Russia and North Korea Form a Pariah Alliance. President Vladimir Putin has just conferred with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who is even more reviled than he is. Putin had the opportunity to showcase his nation’s superior technology, which could be traded for military aid from Pyongyang, at a Russian space facility in Russia’s far east, where the two leaders conducted their summit.
Since the commencement of the massive Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, North Korea has loomed as a potential source of arms for Moscow. Pyongyang, along with Tehran, has been portrayed as an arsenal of autocracy, as evidenced by ludicrous claims propagated by Russian media that North Korea would dispatch 50,000 troops to the front and by Ukraine launching captured North Korean munitions at the Russians.
Pyongyang previously denied it would send any support, and some questioned whether or not any help could be offered. Now, a year after U.S. military intelligence predicted it would occur, North Korea is in the spotlight on the battlefield in Ukraine. Washington should be concerned not because of the quality but the quantity.
Russia’s stockpiles have been depleted due to its artillery-centric strategy in Ukraine, and it needs help to keep up. If there is one thing North Korea has in abundance, it is artillery. North Korea possesses approximately 14,000 artillery systems. According to the Defence Intelligence Agency, Pyongyang’s artillery poses a substantial threat.
During the Cold War, North Korea received millions of projectiles from the Soviet Union, and before acquiring nuclear weapons, it threatened to level the capital of South Korea with artillery.
While Kim has an abundance of cannons and ammunition, North Korea lacks in other areas. In addition to food and inexpensive energy, Russia can still provide North Korea with valuable engineering, production processes, space support, and nuclear submarine technology.
The possibility of an agreement between Russia and North Korea has caused the United States concern. North Korea was sanctioned as late as August 2023 for attempting to aid Russia covertly. Vice President Kamala Harris stated that a meeting between Putin and Kim would be a “huge mistake.” She was disregarded. In a statement, National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson implored North Korea to cease negotiations with Russia, citing the country’s prior pledges not to sell arms to Russia. Pyongyang is, as expected, undeterred.
This absence of response is expected. Former State Department official who has negotiated with North Korean officials, Joel Wit, posed the question, “Do we have leverage over North Korea? It doesn’t take a cerebral surgeon to determine that the answer is an emphatic no. We have no leverage over North Korea unless we want to take actions that could lead to conflict, such as intercepting their ships.”
Russia and North Korea do not care what the United States desires, and little can be done to prevent the inevitable arms agreement between the two countries. It is easy to dismiss an impoverished nation like North Korea whose absurd claims, such as inventing the hamburger, are played for chuckles in international relations. Sadly, this is not a lighthearted matter. Russia is seeking compensation from North Korea for the decades-long assistance provided by the Soviet Union to continue saturation bombardment. Due to sanctions, Russia will provide North Korea with items it cannot obtain elsewhere. Devastating artillery does not require cutting-edge technology.
Pyongyang’s diplomacy has been defter than many recognize for decades. During the Sino-Soviet divide, North Korea deftly navigated a middle ground between Maoist China and the Soviet Union during their most tense period of rivalry, securing massive amounts of economic aid in exchange for a few concessions. North Korea has repeatedly received aid from the international community despite its actions against its citizens and on the international stage. The absurd headlines emanating from North Korea are deception tactics, not examples of self-delusion.
Beijing, the protector of North Korea, has a murky involvement in this latest development. It is still being determined whether Beijing gave permission. The presence of a Chinese military delegation in North Korea concurrently with Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu’s visit suggests that China plays a role.
Relations between China and North Korea, once described by Mao as “lips and teeth,” have deteriorated in recent years. Pyongyang’s saber-rattling has dashed Beijing’s expectations for a stable but compliant North Korea and refused to implement economic reform, resulting in a chilling of relations by 2017. Once viewed as a niche weapon of plausible denial in Beijing’s arsenal, North Korea’s nuclear program became a liability for China when it realized that atomic power was difficult to control. However, when the United States and South Korea made progress in negotiations, China reengaged and presumably substantially increased its aid to North Korea. Pyongyang received the superior offer.
Nonetheless, there are distinct options available to American policymakers. First with Iranian drones and now with North Korean artillery, Russia reaches out to pariahs to maintain its capacity to fight. U.S. military training and support of the Ukrainian military is, in part, a response to the behavior of a particular regime.