The United States has no right to lecture us on how to live.

Russia’s ambassador to the US, Anatoly Antonov

North Korea and Russia are two prominent countries with highly centralised totalitarian state regime and are widely recognised as two of the most heavily sanctioned nations globally.  North Korea-Russia relations share a profound historical bond focused on economic and military cooperation which originated during the Soviet era.

Remarkably, in recent times, their alliance has further strengthened as they strive to counter the influence of the US led coalition while safeguarding their respective regional interests.

The United States said, it has information indicating North Korea is covertly supplying Russia with a “significant” number of artillery shells, in what would be a further sign of deepening ties between the two pariah states. As Russia’s isolation over its war in Ukraine has grown, it has seen increasing value in North Korea

But what exactly would be the outcomes of the North Korea-Russia diplomatic relations?

Will it be a boon or a bane for the Asian subcontinent?

What are the related challenges and opportunities of such a diplomatic setting?

In this article, we will explore these questions and more, based on the latest developments and analysis.

The Latest Meeting of Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin

On the 13th of September 2023, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Russian President Vladimir Putin met for a rare summit on Wednesday at which they discussed military matters, the war in Ukraine and possible Russian help for the secretive state’s satellite programme. Putin showed Kim around Russia’s most advanced space rocket launch site in Russia’s Far East and discussed the possibility of sending a North Korean cosmonaut into space.

Russia’s Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un gifted each other rifles at the space centre in Russia, while the Russian leader also presented his counterpart from Pyongyang with a glove from a cosmonaut’s space suit. Moscow also confirmed on Thursday that Putin “gratefully accepted Kim’s invitation” to visit the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, which North Korea’s state television had earlier announced.

Peskov said Moscow will first “quickly prepare” to send Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to Pyongyang, with his trip expected in October, before a Putin visit can be arranged. It would be Putin’s second trip to North Korea. He last visited in July 2000 to meet Kim’s late father Kim Jong-il, just months after being elected to the presidency. In North Korea, state media have praised Kim’s summit with Putin as “historic”.

South Korean media reported that officials in Seoul are monitoring whether North Korea and Russia will announce joint military drills following the meeting of the two leaders. Vladimir Putin’s meeting with Kim Jong-un has been labelled by the US as an act of desperation by the Russian leader.

Although very few details have emerged about the leaders’ discussion, the summit in the Russian Far East could preface new and worrying developments in the war in Ukraine and Kim’s military ambitions.  

The Historical Background- North Korea-Russia Relations

The Soviet Union was the first to recognize North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, DPRK) on 12 October, 1948, as the sole legitimate authority in all of Korea. North Korea was founded as part of the Communist bloc and received major Soviet military and political support during Korean war. China and the Soviet Union competed for influence in North Korea during the Sino-Soviet split in the 1960s, as North Korea tried to maintain good relations with both countries. 

However, the bilateral relations between both countries have their own ups and downs. Moscow under Mikhail Gorbachev began to reduce aid to the North after 1985 in favour of reconciliation with South Korea. North Korea was heavily reliant on Soviet aid for decades, and when the Soviet Union collapsed in the 1990s, it sparked a deadly famine in the North Korea. After the dissolution of the USSR, the new Russian government under Boris Yeltsin declined to provide required economic and defence support to North Korea and lead to the decline of bilateral relations.

The relationship regained importance after Vladimir Putin was elected President of Russia in 2000. After last nuclear test in 2017, Kim Jon Un took steps to repair ties with the Russia and met Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2019 for the first time in a summit in the Russian city of Vladivostok. It was one of the only countries to recognise the independence of breakaway Ukrainian regions and it expressed support for Russia’s proclaimed annexation of parts of Ukraine.

Present Situation

The summit was an opportunity for both leaders to demonstrate that despite war, sanctions and widespread international condemnation, they are not without allies. Kim’s choice of language in Russia is potentially the rejection of a return to diplomacy with the US over his development of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons, as he referred to the Kremlin’s “sacred fight” against the “hegemonic forces” that oppose it. The Kim-Putin summit was not just a meeting of minds – or an opportunity to exchange gifts of small arms– but a demonstration that the two pariah states need each other more than ever.

Years of sanctions, the near-total isolation forced by the COVID-19 pandemic, and a population battered by economic mismanagement and malnutrition have forced Kim’s hand in reaching out to Moscow. More than three years of border closures, not to mention the breakdown of talks with the United States in 2019, have left the country more isolated than ever before. On the surface, an arms deal between North Korea and Russia makes perfect transactional sense, but a leader-level meeting between Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin catapults this into the next realm.

Implications and Prospects of North Korea-Russia Relations

Whatever the outcome of the talks, the alignment of Kim and Putin’s interests – to the extent that Kim said relations with Moscow were now his foreign policy priority –is being taken seriously by the West.

Despite dismissing the summit as an act of desperation on Putin’s part, the US warned that his regime would “pay a price” for supplying munitions for the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine.

Japan, which has grown accustomed to North Korean missile flyovers in recent years, joined the chorus of condemnation, with the new foreign minister, Yoko Kamikawa, warning that a deal would violate UN sanctions against the North. Japan had watched this week’s events in Russia unfold “with concern”. South Korea voiced “concern and regret” over the Putin-Kim meeting.

No summit statement was issued – these are after all the heads of two secretive paranoid states and there was never any chance that either would expose themselves to media scrutiny by holding a press conference. In response Russia accused Washington – which is supplying weapons to Ukraine – of hypocrisy. “The United States has no right to lecture us on how to live,” Russia’s ambassador to the US, Anatoly Antonov said in a statement. 

With Russia in a desperate situation, Mr. Kim may be able to extract a high price. South Korea’s intelligence service hinted that Russia’s Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu had suggested Russia, China and North Korea hold joint naval drills, like those carried out by the US, South Korea and Japan, which Kim Jong Un so detests. But by far the most worrying request Mr Kim could make is for Mr. Putin to provide him with advanced weapons technology or knowledge to help him make breakthroughs with his nuclear weapons programme. He is still struggling to master key strategic weapons, chiefly a spy satellite and a nuclear-armed submarine.

However, officials in Seoul believe cooperation on this level is unlikely, as it could end up being strategically dangerous for Russia. 

Pyongyang has always been uneasy about depending too much on China alone.  With Russia on the hunt for allies, it gives Mr. Kim the chance to diversify his support network. Mr. Putin might agree to keep silent in the face of a North Korean nuclear test, but this could prove a step too far for Chinese President Xi Jinping.