From the start of the Ukraine crisis, Pyongyang has unequivocally supported Moscow. The DPRK was among the five countries that voted against the UN General Assembly’s resolution demanding Russia’s withdrawal from Ukraine. Pyongyang has repeatedly expressed its support for Russia’s actions, blaming the Ukraine crisis on the United States, NATO and Kyiv.
Apart from Russia, Syria and North Korea are the only UN member states that recognise the Russian-sponsored republics of Donetsk and Lugansk. In retaliation, Kyiv severed diplomatic relations with Pyongyang, but ties were not substantial anyway. Kyiv’s Western allies were also of no concern to the DPRK since the West has hardly any penalties left to impose on North Korea.
The DPRK is also the only UN member state that has recognised the Moscow-backed referendums in Donetsk, Lugansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. Pyongyang promptly endorsed the referendums, stating that an ‘overwhelming majority of the voters supported the integration into Russia’. Since these moves are mostly symbolic, it is unclear if Pyongyang is willing — and able — to provide military support to Russia.
There was speculation circulating among experts and the media about North Korea sending up to 100,000 troops to Ukraine, but the Russian foreign ministry rebuffed this. North Korea has sent troops on overseas combat missions before, but those were limited contingents. To make a difference in Ukraine, Pyongyang would need to send tens of thousands of troops.
It is unlikely that North Korea would dispatch its soldiers to Europe’s most intense armed conflict since World War II. Apart from the risk of incurring high casualties, there are challenges of interoperability with Russian forces due to the language barrier and the absence of any joint training. Also, Russia’s ‘partial mobilisation’ — ordered by President Vladimir Putin in late September 2022 — seems to obviate the need for foreign troops.
Another hypothetical DPRK military contribution is in weapon supplies. North Korea has vast stockpiles of munitions and a massive arms industry. Many of its weapons are based on Soviet standards, so Pyongyang’s munitions could be compatible with Russian weapons.
If Pakistan, as some reports allege, sends ammunition to Ukraine and South Korea supplies equipment to Poland, then perhaps the DPRK could sell weapons to Russia. The Pentagon claims that Russia has approached North Korea for ammunition, but so far no proof has been provided. Russia’s envoy to the UN has called the claim ‘fake’ while Pyongyang denied Washington’s ‘reckless remarks’.
While military deals between Russia and the DPRK look rather hypothetical, the resumption of commerce is more realistic since the two countries share a land border and have a long history of economic collaboration. But the relationship will face the same limitations that had inhibited its growth before the COVID-19 pandemic — North Korea lacks the cash and high-tech goods which Russia wants.
Labour is perhaps the only resource that North Korea can share with Russia. The Soviet Union, and later Russia, used to import many North Korean labourers. Russian officials have considered resuming labour imports from the DPRK, even despite a ban on the practice by the UN Security Council.
Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin — who oversees Russia’s construction industry — said that Russian authorities are ‘working on political arrangements’ to employ North Korean labour. Between 20,000 and 50,000 DPRK workers may be invited to Russia, mainly to develop infrastructure in the Russian Far East.
Still, the Russia–North Korea economic relationship has remained frozen since early 2020 when direct transportation links were suspended by Pyongyang because of COVID-19. There were expectations that the Khasan–Rajin rail traffic route might resume in September 2022, but so far North Korea has kept its border with Russia closed.
The events unfolding since 24 February 2022 have changed Moscow’s calculus toward Pyongyang. As Russia finds itself in an existential struggle with the West over Ukraine, the DPRK’s importance has increased as one of the few countries ready to partner with the Kremlin to counter the United States.
At the same time, the significance of the Korean Peninsula’s denuclearisation has decreased for Russia. Complying with the sanctions imposed on the DPRK may no longer be Russia’s policy because Russia is also targeted by US- and EU-initiated sanctions.
Moscow and Pyongyang may be on the verge of re-establishing the Cold War alliance that unravelled when the Soviet Union fell. But this is likely to be a strategic alignment rather than a formal alliance. Having obtained nuclear deterrence capability, Pyongyang no longer needs Moscow’s defence commitments.
Also, the Moscow–Pyongyang entente will be nested within the Beijing-led trilateral alignment of China, Russia and the DPRK. How this trilateral alignment will operate is yet to be determined, but a Chinese–Russian–North Korean bloc will profoundly impact the balance of power in Northeast Asia.
Artyom Lukin is an Associate Professor at the Oriental Institute – School of Regional and International Studies, Far Eastern Federal University, Vladivostok.
A version of this article was first published here in 38 North.