A North Korea-Russia alliance is about more than weapons

Earlier this week, the world woke up to an unsettling piece of news: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is reportedly planning a trip outside of his nation’s airtight borders to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who will discuss with him a munitions deal that might replenish Moscow’s stockpile of weapons for the war in Ukraine. At the moment, the tête-à-tête is expected to take place sometime next week in the Russian city of Vladivostok, “which was the site of the two leaders’ first and only meeting in April 2019,” per The Wall Street Journal. 

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By U.S. officials’ estimation, that Russia would solicit help from North Korea — an impoverished, isolated country with virtually zero allies — can only be interpreted as a sign of desperation. “I think it says a lot that Russia is having to turn to a country like North Korea to seek to bolster its defense capacity in a war that [it expected] would be over in a week,” National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said at a White House briefing on Tuesday. Putin still “has a vast military capability available to him,” spokesperson John Kirby told NPR last week, but “the war is taking a toll on his defense industrial base. … And that’s why he’s reaching out to countries like Iran for drones and North Korea for artillery ammunition.”

That said, this supposed one-on-one and resulting alliance, the seeds of which have been planted and allegedly tended to for months, might not be as simple in significance as it appears at first blush. Indeed, both countries (and exiled world leaders) could stand to gain more than just munitions in agreeing to help the other out.

Where Russia benefits

As of now, it doesn’t look like Russia has enlisted any North Koreans in its efforts in Ukraine, USA Today reported, per former National Security Adviser Anthony Ruggiero. But it is likely the Kremlin will in fact use conscripted Korean workers, who have previously assisted with Russian civilian work projects, in rebuilding efforts if and when the conflict ends, or to help with current labor shortages. “I think that’s another area that Russia will probably be interested in,” Ruggiero said. “And, of course, North Korea will be happy to do it. They’re already making hundreds of millions of dollars on this overseas labor front.” (The Pyongyang government kept a majority of wages earned by workers in past arrangements with Moscow.)

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Moreover, by working together, both parties might serve as an even bigger thorn in the Biden administration’s side and make a powerful statement about geopolitics in the East. “This is the narrative of Putin and Kim cooperating to try to make the security environment more difficult for Biden in Ukraine and in the Indo-Pacific,” Victor Cha, senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, told the Journal. 

Where North Korea benefits

Kim Jong Un will gain three main things from working with Putin, said CNN’s Political and National Security Analyst David Sanger. For one, “a large power is now dependent on him. That hasn’t happened in a while.” Kim will also gain “the possibility of access to more oil,” as well as assistance with the country’s ballistic missile program, seeing as those weapons have a lot in common with those designed in Russia. “North Korea needs technological help from Russia,” Sung Ki-young, an analyst at the Institute for National Security Strategy, told The New York Times. “North Korea’s five major weapons projects are all based on original Russian technology.”

Kim is additionally seeking food aid for North Korea, which continues to be plagued by devastating shortages. Saddling up to Putin “serves a short-term practical need” in the form of mitigating said crisis “while accomplishing one of North Korea’s long-term objectives — undermining Washington’s policy agenda on the Korean peninsula and in Asia writ large,” Daniel R. DePetris wrote for Newsweek. Indeed, “North Korea desperately wants commodities such as food, oil, fertiliser and other goods,” Daniel Salisbury, a visiting research fellow at King’s College London, surmised in The Conversation.

Ultimately, “Kim is becoming more paranoid than normal over the last four or five years,” added Carl Schuster, former director of the U.S. Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center, per CNN. “And so for him this alliance achieves, makes him look less isolated, provides a psychological boost for him and his inner circle.”

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