment, and evolving development needs on each side. They assess that Russia-North Korea ties are now entering a new stage.
  • In the authors’ view, this new stage of cooperation between Moscow and Pyongyang is driven by shared assessments of the international order, Russia’s strategic reorientation away from the West towards Asia and the Global South, and synergies in economic and diplomatic needs. Russia, the researchers argue, sees enhancing ties with North Korea as a way to increase its influence in Asian security affairs.
  • The authors warn that tightening Russia-North Korea ties may serve to destabilize Northeast Asia, suggesting it will fuel narratives around the “resurgence of the Cold War” in the West and cause the United States to focus on strengthening alliances with Japan and South Korea.

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In September 2023, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visited Russia for the second time since taking office. During the visit, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un not only held a six-hour meeting at the Vostochny Cosmodrome, but Kim Jong Un also visited and attended talks in many places in Russia’s Far East. Since then, Russian officials have repeatedly defined Russo-North Korean bilateral relations as “comprehensive.” Russian Presidential Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov also said that Russo-North Korean “comprehensive” relations include military and technical cooperation and exchanges of views on security issues, as well as cooperation in sensitive areas.1 Although the two heads of state did not sign any documents after the talks and Russia also stressed that the Russian-North Korean relationship is not directed against any third party, some people believe that this is a landmark event in the “reconstruction of an alliance” between Russia and North Korea.2


Overall, with  the Ukraine crisis as a catalyst, the international and regional order is in a stage of adjustment and reconstruction. The North Korean leader’s visit to Russia may usher in a new stage in the development of Russo-North Korean relations, which will have an important impact on the situation in neighboring countries and Northeast Asia. Therefore, how we understand the driving logic behind the development of a “comprehensive” relationship and the possible spillover effects of close interactions between Russia and North Korea, and the practical shortcomings faced in deepening the “comprehensive” relationship has important academic value and practical significance.


I. The historical context of the development of relations between Russia (the Soviet Union) and North Korea


To analyze the driving logic of the Russo-North Korean “comprehensive” relationship, we need to start by understanding the historical context of its development. In different historical periods such as the Cold War, the post-Cold War, and in the 21st century, the relations between Russia (or the Soviet Union) and North Korea have shown completely different development tones, interactive characteristics, and evolutionary trajectories under the influence of the international and regional environment. Factors such as ideology, strategic environment, and development needs have become important factors in shaping the relations between Russia (the Soviet Union) and North Korea in different historical periods.


(i) Cold War period: Non-dependent Alliance


Just as World War II was ending, based on consultations among the anti-fascist allies, the southern and northern parts of the Korean Peninsula established national regimes in accordance with the political systems and organizational models of the United States and the Soviet Union respectively. For the Soviet Union, North Korea was the strategic fulcrum of the socialist camp in Northeast Asia. Therefore, after the war, the Soviet Union sent a large number of technical experts and advisers to North Korea to assist it in building a socialist system. In March 1949, the Soviet Union and North Korea signed the first Soviet-North Korean Economic and Cultural Cooperation Agreement. From 1955, the two countries signed a number of Soviet-North Korean Economic and Technical Cooperation Agreements to ensure that the Soviet Union would provide North Korea with loans, experts, and technical assistance, as well as aid in the construction of metal, energy, and petrochemical enterprises and projects. In 1961, the two countries signed the Soviet-North Korean Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance, which was a formal military alliance, completing the gradual upgrading of relations from initial contact to the establishment of economic and trade ties to an alliance. During this period, the Soviet Union also influenced the course of the Korean War through military assistance, political and diplomatic support, the secret dispatch of air force support, and logistical support. It provided long-term assistance to lay the foundation for North Korea’s industrial and agricultural foundation and international status. In the early 1950s, the Soviet Union’s share in North Korea’s foreign trade rose as high as 85%, making it North Korea’s most important ally. Furthermore, North Korea was one of the most successful countries at obtaining foreign aid during the post-war reconstruction period. According to Soviet calculations, as of April 1, 1960, North Korea had received 5.5 billion rubles in free aid from socialist countries, of which 1.3 billion rubles came from the Soviet Union.3


Although support from the Soviet Union was indispensable to the establishment and consolidation of the regime, North Korea has always pursued an independent development path. For example, North Korea refused to join the Soviet-led Council for Mutual Economic Assistance as a member state, refused to accept the industrial division of labor within the socialist camp under the Soviet leadership, and emphasized the necessity of self-reliance. At the time, North Korea hoped to adjust its industrial layout according to its own needs, which was openly criticized by the Soviet Union. However, this did not weaken its strategic orientation of not wanting to become a “vassal” of the Soviet Union. Subsequently, the importance of Soviet economic aid to North Korea’s GDP growth and trade with the Soviet Union as a proportion of North Korea’s foreign trade gradually declined. In foreign affairs, the differences between North Korea and the Soviet Union also gradually increased. In 1962, North Korea’s criticism of the Soviet Union’s “concession” during the Cuban Missile Crisis led Khrushchev to suspend economic and military aid to North Korea. The Soviet Union only resumed aid to North Korea when Brezhnev came to power.4 Some scholars also believe that the dramatic ups and downs in Sino-Soviet relations forced North Korea to pay a certain price, but North Korea had little trouble maintaining friendly relations with both countries.5 In general, although the Soviet Union and North Korea established an alliance based on a common ideology during the Cold War, this relationship did not show North Korea’s dependence on the Soviet Union. Instead, it fluctuated frequently due to the Soviet Union’s dissatisfaction with “returns for its aid” and North Korea’s demands for “independence.”


(ii) Post-Cold War period: De-ideologization


At the end of the Cold War, changes in the international environment inevitably weakened North Korea’s international standing.6 In the 1980s, the international context of détente between the United States and the Soviet Union and the domestic process of the Soviet Union’s “New Thinking” reform led to the Soviet Union’s Korean peninsula policy showing signs of “favoring South Korea over North Korea.” At the same time, the severe political and economic crisis within the Soviet Union seriously weakened its ability to provide assistance to North Korea. As the Soviet Union established diplomatic relations with South Korea despite North Korea’s strong opposition, North Korea became increasingly dissatisfied with the Soviet Union’s foreign policy, and relations between the two countries entered a period of volatility. With the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Russia completely abandoned the Cold War paradigm of the “Russo-North Korean alliance” and strengthened the de-ideologization of its bilateral relations. Not only did Russian President Boris Yeltsin fail to renew the Soviet-North Korean Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance after its expiration, but he also gradually cut off Russo-North Korean aid-based bilateral cooperation. Some scholars believe that in order to win economic assistance from Western countries through de-ideologization, Russia completely “abandoned” North Korea, its traditional ally.7 As a result, North Korea lost access to Russia’s cheap energy supply and massive volumes of aid, and its domestic economic situation deteriorated rapidly. Data shows that North Korea’s GDP fell from U.S. $20.9 billion in 1992 to U.S. $10.6 billion in 1996, a drop of 49.2%.8


Against this backdrop, North Korea began to engage with Western countries, including low-level dialogue with the United States, in an effort to attract foreign investment and technical assistance and alleviate its domestic economic difficulties. At the same time, due to a strong sense of insecurity, North Korea has embarked on the path of independently developing nuclear weapons, using this as a trump card to maintain its national security and prevent external interference, and using the abandonment of its nuclear program as a bargaining chip that it can exchange for Western economic assistance. In 1994, North Korea and the United States signed the Agreed Framework between the United States of America and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in Geneva. Since 1995, the United States has provided food and energy aid to North Korea.9 Compared with the Cold War era, the foundation of the partnership between Russia and North Korea, which was previously based on common ideology and aid, was further weakened. In the later period of Yeltsin’s rule, Russia gradually abandoned its peninsula policy of “favoring South Korea over North Korea” and prevented the decline in its influence on the peninsula issue and the Northeast Asian regional agenda through limited energy, industrial, and military-technical cooperation with North Korea.


(iii) Since the 21st century: Pragmatism takes precedence


Since the 21st century, Russia has attempted to reposition its bilateral relations with North Korea and deepen mutual political trust through a series of high-level visits. In 2000, Russia and North Korea signed the Treaty of Friendship, Good-Neighborliness, and Cooperation, proposing to strengthen traditional friendly and good-neighborly relations and declaring the complete end of the military alliance relationship that began in the Soviet era. In the same year, Putin visited Pyongyang, the first Russian leader to do so since the collapse of the Soviet Union, which was seen as an important sign of Russia’s adjustment of its policy toward North Korea. In 2001, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il made his first visit to Russia, and had an in-depth exchange of views with Putin on issues such as bilateral relations between North Korea and Russia, peaceful reunification of the Korean Peninsula, anti-missile defenses and international strategic stability, and jointly issued the Russia-DPRK Moscow Declaration.10 During this period, Russian cooperation with North Korea focused on economic projects that could produce practical results, rather than empty political gestures or unilateral Soviet-era aid. The volume of Russo-North Korean trade increased from U.S. $105 million in 2000 to U.S. $233 million in 2005.11 It can be said that, at this stage, Russia’s policy towards North Korea completely abandoned any ideological color and emphasized the principle of interaction based on pragmatism above all else.12


During this period, the North Korean nuclear issue was a factor in Russo-North Korean relations. On the one hand, as one of the permanent members of the UN Security Council, Russia participates in and abides by the resolutions on sanctions against North Korea. The relevant sanctions have greatly restricted Russo-North Korean economic and technological cooperation, leading to a significant decline in Russo-North Korean trade. In 2018, the volume of Russo-North Korean bilateral trade shrank to U.S. $34 million, an 85% drop from its peak of U.S. $233 million in 2005. On the other hand, Russia stressed that isolating North Korea would not help solve the problem, and it tried to engage with Pyongyang in economic areas that were not related to North Korea’s military plans. As the situation on the peninsula has undergone major changes since 2018, especially the “denuclearization” process and the repeated meetings between the leaders of North Korea and South Korea and North Korea and the United States, Russia has once again increased its engagement in peninsula affairs. In 2019, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was invited to visit Russia’s Far East and held a summit meeting with Putin. Although no agreement or joint statement was signed, the fact that the two countries held a summit meeting and reaffirmed their common interests in relevant issues can be seen as the two sides having achieved their basic goals.13 Guided by the principle of pragmatism first, Russia maintains its influence over North Korea by maintaining close high-level exchanges and cooperation on major infrastructure projects such as railways, power networks, and ports.


Looking at the history of the development of Russian (Soviet)-North Korean relations after World War II, we can see that the two countries have experienced multiple rounds of adjustments marked by the exploration of alliance relations, de-ideologization, and prioritization of pragmatism. The changes are not only closely related to the respective strategic positioning, mutual understanding, and interest assessment of the two countries, but also inseparable from the overall framework of the evolution of the international order and regional pattern. Amid the changes in the international and regional situation triggered by the Ukraine crisis, Russo-North Korean relations are entering a new stage of development.


II.  The driving logic of Russo-North Korean interaction in the context of the Ukraine crisis


After the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis in 2022, Western countries not only isolated Russia politically and diplomatically, but also tried to completely cut off economic, trade, scientific, and cultural ties with Russia. North Korea became one of the few countries to give clear support to Russia. It not only took the lead in recognizing the independence of the two “republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk, but also demonstrated its position through its voting in international venues such as the United Nations. Russia once again invited Kim Jong Un to visit Russia to focus on discussing cooperation in military security, agriculture, satellites, transportation, infrastructure construction, and other areas. Overall, similar perceptions of the international order, consistent strategic orientation, and complementary role positioning constitute the main driving force behind this round of adjustments in Russo-North Korean relations.


(i) The logic of international order perceptions


A common perception of the international and regional order, and especially of the external environment, is one part of the inherent logic behind the development of Russo-North Korean relations. Faced with the “camp-based” division in the international community and the Western narrative of “democracy versus authoritarianism,” safeguarding national sovereignty, security, and the right to independent development and opposing external interference and illegal sanctions have become the basis for Russia and North Korea’s common perception of the international order. Specifically, this perception mainly includes two aspects: environment perception and threat perception.


On the one hand, both countries face similar isolated environments. After the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis, the United States cut off Russia’s ties with the world through political, diplomatic, and financial means, and “punished” Russia through comprehensive isolation. First, at the United Nations level, on March 2, 2022, the UN General Assembly voted on a draft resolution “demanding Russia immediately cease fire, withdraw all troops, and protect all civilians,” with 141 countries voting in favor. On February 24, 2023, the UN General Assembly voted again on the situation in Ukraine and passed a draft resolution on the “peace formula” with 141 votes in favor, demanding that Russia withdraw its troops immediately. Russian diplomats are facing unprecedented exclusion in international and multilateral forums. North Korea is also facing the extension of sanctions and multiple accusations from the United Nations on its human rights situation and other matters. Second, at the international level, as of February 2023, Russian individuals and entities have been subject to 14,081 sanctions, making it the most-sanctioned country in the world, while North Korea has long been among the top three most-sanctioned countries, with a total of 2,133 sanctions.14 Third, at the diplomatic level, due to the threat of sanctions from Western countries and the “warrant” issued by the International Criminal Court, the space for Russian leaders to conduct head-of-state diplomacy has been greatly compressed. In the nearly two years since the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis, Russian President Vladimir Putin has only visited nine countries, most of which are Central Asian countries. In 2019, Putin visited 23 countries.15 North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made four visits abroad in 2019 and held talks with U.S. President Trump twice, but with the breakdown of U.S.-North Korea negotiations on the North Korean nuclear issue, North Korea’s space for interaction with the outside world (especially Western countries) has shrunk significantly. Their relative isolation in the international environment has become an important background conducive to the strengthening of bilateral exchanges between Russia and North Korea. In addition to Kim Jong Un’s state visit to Russia after a lapse of four years, Russian Defense Minister Shoigu visited North Korea in July 2023 to participate in the celebration of North Korea’s “Victory Day of the Fatherland Liberation War.” In October, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov visited North Korea again and actively planned Putin’s official visit to North Korea. In other words, frequent high-level interactions between Russia and North Korea are becoming an important option for both countries to break out of their diplomatic isolation.


On the other hand, they have a similar perception of threats. This round of the Ukraine crisis not only impacted the post-war international order, but also profoundly changed the regional security landscape faced by Russia and North Korea. The United States emphasizes building the capacity to maintain its hegemony through the alliance system and seeks absolute security for itself at the expense of the insecurity of other countries. While Europe is expanding its military and preparing for war, it is relying more heavily on transatlantic security ties to strengthen containment and deterrence on NATO’s eastern flank. At the western end of the Eurasian continent, NATO’s “northward expansion” constitutes the offensive and defensive frontier between Europe and Russia from the Black Sea and the Baltic Sea to the Arctic. On the eastern end of the Eurasian continent, NATO’s institution building and practice called the “Pivot to Asia” is accelerating, using the so-called “lessons of Ukraine” to accelerate institutional cooperation with Asian countries and regions, as well as the actions and practices of member states. With the announcement of the establishment of the “Australia-UK-U.S. Trilateral Security Partnership” (AUKUS), the release of the “Spirit of Camp David” joint statement by the United States, Japan, and South Korea, and the continuous improvements to the “Quadrilateral Security Dialogue” (QUAD) between the United States, Japan, India, and Australia, Russia and North Korea’s perception of security threats has also changed.


Russia opposes the Western-led international order. Its international position has changed from a shaper to a challenger, which is most evident in the field of geo-security.16 The 2021 edition of the National Security Strategy of the Russian Federation clearly states that “geopolitical instability, the growth of regional conflicts, and the intensification of international conflicts have led to an increasing threat of the use of force against Russia.”17 Faced with ever-increasing deterrence on its frontiers, Russia has accelerated the military integration of the Union State of Russia and Belarus and deployed tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus for the first time. A regional security landscape based on high-intensity confrontation has taken shape. From North Korea’s perspective, after the outbreak of the Ukrainian crisis, the leaders of the United States, Japan, and South Korea not only frequently engaged in “strategic alignment” at multilateral occasions such as the NATO summit, the G7 summit, and the G20 summit, but also comprehensively strengthened institutionalized security cooperation against North Korea and held joint anti-missile drills in the waters around North Korea. The continuously strengthening military deterrence by the United States, Japan, and South Korea has significantly increased North Korea’s sense of “insecurity” and also prompted Russia and North Korea to strengthen their willingness to provide strategic support to each other through deepening cooperation in the face of similar threat perceptions.


(ii) Strategic alignment logic


After the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis, the Biden administration seized the opportunity presented by the diplomatic shift of the Yoon Suk Yeol administration in South Korea to hold a U.S.-Japan-ROK summit at Camp David and issue a joint statement titled “The Spirit of Camp David.” This statement defined countries such as Russia and North Korea as “revisionist countries” and accused them of challenging the rules-based order led by the United States. It also proposed to work with “like-minded” countries to meet the challenge.18


For a long time after Putin came to power, Russia followed the strategic orientation of a “return to Europe.” Although during Putin’s third term, Russia and the West had increasing differences on issues such as the international order, regional security, and democratic system, the general tone of pragmatic cooperation was still maintained. The Crimean incident in 2014 not only caused a major setback to Russia’s process of “integration into the West,” but also triggered the intensification of conflict between Russia and the West, with both sides viewing each other as the main security threat. The 2021 edition of the National Security Strategy of the Russian Federation upgrades the positioning of Western countries from “potential threats” to “real challenges.”19 The outbreak of the Ukrainian crisis in 2022 has further expanded Russia’s strategic awareness of “turning to the East” to an “eastward and southward” strategic layout. A Russian poll in July 2023 showed that 67% of respondents supported the country’s foreign policy shift to the East, while only 11% did not support it. Most respondents believed that the relationship between Russia and the West has always been based on mutual distrust.20 The 2023 edition of the Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation puts Europe, the U.S., and Anglo-Saxon countries at the bottom of its list of diplomatic priorities for the first time, above only Antarctica. Based on the Eurasian Economic Union, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Russia plans to establish a broad Greater Eurasian Partnership integration framework and promote alignment and cooperation with the Belt and Road Initiative by combining the potential of all countries, regional organizations, and alliances on the Eurasian continent.21 By cooperating with Asian countries and regions to strengthen its land power and expanding the depth of its security strategy and space for economic cooperation, Russia seeks to hedge against threats and challenges from Europe, using diplomatic progress in Asia to drive diplomatic breakthroughs in Europe.22 Russia strives to maintain its influence in its traditional areas of interest through multilateral institutions such as the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization, which it leads, as well as bilateral channels.23 To some extent, Russia’s “eastward and southward” strategic layout is aligned with North Korea’s policy trajectory in its struggle against hegemony and interference.


North Korea has long regarded the United States as its most important hostile force and security threat, as well as the culprit responsible for the division of the Korean Peninsula. In 2018, as the United States under the Trump Administration adjusted its policy toward North Korea, the Korean Peninsula issue took a sudden turn. North Korea and the United States held their first summit in Singapore and issued a joint statement, proposing to reach a principled consensus on seeking to establish a new type of diplomatic relations and a peace mechanism for the peninsula. The leaders of North and South Korea also held three summits that year and signed the Pyongyang Joint Declaration of September 2018, proposing to eliminate hostile relations, build a nuclear-free zone, and gradually resume the Kaesong Industrial Park and Mount Kumgang tourism projects. However, with the failure of the Hanoi talks between the North Korean and U.S. leaders in 2019, the confrontational aspect of North Korea’s foreign policy once again strengthened, emphasizing the long-term nature of the confrontation between North Korea and the United States. In 2021, the 8th Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea continued to hold a grim assessment of the external security environment, emphasized the importance of nuclear weapons, and reiterated its position of possessing nuclear weapons and strengthening the military.24


Some people believe that the U.S. Asia-Pacific alliance system is changing from a “hub-and-spoke” structure based on traditional bilateral alliances to a grid-based composite structure with nested circles. Judging from the current state of Japan-ROK relations and the content and level of trilateral cooperation, the U.S.-Japan-ROK trilateral relationship seems to be a “quasi-alliance.”25 Therefore, North Korea has returned to its policy track of developing nuclear weapons to fight against hegemony and interference, and has adopted military deterrence, diplomatic division, and seeking external support to hedge against the threat of the U.S.-Japan-ROK alliance. In September 2022, the 14th Supreme People’s Assembly of North Korea passed a decree entitled “Nuclear Force Policy,” which includes 11 items including the mission, composition, command and control of nuclear forces, the execution of decisions on the use of nuclear weapons, the principles and conditions for the use of nuclear weapons, regular mobilization posture, security maintenance management and protection, and the qualitative and quantitative strengthening and updating of nuclear forces.26 For the first time, this document clearly defined North Korea’s “national nuclear force policy” in law. In 2023, the 9th Session of the 14th Supreme People’s Assembly of North Korea reviewed and passed a supplementary bill concerning a constitutional amendment, officially incorporating the nuclear force policy into the Socialist Constitution of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. This emphasized the implementation of advanced nuclear weapons development in order to ensure the country’s right to survival and development, curb the threat of war, and maintain regional and world peace and stability. North Korea’s top leader Kim Jong Un also condemned the United States for constantly revising its position on an aggressive war aimed at achieving “regime change” in North Korea and stressed the need to flexibly carry out foreign affairs and further strengthen solidarity with countries that oppose the hegemonic strategies of the United States and other Western countries.27


(iii) Role positioning logic


It is generally believed that the identity of a country can change due to interactions between countries or internal changes.28 The Ukraine crisis has profoundly changed the international and regional security order. Based on similarities in their perceptions of the international order and strategic orientations, the complementarity of the roles of Russia and North Korea has become more prominent, mainly including three aspects: mutual support, security coordination, and interlocking needs.


First, at the level of mutual support: Russia and North Korea have a 15-kilometer border. Changes in the situation in Northeast Asia are closely related to Russia’s overall geopolitical security environment. The North Korean nuclear issue is also a key tool that Russia can use to highlight its agenda-setting capabilities and influence in the game between major powers. Therefore, whether it is promoting the “denuclearization” process on the peninsula or building a security mechanism in Northeast Asia, Russia has seized the strategic initiative to ensure that the relevant processes are in line with the development track of its own geopolitical security interests. Russia hopes to enhance its influence in Northeast Asia and even the Asia-Pacific region as a whole by strengthening cooperation with North Korea, intervening in the peninsula issue, and thereby achieving the goal of balancing or regulating relations with neighboring parties. For Russia, its geo-economic interests on the Korean Peninsula have become more important as it shifts the focus of its national development strategy to the East and launches a new round of Far East development due to its deteriorating relations with the West. Given the important geostrategic value of the Korean Peninsula and the fact that the Korean Peninsula issue concerns the core security interests of all neighboring parties, Russia plays a role in Korean Peninsula affairs in order to pursue its geopolitical interests. Similarly, Russia is one of the external supports that North Korea uses to cope with containment by the United States, Japan, and South Korea, hedge against security threats, and maintain a balance of power with South Korea as regards the peninsula issue. As North Korean Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui noted, if the U.S.-led trilateral military alliance between the United States, Japan, and South Korea jeopardizes regional security, North Korea’s relationship with Russia will become a powerful “strategic element.”29 During his visit to North Korea, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also stressed that “the relationship between Russia and North Korea has reached a new strategic level.”30


Second, at the level of security coordination: As the Ukrainian crisis persists, ammunition production capacity has become a major test for the arms industries of Russia, the United States, and Europe. A report released by the U.S. Center for Strategic and International Studies pointed out that, according to satellite images of the Korea–Russia Friendship Bridge over the Tumen River in North Korea taken on October 5, 2023, there has been an unprecedented increase in freight rail transportation between Russia and North Korea (about 73 parked freight cars), far higher than the average level of the past five years. The report said: “The dramatic increase in rail traffic likely indicates North Korea’s supply of arms and munitions to Russia”.31 Although both Russian and North Korean officials have denied this speculation, theoretically speaking, North Korea’s defense industry system is derived from the Soviet Union and has relative production capacity advantages in some military fields. It could indeed become an important supplement that would allow Russia to address its battlefield ammunition consumption. In return, Russia could provide North Korea with specific economic and technical support, especially in fields such as aerospace and equipment manufacturing. During Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s visit to North Korea, Kim Jong-un and Shoigu visited the “Arms and Equipment Exhibition-2023” hosted by the North Korean Ministry of Defense. They viewed North Korea’s new weapons and equipment and expressed their willingness to achieve security coordination through military cooperation.


Third, at the level of interlocking needs: Due to its unique geographical location, North Korea plays a key role in Russia’s “eastward and southward” strategy and is of great significance in many areas of cooperation, such as energy channels and transportation. In addition, North Korean labor is also an important source of labor for the development of Russia’s Far East. According to statistics, North Korean workers work in more than 40 countries and regions around the world, and Russia was once the country that received the largest number of North Korean workers, with nearly 40,000 workers at the peak, mainly employed in fields such as construction, agriculture, and fishery processing. In 2018, in order to implement the UN resolution on the North Korean nuclear issue, Russia repatriated all North Korean workers. With the dramatic changes in Russia’s relations with the West following the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis, labor cooperation between Russia and North Korea is no longer a forbidden area. Russian Ambassador to North Korea Alexander Matsegora has publicly stated that there are broad prospects for cooperation between North Korea and the Donbas region, especially in that North Korea has highly qualified, hard-working construction workers who are willing to work under difficult conditions, which will provide important assistance for the reconstruction of the Donbas region.32 In addition, the two countries’ cooperation in areas such as food, metallurgy, and geology is also highly complementary. On November 15, 2023, Russia and North Korea held the tenth meeting of the Intergovernmental Commission on Economic, Trade and Scientific and Technological Cooperation in Pyongyang, focusing on the trade of flour, corn, soybean oil, and meat products and discussing joint geological exploration of gold, iron, and rare earth metal mines, student exchange programs, intergovernmental agreements on mutual recognition of academic qualifications and degrees, and engagement in the fields of sports and culture. Both Russia and North Korea regard each other as important bargaining chips in their game with the West. Russia hopes to maintain its role in Northeast Asian security affairs through cooperation with North Korea and to make use of North Korea’s comparative advantages in specific areas to compensate for its own shortcomings. North Korea hopes to strengthen cooperation with Russia economicallyand in military technology to ease the pressure of sanctions imposed on it by the international community.


III. The impact of Russia and North Korea building a “comprehensive” relationship on the situation in Northeast Asia


For some time, the United States has adhered to its Cold War mentality and ideological bias. It has introduced the “new Cold War” mentality into the Asia-Pacific region and attempted to reconstruct the post-war regional order and governance structure based on its regional alliance system and the “Indo-Pacific” strategy. At the same time, the Ukraine crisis has promoted the reshaping of the security order in Northeast Asia, showing the alternation of features between the old and new order.33 Against this background, Russia and North Korea’s close interactions in various fields and attempts to build a “comprehensive” relationship may intensify the complexity of the security dilemma in Northeast Asia, accelerate the return of the “Cold War narrative,” and increase the complexity of the North Korean nuclear issue.


(i) Intensifying the complexity of regional security dilemmas


The security situation in Northeast Asia is complex and sensitive. Shaped by historical and contemporary reasons, the region has formed a confrontational pattern with China, Russia, and North Korea (in the form of bilateral friendship treaties) on one side and the United States, Japan, and South Korea (in the form of bilateral military alliances and stationed U.S. troops) on the other side.34 Mutual distrust and a lack of understanding of security concerns have made it impossible to resolve the regional security dilemma. Since the outbreak of the Ukrainian crisis, some Western media have been hotly discussing theories such as “the rapprochement among China, Russia, and North Korea has led to a new Cold War pattern on the Korean Peninsula” and “this is the darkest moment since the end of the Korean War.” Catalyzed by such narratives, the “security panic” and response measures of relevant countries have exacerbated the post-Cold War security dilemma in the region. In December 2022, Japan officially adopted three new security strategy documents, namely the National Security Strategy, National Defense Strategy, and Defense Buildup Program, proposing that Japan would possess “counterstrike capabilities” to directly attack enemy bases and would significantly increase its defense budget and take a number of new measures to strengthen its defense capabilities. Japan has completely abandoned the principle of “exclusive self-defense” stipulated in its peace constitution, creating great instability for the security of Northeast Asia.35 The United States and South Korea also announced the restart of the high-level “extended deterrence” strategic consultation mechanism. By issuing the Washington Declaration, they agreed that the United States would provide a “nuclear umbrella” to South Korea. The United States also plans to increase its deployment of strategic assets around the peninsula, including strategic nuclear submarines.


In the future, the deepening of military cooperation between Russia and North Korea driven by the strategy of common pressure and mutual support, especially discussions that Russia could provide North Korea with sensitive technologies including satellite technology, missile solid fuel, and submarines, is bound to strike a nerve with countries in the region and outside the region, intensifying strategic suspicion and distrust among countries. In response, the United States may seize on this as an excuse to increase its military investment in Northeast Asia and deepen the current “trilateral quasi-alliance” relationship based on the U.S.-Japan and U.S.-ROK bilateral alliances by making it compulsory and institutionalized. This, in turn, will stimulate Russia and North Korea to further bind themselves together on military security issues, leading to a continued deterioration of the security dilemma in Northeast Asia.


(ii) Accelerating the return of the “Cold War narrative”


During the Cold War, Northeast Asia was the frontier area of confrontation between the two main camps of the United States and the Soviet Union. The conflicts and confrontations between the “six countries and two parties” led to complex territorial disputes, ethnic divisions, and other issues that remain as a “Cold War legacy” to this day and have become the main obstacles to mutual trust and cooperation among the countries. Against the backdrop of intensifying competition among major powers and geopolitical conflicts, the United States is promoting the integration of alliance mechanisms and pushing NATO to move into the Asia-Pacific region as soon as possible in terms of institutions and actions, in order to further strengthen NATO’s momentum of “Asia-Pacificization.”36 On the other hand, in U.S. public opinion, there is often a clamor for a “new Cold War pattern” in Northeast Asia. This uses the atmosphere of intensified competition among major powers to awaken the Cold War memories of the Korean War among neighboring parties, forcing countries and regions to alleviate their own insecurity by choosing sides. Against this background, Russia and North Korea’s building of a “comprehensive” relationship that includes military technology and security cooperation may further stimulate Cold War memories among regional parties and lead to an accelerated return to the Cold War mentality.


There is widespread discussion about the reappearance of a “new Cold War” pattern in East Asia. Some people believe that a new iron curtain divides Western countries such as Japan, Australia, and South Korea on one side from so-called “authoritarian countries” such as Russia and North Korea on the other side.37 This fundamental ideological opposition has determined the formation of two opposing camps in Northeast Asia.38 In the view of various parties in the region, the Soviet Union and North Korea belonged to the same socialist camp during the Cold War. Although the Soviet Union has disintegrated, Russia and North Korea have a resonance in historical memory. Currently, both countries are suffering under unprecedented isolation and economic sanctions from Western countries, making them more dependent on each other’s support. For Russia and North Korea, although the construction of a “comprehensive” relationship and deepening of strategic cooperation between the two countries is a natural choice due to their similar isolated environments, threat perceptions, strategic alignment, and complementary advantages, and the fundamental goal of this behavior is to respond to the isolation, containment, and encirclement of Western countries, their practices to this end have indeed stimulated the negative Cold War memories of various parties in the region, deepened the security concerns of Japan, South Korea, and other countries, and forced them to integrate more deeply into the trilateral alliance system of the United States, Japan, and South Korea and respond through military cooperation, intelligence sharing, and other means. They go so far as to forcibly construe the bilateral exchanges between China and Russia, China and North Korea, and Russia and North Korea into a China-Russia-North Korea trilateral linkage, replicating the confrontation between the “Northern Triangle” (China, the Soviet Union, and North Korea) and the “Southern Triangle” (the United States, Japan, and South Korea) in Northeast Asia during the Cold War.


(iii) Increasing the complexity of the North Korean nuclear issue


In 2018, the North Korean nuclear issue eased for a time. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un pledged to promote the denuclearization of the peninsula, and the leaders of North and South Korea held a meeting and reached the Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Reunification of the Korean Peninsula. 39 However, the United States did not respond positively to North Korea’s requests for security in exchange for denuclearization. Instead, it cooperated with South Korea to increase pressure on North Korea, resulting in a lost opportunity for the denuclearization of the peninsula. As South Korea’s Yoon Suk Yeol government has adopted a policy of seeking peace through military deterrence, the North Korean nuclear issue has once again reached a dead end. At the same time, although investment in nuclear deterrence has been continuing in Northeast Asia, judging from the perceptions and behavior of the United States, Japan, and South Korea on the one hand and North Korea, China, and Russia on the other, a trend of “weakening nuclear deterrence effect” is emerging, characterized by the weakening of nuclear deterrence and nuclear protection and increase in nuclear proliferation.40


As a permanent member of the Security Council, Russia has voted in favor of several resolutions related to the North Korean nuclear issue and fulfilled its relevant obligations, including restricting military and technological cooperation with North Korea. However, on February 24, 2022, the Ukraine crisis escalated, relations between Russia and the West deteriorated across the board, and it seemed natural to relax restrictions on all aspects of cooperation with North Korea. In September 2023, the delegation accompanying the North Korean supreme leader on his visit to Russia included many senior military generals. The delegation also visited a Russian space launch site and some advanced military equipment. The two countries’ deepening discussions and cooperation on military and technological issues have aroused concern from the outside world. In the future, if Russo-North Korean military and security cooperation involves sensitive technologies, it may stimulate Japan and South Korea to seek production under the U.S. nuclear umbrella, making the denuclearization process on the peninsula nothing but empty talk. Even if Russia does not break the relevant UN resolutions to help North Korea improve its nuclear deterrence, the close political, economic, and security interactions between Russia and North Korea will lead to an upward spiral of threat perception and lack of mutual trust, seriously limiting the effectiveness of major powers in resolving the North Korean nuclear issue through dialogue and consultation.


IV. Structural shortcomings in the development of a “comprehensive” relationship between Russia and North Korea


Although Russia and North Korea’s political propaganda and related practices for building a “comprehensive” relationship are accelerating, the two countries’ strategic choices are more a matter of expediency based on short-term geopolitical interests and mutual convenience. They lack substantive and permanent interlocking interests, and even more so, lack institutional safeguards. Therefore, the deepening of Russia and North Korea’s “comprehensive” relations still faces many uncertainties and structural shortcomings.


(i) The fragility of mutually beneficial relationships


At present, Russia and North Korea do have complementary needs in the areas of diplomacy, security, and economy, and this strategic and reciprocal relationship can remain stable in the short term. However, the ups and downs of Russo-North Korean relations are often closely related to changes in the international and regional situation, and external factors are the dominant variables in their bilateral interactions. Therefore, the reciprocity of Russia and North Korea’s “comprehensive” relationship depends not only on the two countries’ own resource endowments, industrial structures, or military-industrial capabilities, but also on their assessments of their respective external environments and strategic focuses. In the future, as a war situation develops and the internal political affairs of the parties concerned change, if dialogue and negotiation resume in the Ukraine crisis or the crisis enters an “intermission” of partial ceasefire, Russia’s willingness and ability to intervene in Northeast Asian affairs will be limited. Unlike North Korea, which needs to maintain national security, ensure regime stability, and develop relations with neighboring countries, Russia is not willing to become a “regional power” and will continue to strive to participate in global agenda-setting and various international and regional affairs. Therefore, Russia takes a comprehensive view when deciding on its allocation of relevant resources.


Assuming that Russia and North Korea’s “comprehensive” relationship is promoted according to the logic of “support for aid, ammunition for technology” as the West sees it, the two countries’ dynamic assessment of the costs incurred and the actual benefits may also lead to rifts when they fail to meet expectations. For example, as early as 2014, North Korea was one of the few countries that recognized the results of Crimea’s “referendum to join Russia,” hoping to obtain economic incentives from Russia for its political support. However, these expectations were ultimately dashed. There were no signs that North Korea received any reward for its stance in support of Russia.41 Therefore, although Russia and North Korea have made firm political gestures towards building a “comprehensive” relationship, the fragility of reciprocity may affect the resilience of their interactions. In addition, for North Korea, Russia’s policy of “favoring the South over the North” in the early days after the end of the Cold War certainly cast a shadow on North Korea’s impression of Russia, but what worries it most is Russia’s attitude on the issue of North-South reunification.42 The progression of the North Korean nuclear issue, South Korea’s attitude towards military aid to Ukraine, and many other factors also affect the reciprocity of Russo-North Korean relations.


(ii) Singleness of common interests


Overall, Russia and North Korea’s “comprehensive” relationship is mainly based on common geopolitical and security interests, and is characterized by a focus on political security with little attention to economic development. In 2020, the bilateral trade volume between Russia and North Korea was only U.S. $42 million, and North Korea ranked only 139th among Russia’s trading partners. Due to the long-term UN sanctions against North Korea, many normal goods are subject to trade restrictions.43 In terms of certain specific industries, such as energy and military industry trade, labor export, and transportation channel construction, Russia and North Korea do have a certain degree of complementarity. However, given the structural transformation of the Russian economy under sanctions, it will be difficult for North Korea to become an import substitute source for key raw materials and equipment that Russia urgently needs, such as electronic components, electromechanical products, automotive and transportation equipment, and chemical products. It will also be difficult for North Korea to become a recipient of Russian energy cooperation in the Asia-Pacific market. Russia’s military and technological cooperation with North Korea will also be difficult as it will easily cross the red lines of sanctions in relevant UN resolutions. Russia wants to use North Korea as a connection point to open up energy and transportation channels in Northeast Asia, which will help the long-term development of Russia’s Far East region. However, there is no actionable external environment in the short term. In addition, the production capacity of the North Korean military-industrial complex may not be able to meet the combat needs of the Russian army.44 The economic structures of Russia and North Korea determine that mutually beneficial cooperation can only focus on limited issues and is more about maintaining consistency in political interests. Therefore, since the ties of common interests holding together Russia and North Korea are not varied or diverse, this will greatly limit the sustainability and positive spillover effects of the “comprehensive” relationship between Russia and North Korea.


(iii) The trap of pursuing “triangular linkage”


As the relationship between Russia and North Korea continues to deepen, the West is trying to fabricate an “axis of evil” composed of China, Russia, and North Korea and regards these three countries as a new triangle of “imperialism.” 45 At the same time, although Russia opposes interpreting the “comprehensive” relationship between Russia and North Korea based on the Cold War mentality, it does not reject the framework of trilateral cooperation among Russia, China, and North Korea. During his visit to North Korea, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu also proposed that China, Russia, and North Korea hold joint maritime military exercises. It is undeniable that in the face of the growing hegemonism, unilateralism, and power politics in the region, China, Russia, and North Korea do share a basic consensus on opposing the Cold War mentality, the confrontation between blocs, and the formation of “small circles” targeting specific countries. However, the “alliance security” model guided by binary “us-versus-them” thinking is not in line with the Global Security Initiative advocated by China. In particular, it is contrary to the concept of common, comprehensive, cooperative, and sustainable security. The development of the three sets of bilateral relations between China and Russia, China and North Korea, and North Korea and Russia are all based on equality and mutual benefit. There is neither mutual linkage nor dependence between any pair, nor confrontation or aggression against any third party. Therefore, if the goal is to achieve a “triangular linkage” between China, Russia, and North Korea in Northeast Asia, especially if a replication of the confrontation pattern of the “North and South Triangles” as a response to the “quasi-alliance relationship” between the United States, Japan, and South Korea is the strategic orientation of the “comprehensive” relationship between Russia and North Korea, it will face many internal and external obstacles. Moreover, this view will undoubtedly exacerbate the security and governance difficulties in Northeast Asia.


V. Conclusion


Looking back at the history of post-war Russian/Soviet-North Korean relations, we can see that the perception of each other’s strategic environment and identity, as well as the evolutionary characteristics of the international and regional order, are important factors influencing the development of relations between the two countries. Currently, based on similar environmental perceptions, interest perceptions, and strategic needs, Russia and North Korea are trying to deepen cooperation in multiple areas, such as politics, diplomacy, economics, and military security, and have proposed the idea of building a “comprehensive” relationship. However, essentially, there are significant differences between the two countries in terms of global and regional agendas, comprehensive strength, and intervention capabilities. Although due to the influence of the special variable of the Ukrainian crisis, the two countries’ perception of the international order, strategic alignment, and cooperation complementarity have become the main driving forces for deepening cooperation, there is still great uncertainty as to whether they can overcome the fragility of their reciprocal relations and the singleness of their common interests. It also remains to be seen whether the Ukrainian crisis will become a key juncture that shifts the two countries’ foreign strategies. It should be noted that, with the deepening development of the “comprehensive” relationship between Russia and North Korea, Russia may use this as a path to strengthen its geopolitical role and security interests, while North Korea may use this as a lever to reshape the regional balance of power. The United States and other countries from outside the region will also take this opportunity to strengthen the security narrative of the “resurgence of the Cold War” and replicate the “North and South Triangles” confrontation pattern. We will gradually come to see the spillover effects of these actions on the security of Northeast Asia and the game between major powers.


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Cite This Page

廉佳璇 (Lian Jiaxuan), 赵隆 (Zhao Long). "Russia and North Korea Build a “Comprehensive” Relationship: The Driving Logic, Spillover Effects, and Structural Shortcomings [俄朝构建“全方位”关系:驱动逻辑、外溢效应与结构短板]". CSIS Interpret: China, original work published in Academic Journal of Russian Studies [俄罗斯学刊], December 10, 2023

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