Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s visit to North Korea on July 25 to celebrate the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK) self-proclaimed “victory” in the 1950–1953 Korean War has generated much speculation in the expert community (Lenta.ru, July 25).
The DPRK has always been in the periphery of Moscow’s interests. North Korea has not been an economically interesting partner; at the same time, the problem of a peaceful settlement on the Korean peninsula, including Pyongyang’s nuclear program, has caused, and continues to cause, a major headache for all those involved. It is no secret that North Korea is a difficult and problematic partner for the Kremlin—most notably, within the framework of the failed six-party talks of 2003–2009, which Russian diplomacy tried to take an active part in (RIA Novosti, August 24, 2011).
Pyongyang has been, to some extent, Beijing’s junior partner for many years. The very existence and survival of the totalitarian regime depends on the favorable attitude of its Chinese comrades. Thus, it is up to the Chinese Communist Party leadership to maintain the DPRK’s economic ties with Chinese businesses and cross-border trade. This in turn gives Beijing strong leverage over Pyongyang.
Even so, China’s influence should not be overestimated, as the regime in Pyongyang is extremely concerned about demonstrating its independence and sovereignty, which increases the likelihood of unpredictable and ill-considered actions on the DPRK’s part if it suspects an existential threat (Meduza, December 17, 2021).
Moscow’s increased attention to Pyongyang became increasingly more noticeable with the onset of Russia’s full-scale aggression against Ukraine. As such, the DPRK remains one of the few “allies” of Russia that consistently supports President Vladimir Putin’s confrontational course (Lenta.ru, July 13, 2022).
The largely unsuccessful campaign of military operations and aggravated problems with the supply of troops has forced the Russian leadership to seek all possible ways to overcome its “shell hunger.” Negotiations to mitigate these needs are ongoing, as it is known, with Iran (see EDM, June 20). As a result, the Russian army has acquired a large number of cheap and quite effective Iranian drones; however, the need for artillery shells has not disappeared (Moskovskij komsomolets, July 19, 2022).
Huge stockpiles of Soviet-style weapons and munitions compatible with the Russian army’s systems have dramatically increased Pyongyang’s importance in Moscow’s eyes. Assuredly, one of Shoigu’s main goals during his visit to North Korea was to reach concrete agreements on a stable supply of weapons, primarily ammunition, for the needs of the Russian Armed Forces (Life.ru, November 7, 2022).
Pyongyang may seem to be equally interested in such a deal for several reasons. To begin with, it needs more money to cope with serious economic problems (Korea Times, June 11). Furthermore, President Kim Jong Un may expect to somehow play Moscow against Beijing if the latter tries to impose too much pressure on the DPRK.
From the opposite side, what can Pyongyang offer Moscow? Perhaps most importantly, North Korea can provide its partner with desperately needed ammunition for artillery, mortars, tanks, rocket launchers and Multiple Rocket Launch Systems. The war in Ukraine is a “classic” artillery war characterized by an enormous consumption of munitions (Lenta.ru, March 25). Yet, even with pictures of Kim Jong Un showing Shoigu his country’s most advanced military technologies, including drones, it is unclear whether the DPRK has achieved steady production of such weapons (RIA Novosti, July 27).
Overall, it is unlikely that North Korean arms supplies to Russia have, or will, reach large volumes. Pyongyang relies on its reserves and, as a result, will hardly sell significant parts of its own arsenal. Moreover, deliveries via the Trans-Siberian Railway are unlikely to be made quickly due to congestion along this transit artery.
Additionally, disadvantages abound in using North Korean–produced weaponry, including the rather low quality of products characterized by a significant percentage of defects. This in turn will reduce the efficiency for Russian forces in using weapons purchased from Pyongyang (RBC, July 21).
Nevertheless, taking into account the scale of Russia’s ammunition consumption at the front, North Korean supplies will certainly not be superfluous (RBC, May 3).
In another sense, any military deals with the DPRK run counter to the UN Security Council (UNSC) resolutions that prohibit North Korea from cooperating militarily with other countries (Armscontrol.org, accessed July 31). On the surface, it would seem that Russia, which boasts of its status as a permanent member of the UNSC, should be more active in defending the inviolability of its decisions. However, as Putin has proven time and again, he cares little about global stability and international security; nor does he care much about his country’s image as a responsible participant in international relations. And he is readily willing to sacrifice all of this for the short-term interest of preserving his personal power. Thus, it comes as no surprise that Russia consistently violates fundamental decisions of the UNSC, even those for which it voted.
Seemingly, no legal solutions can solve this impasse. Indeed, any notice of an alleged violation of the sanctions regime will be considered by the UNSC, where Russia and, quite likely, China will undoubtedly veto any decision on this issue.
In truth, Beijing could significantly influence Pyongyang’s cooperation with Moscow, though it seems that China approaches such cooperation from a position of “benevolent neutrality.” President Xi Jinping does not need the war to end as soon as possible; the conflict is in fact a useful tool to divert the United States from its strategic competition with China, which gives Beijing more time to prepare for the decisive battle for Taiwan. According to Xi, China and its armed forces must be ready for war. And these words are a serious shot across the bow of the US and the collective West (Lenta.ru, March 30).
Nevertheless, North Korean–Russian military cooperation is a critical development to keep an eye on, as it not only plays a direct role in increasing the capacity of Russian forces in Ukraine but also blatantly undermines international norms and practices. This demonstrates the need to reform the UNSC itself—not by cosmetically increasing the number of permanent members or something similar, but by revising the fundamental principles of the international body’s functions and increasing the responsibility of those states that violate their obligations.