North Korea: Russia’s Staunch Ally – Analysis


At the end of July, a Russian military delegation led by the Minister of Defense of the Russian Federation, General Sergei Shoigu, visited the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. An official welcoming ceremony for the Russian delegation was held at the Sunan International Airport in Pyongyang with the participation of a company of the Honor Guard of the Korean People’s Army.

Defense Minister of the DPRK, General Kang Sun-nam, greeted Shoigu at the airport. The Russian and Chinese delegations (led by Politburo member Li Hongzhong) participated in the ceremonial events marking the 70th anniversary of the end of the Korean War. The armistice was signed on July 27, 1953. North Korea celebrates that day as Victory Day in the Great Patriotic War of 1950 to 1953. In the bloody battles that claimed the lives of about 3 million people, the Korean People’s Army under the command of Kim Il-sung, supported by PR China and the USSR, managed to secure stalemate and the border of the two Koreas mostly remained the 38th parallel as before the war.

Festive celebration of Victory Day

Kim Jong-un and his guests were at an exhibition of intercontinental ballistic missiles in multi-barrel rocket launchers, offensive drones and other latest North Korean military equipment. Kim revealed to the Russians and Chinese plans for further strengthening of military capabilities. Later, a military parade was held where the North Koreans showed their military power to foreign guests. Shoigu’s visit was the first visit by a Russian defense minister to North Korea since 1991. The Russian defense minister expressed his intention to consistently develop bilateral ties in all areas: “I am convinced that today’s talks will contribute to strengthening cooperation between our defense departments.” Shoigu handed Kim a letter Russian President Vladimir Putin. In the letter, the Russian leader congratulated Kim on the anniversary of the “defeat of the enemy” in the Korean War and praised the contribution of military personnel from the Soviet Union, especially pilots, who fought on the side of the DPRK.

In return, Kim “expressed his views on matters of common interest in the struggle to preserve the sovereignty, development and interests of the two countries from the arbitrary practices of the imperialists and to achieve international justice and peace,” North Korean media wrote. North Korean Defense Minister Kang Sun-nam said Pyongyang fully supports Russia’s “battle for justice” and the protection of its sovereignty, referring to the Ukrainian war. Earlier this year, on May 9, during Russian Victory Day celebration, the North Korean leader praised Russia’s war effort in Ukraine. Indeed, after the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Moscow and Pyongyang drastically strengthened diplomatic, trade, energy and military cooperation, and the visit of the Russian delegation to North Korea’s Victory Day is an additional proof of excellent cooperation.

A dynamic history of North Korea-Russia relations

Russian-North Korean relations have a long history marked by ups and downs. Immediately after the end of the Second World War in 1945, the communist Korean government in the north, which in 1948 would grow into the DPR Korea, established fraternal and friendly relations with the Soviet Union. Until 1956, there will be idyllic relations between the two countries of the socialist camp. At that time, North Korea was a satellite of the USSR. Pyongyang could not make all important decisions without Moscow’s consent. Even in the spring of 1948, Joseph Stalin himself found time to draft the first constitution of DPR Korea. At the same time, Soviet officials were busy finding the correct proportion of workers, peasants, and party officials to be elected to the Korean Parliament.

In the North Korean media, everything was bursting with flattery and praise of the USSR, the Russian people and culture. Russian advisers and officials, who were many in Korea at that time, were hated by the people and the authorities. Everything changed after the death of Stalin, more precisely after the new Soviet leadership began de-Stalinization in 1956. The then Korean leader Kim Il-sung together with the Chinese leader Mao Zedong were appalled by the new political direction of the USSR. He labeled his previous patrons as heretics and revisionists. In the early 1960s, relations hit rock bottom. Soviet advisers were asked to leave and eulogies of the USSR in the Korean media disappeared. Korean officials who were too prominent in cooperation with the Soviet Union lost their jobs, and Korean students who had studied in socialist countries were recalled to their homeland.

A particularly difficult fate befell marriages in which women came from foreign countries of the socialist bloc. Their Korean husbands had to separate from them because they were expelled along with their children. No contact between them was allowed until the early 2000s. Many Korean officials who were dissatisfied with Kim Il-sung’s policies fled to the USSR, where they were granted asylum. Korean secret services kidnapped some of them and liquidated them on the streets of Russia, which caused even greater distrust of Moscow towards Pyongyang. All these political conflicts affected the Russian public’s perception of N. Korea. From the Korean War to the end of the 1950s, this perception was positive, but from the 1960s to the mid-1990s, it would be dominantly negative. It is curious that the official propaganda of the DPRK itself contributed to such a bad image in Russia. Namely, in the 1960s and 1970s, the USSR was literally flooded with Korean propaganda leaflets, pamphlets and booklets. Those actions glorified Kim and his family in a tragicomic way. They left the impression of a comical dictatorship, and the bad Russian translation contributed to the poor reputation.

The Soviet political elite considered North Korea ridiculous, but in spite of that it continued to help it economically in order to curb American influence in East Asia. It dissuaded Korea from an alliance with Beijing. When the USSR collapsed in the early 1990s, Russians believed that the same fate awaited the inefficient North Korean regime. Russian aid to DPR Korea has stopped and trade between the two countries was only 10% of the value during the time when the USSR existed. Throughout the 1990s, Russians saw N. Korea as an unpleasant reminder of its socialist past – as a living political fossil. The situation began to change at the end of the nineties and the beginning of the new millennium. Russians again began to perceive N. Korea in a slightly more positive light. The first reason is Russian dissatisfaction and disappointment with capitalism. Another reason is nostalgia for socialist times. The third reason is Russian anti-Americanism and sympathy for countries that are opponents of the USA.

The arrival of Kim Jong-un and the improvement of relations

The latest chapter in the relationship between the two countries began with Kim Jong-un’s coming to power in late 2011. In September 2012, Russia agreed to write off 90% of North Korea’s $11 billion debt that was created during the Cold War. In return, Russia was allowed to invest in North Korean projects in the energy, health and education sectors, and the North Koreans financed these projects with $1 billion (the rest of the debt). Putin finally ratified the debt relief in May 2014. The deal removed a major trade barrier. In June 2013, in a speech in St. Petersburg proclaimed his policy towards Asia, which will be popularly called Putin’s Pivot, or Putin’s turn towards Asia. It is about the fact that after the beginning of the Arab Spring and the global turmoil in the world, Russia decided to actively fight to become a superpower again by using the space left empty by the United States. This implies Russian rapprochement with countries in Asia such as China, India, Pakistan, Vietnam, N. Korea. The Ukrainian crisis and the Western economic sanctions of 2014 accelerated that process.

Sometime until 2012-2013 Russian-North Korean cooperation was at a symbolic level, but then everything started to change. Russia’s orientation towards the East and North Korea’s desire to find an alternative to China, with which it often clashed, came together. In 2013, Russia built a 54 km railway line between its port of Khasan and the North Korean port of Rason. The entire project cost USD 300 million. It enabled the delivery of Russian coal to China via the DPRK. In the same year, Russian gasoline exports to N. Korea increased by 58.5% compared to 2012. In February 2014, during the Winter Olympics in Sochi, a delegation led by the experienced politician Presidium Chairman Kim Yong-nam traveled to represent North Korea even though it did not participate in that Olympics. Kim met with Putin and a number of Russian parliamentarians and government officials. The DPRK was one of the 11 countries that sided with Russia at the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis and during the Russian annexation of Crimea.

Detailing the cooperation

In 2014, the two countries agreed to trade only in rubles to facilitate trade. Also, North Korea offered Russian businessmen preferential terms of trade. In October of the same year, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Su Yong paid a ten-day visit to Russia. In the same month, the Russian Minister for the Development of the Far East, Alexander Galushka, announced that the two countries had adopted a visa-free travel regime. In October 2014, the two countries announced the “Victory” project, the value of which is $25 billion. It is a joint venture whose goal is to rebuild the 3,500 km North Korean railway network between Jeadong and the port of Nampo, and in return the Russians got access to North Korean resources such as coal, titanium, gold, etc. North Korea owns about 4.5 billion tons of anthracite. It is a specific type of coal that has a high gloss and a high carbon content of 92%, so it is very valuable in the metallurgical industry. The Russians need such a mineral. In November of the same year, Kim Jong-un’s special envoy, Choe Ryong Hae, was on a seven-day visit to Russia. He met with Putin and Sergey Lavrov.

The two countries declared 2015 as the year of friendship between N. Korea and Russia. In that tone, a trade agreement was signed, the goal of which was to raise annual trade to the level of one billion USD by 2020. In March 2015, Moscow and Pyongyang agreed to discuss the creation of advanced development zones in the Russian Far East and Korea. In the fall of 2015, the two countries signed an agreement on joint legal cooperation and extradition of criminals. At that time, plans were also announced to further improve diplomatic and economic relations through the establishment of the “Asian Trade House”, which would facilitate mutual imports and exports, which often take place through a third party. For example one third of Chinese exports to N. Korea is made up of Russian products. In November 2015, during the Russian-Turkish conflict after the Turks shot down a Russian Su-24 aircraft, Pyongyang threatened Turkey with nuclear war if it did something similar again. In the same month, Putin sent a military mission to N. Korea, which signed a military agreement between the two countries. The following month, the UN Security Council accused N. Korea for severe human rights violations, while Russia, China and Venezuela supported the North Koreans. Trade exchange in 2021 was about 42 million USD.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine – an additional trigger for cooperation

After Russia launched an invasion of Ukraine at the end of February 2022, N. Korea was one of five countries that voted against the condemnation of the Russian invasion in the UN Security Council. The DPRK became the third country after Russia and Syria to recognize the independence of the breakaway pro-Russian republics (Donetsk and Luhansk). In response to that recognition, Kyiv severed diplomatic ties with Pyongyang. In September, the New York Times reported that Russia had bought millions of shells and rockets from North Korea to support its invasion, citing US intelligence, but both countries denied this. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin said the two sides were “working on political arrangements” to employ 20,000 to 50,000 Korean workers in Russia on infrastructure projects in the Russian Far East.

Through smuggling routes and re-established interstate rail traffic (starting on November 2, 2022), Russia reportedly received large quantities of military equipment from N. Korea, including artillery shells, missiles, anti-aircraft weapons, anti-aircraft ammunition, infantry weapons, uniforms but also workers (including soldiers and police) to help with trade and reconstruction in surveyed areas of Ukraine and within Russia itself. Pyongyang not only transferred but also produced large quantities of military material, partly using raw materials supplied by the Russians. As early as July 2022, in support of his Ukrainian policy, Putin rewarded the North Koreans with large amounts of grain and oil. Since then, Russian deliveries have grown radically. According to a “high-ranking official” in the North Korean government, as well as US and other sources, North Korea receives a wide variety of food products, energy, raw materials (including timber), commercial aircraft and cash. In the same period, Pyongyang began preparing to open new trade offices in six regions of Russia. All this is desperately needed because the “hermit kingdom” is facing the threat of famine, electricity shortages and needs “cash” to overcome the crisis.

The strategic importance of North Korea for Russia

The strategic importance of North Korea for Russia is great. The Russian-North Korean border is the shortest border line of the Russian Federation. The land border runs along the Tumen River and its mouth (17.3 km), while the maritime border is located in the Sea of Japan (22.1 km). The eventual collapse of the Yuche regime would mean that the American army would be on the border of Russia because the entire Korean peninsula would be under American influence. There is no need to emphasize what this would mean in the event of World War III or a war in Asia. An incomparably better solution for Russia (and China) is to have a friendly regime on its southeastern borders that forms a dam with its nuclear weapons – a kind of protective buffer zone towards South Korea, where the US army is located.

If a war of the great powers were to start in Asia, of limited or total scale, N. Korea would be in the Russian military-political alliance. As a nuclear power and a country with the largest conventional standing army in the world (about 1 million soldiers), N. Korea would be one of the strongest allies that could make a very big contribution to the Kremlin. When you take into account the political indoctrination of the North Koreans and their fanaticism, it is clear that everyone would like to have such a wartime ally that they can trust. The North Korean political elite understood from the moment the Americans included it in the “Axis of Evil” in 2002 that the only way for their country to survive was to develop nuclear weapons. They have confirmed this many times in the last decade, saying that they do not want to end up like Gaddafi who agreed to disarmament.


In the spirit of the current geopolitical constellation of forces, an alliance between Russia and North Korea is natural. On the one hand, Putin understood (even before the Ukrainian crisis) that he had to conclude bilateral and multilateral agreements with anti-American states around the world in order to enable Russia to dominate the multipolar world. Western sanctions accelerated that process. On the other hand, Kim Jong-un realized that he had to find a political-diplomatic, economic and military alternative to China because, as strong as the alliance was, it also had its flaws.

Approaching North Korea and Russia is sincere and well-intentioned on both sides. It suits both. In recent years, especially since 2014, the level of political and economic cooperation between Moscow and Pyongyang has been impressive. In the short term, Russia needs weapons and military equipment to support its invasion of Ukraine. In the medium and long term, Russians need to find markets to replace the Western ones they lost due to sanctions. According to Citigroup data from 2018, the DPRK has real mineral wealth: deposits of about 200 minerals, including the world’s second largest deposit of magnesium and a number of rare metals, worth approximately $10 trillion. Russia really needs these minerals. At the same time, N. Korea desperately needs energy (especially due to its nuclear program and military) as well as stronger trade to provide food, medicine, technical expertise and other necessities that it cannot get from many countries due to UN/Western sanctions. A stronger connection between the two countries through pipelines and railways helps achieve the described goals.

It is unusual to see so many Russian diplomats and businessmen going to Pyongyang every now and then while their North Korean counterparts run to Moscow. The level of friendly contacts between the two countries is continuously at a high level and is getting stronger after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. That image cannot be spoiled by occasional Russian reprimands of N. Korea because of nuclear and ballistic tests. It is true that Russia does not want to raise tensions on the Korean Peninsula, but such disagreements are obviously not overly important because the cooperation between the two countries is getting stronger. The Russian political elite recognized the Far East as a valuable area where they can deepen cooperation with their key partner China, have a loyal ally, the DPRK, and protect the Russian Far East from the influence of the US and its allies. For now, everything is going according to plan.

Matija Šerić

Matija Šerić is a geopolitical analyst and journalist from Croatia and writes on foreign policy, history, economy, society, etc.

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