– North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may soon meet with President Vladimir Putin and discuss potential arms deals, a U.S. national security official has said, signalling deeper ties between the two countries as they face off with Washington.
As Russia’s isolation over its war in Ukraine has grown, analysts say it has seen increasing value in North Korea. For North Korea’s part, relations with Russia haven’t always been as warm as they were during at the height of the Soviet Union, but now the country is reaping clear benefits from Moscow’s need for friends.
Here’s how North Korea-Russia relations began, and how they are becoming closer:
HOW DEEP ARE THE POLITICAL TIES?
Communist North Korea was formed in the early days of the Cold War with the backing of the Soviet Union. North Korea later battled the South and its U.S. and United Nations allies to a stalemate in the 1950-1953 Korean War with extensive aid from China and the Soviet Union.
North Korea was heavily reliant on Soviet aid for decades, and the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s contributed to a deadly famine in the North.
Pyongyang’s leaders have often tried use Beijing and Moscow to balance each other. Kim initially had a relatively cool relationship with Russia and China, which both joined the United States in imposing strict sanctions on North Korea over its nuclear tests.
After his country’s most recent nuclear test in 2017, Kim took steps to repair ties.
He met Putin in 2019 for the first time in the Russian city of Vladivostok.
In a message for Russia’s National Day in June, Kim vowed to “hold hands” with Putin and bolster strategic cooperation.
Russia has joined China in opposing new sanctions on North Korea, blocking a U.S.-led push and publicly splitting the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) for the first time since it started punishing Pyongyang in 2006.
The most striking sign of deepening ties came in July, when Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu visited Pyongyang and toured a weapons exhibit that included the North’s banned ballistic missiles. He later stood beside Kim and saluted those missiles as they rolled by during a military parade.
HOW HAS THE UKRAINE WAR AFFECTED THE RELATIONSHIP?
North Korea has reciprocated with public support for Moscow after Russia invaded Ukraine. It was one of the only countries to recognise the independence of Russian-claimed Ukrainian regions, and it expressed support for Russia’s annexation of parts of Ukraine.
The United States has accused North Korea of providing arms to Russia, but it is unclear whether any deliveries have been made. Both Russia and North Korea have denied those claims, but promised to deepen defence cooperation.
“Moscow’s ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine has ushered in a new geopolitical reality in which the Kremlin and (North Korea) may become increasingly close, perhaps even to the point of resurrecting the quasi-alliance relationship that had existed during the Cold War,” Artyom Lukin, a professor at Far Eastern Federal University in Vladivostok, wrote in a report for 38 North.
It is notable Pyongyang has begun using the new phrase “tactical and strategic collaboration” to describe its relationship with Russia, he added.
Shoigu told Russian media on Monday that Moscow is discussing joint military exercises with North Korea.
“Why not, these are our neighbours. There’s an old Russian saying: you don’t choose your neighbours and it’s better to live with your neighbours in peace and harmony,” Interfax news agency quoted him as saying.
WHAT ARE THE ECONOMIC TIES?
Last year, Russia and North Korea restarted train travel for the first time since railway journeys were cut during the COVID pandemic. The train carried an unusually opulent cargo: 30 thoroughbred horses.
Shortly after that, Russia resumed oil exports to North Korea, United Nations data shows, the first such shipments reported since 2020.
The vast majority of North Korea’s trade goes through China, but Russia is a potentially important partner as well, particularly for oil, experts said. Moscow has denied breaking U.N. sanctions, but Russian tankers have been accused of helping evade caps on exporting oil to North Korea and sanctions monitors have reported labourers remain in Russia despite a ban.
Russian officials have openly discussed “working on political arrangements” to employ 20,000 to 50,000 North Korean labourers, despite U.N. Security Council resolutions that ban such arrangements.
Russian officials and leaders in occupied regions of Ukraine have also discussed the possibility of having North Korean workers help rebuild war-torn areas.