Sergei Shoigu’s Visit To North Korea: New Momentum In Russia-North Korea’s Defense Cooperation – OpEd


Russia and North Korea are actively taking advantage of the strategic changes caused by the ongoing war in Ukraine. The presence of Russia’s defense chief alongside Kim Jong Un at a military parade has effectively conveyed the distinct message of an emerging Russian-North Korean alliance in East Asia. This signifies that North Korea is receiving substantial backing from Russia, thereby dispelling its previous isolation and rouge status.

In July 2023, Russia’s defense minister Sergei Shoigu visited Pyongyang to attend the 70th ‘Victory Day, the signing of the armistice that ended the Korean War. During this visit, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un discussed matters of mutual concern in the fields of national defense and security and regional and international security with his Russian counterpart. Kim Jong Un expressed his full support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Russia’s struggle to defend its sovereignty and security. Russian Defense Minister Shoigu delivered an autographed letter from Russian President Vladimir Putin to Kim Jong Un. Both parties placed significant emphasis on the need to enhance and fortify their strategic and longstanding relationships.

The defense minister of Russia accompanied the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Un, to a defense exhibition that showcased the North’s prohibited ballistic missiles, as both nations expressed their commitment to enhancing their bilateral relations. The presence of the Russian and Chinese delegations in North Korea signifies a shift towards international engagement for the country, representing its initial steps toward reintegration with the global community.

The exhibition showcased intercontinental ballistic missiles and newly developed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). The UAVs remotely operated high-altitude surveillance aircraft, as well as the MQ-9 Reaper, a UAV designed for offensive operations. The visit of the Russian delegation is expected to have a positive impact on the cessation of provocations and facilitate North Korea’s re-engagement in dialogue.

Although Russia has maintained limited official military cooperation with North Korea, a potential disruption in the post-Cold War order could lead Russia to be more inclined to openly disregard sanctions. Russia seeks collaboration in countering the United States and the perceived Western bloc due to the emergence of opposition to Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine. The military exchanges and cooperation between Russia and North Korea have witnessed a notable escalation, encompassing joint exercises, intelligence sharing, and the provision of weaponry and training to one another.

Russia has also viewed North Korea’s ballistic missiles, including those that the United Nations has banned, as a sign of its military might and capacity to frighten away potential foes. Amidst the global COVID-19 pandemic, Russia and North Korea have initiated the resumption of certain trade and economic endeavors. These include the reopening of rail links, the provision of humanitarian aid, and the facilitation of tourism. Russia has also endeavored to capitalize on North Korea’s abundant natural resources, including coal, minerals, and fisheries.

Russia and North Korea exhibit a shared opposition towards the United States and its allies and have demonstrated reciprocal solidarity on a range of matters, including the conflict in Ukraine, the sanctions imposed on North Korea, and the nuclear negotiations involving the United States.

North Korea also benefits from its alliance with Russia in several ways. From an economic perspective, Russia provides North Korea with trade, aid, and investment, especially in the energy and infrastructure sectors. For example, Russia agreed to supply North Korea with 50,000 tons of wheat and industrial equipment in exchange for North Korean laborers who would help rebuild the war-torn regions of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine.

From a strategic perspective, Russia supplies North Korea with weapons, technology, and training, as well as diplomatic protection in the United Nations Security Council. Russia and China vetoed a draft resolution that would have imposed more sanctions on North Korea for missile tests in 2023. Russia also praised North Korea’s army as the strongest in the world and pledged to continue cooperation. On the political landscape, Russia and North Korea share a common history, ideology, and enemy. They both oppose the US-led coalition and its allies in the region, such as South Korea and Japan. They also support each other’s territorial claims and ambitions, such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and North Korea’s nuclear program.

The visit by Russian officials presents the possibility of increased backing for North Korea, particularly in light of Russia’s international isolation resulting from its military intervention in Ukraine. President Putin is actively seeking assistance and solidarity from various nations to combat the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. The observed trend could indicate a potential decline in Russia’s historical commitment to upholding the global non-proliferation regime, possibly influenced by prevailing geopolitical conditions. The occurrence of concurrent visits from important officials is a sign that the Russian-Chinese-North Korean alliance is reviving and that China, not Russia, will now be in charge of it.

The prohibition of nuclear-capable missiles was established through U.N. Security Council resolutions. However, during this week, these events served as a prominent setting for a display of unity among three nations that share a common rivalry with the United States, as well as a resurgence of what certain analysts perceive as a coalition reminiscent of the Cold War era. Additionally, the US has accused North Korea of giving weapons to Russia to support its conflict in Ukraine, but it has refuted the accusation.

China’s view on the alliance between North Korea and Russia is complex and nuanced. The Russian and Chinese armed forces have recently engaged in military activities in the maritime vicinity of the Korean Peninsula. The primary objective of these drills was to enhance the collective capacity of both parties to safeguard regional peace and stability as well as effectively address diverse security challenges.

China also sees North Korea as a buffer state against the US and its allies in the region and does not want to see a collapse of the regime or reunification of the Korean Peninsula. China has been providing economic and diplomatic support to North Korea, especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic and international sanctions. China also sent a high-level delegation to Pyongyang to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the armistice that ended the Korean War.

On the other hand, China has disagreements with North Korea and Russia over nuclear and military ambitions, which could destabilize the region and undermine China’s interests. China has also been wary of Russia’s growing influence and presence in Northeast Asia, which could challenge China’s strategic interests and ambitions in the region. Therefore, China’s view on the alliance between North Korea and Russia is based on a careful calculation of its interests and goals, as well as the changing dynamics and challenges in the region. China will continue to cooperate with North Korea and Russia on some issues, such as opposing US hegemony and defending sovereignty and security. China’s view on the alliance between North Korea and Russia is therefore flexible and pragmatic, rather than fixed or ideological.

In concluding remarks, it can be added that North Korea perceives the geopolitical rivalry between the United States and China, as well as Russia, regarding regional influence and the war in Ukraine, as a favorable circumstance to transcend its diplomatic isolation and actively participate in a consolidated coalition against the US. North Korea is engaging in diplomatic efforts with Moscow and Beijing, intending to utilize its nuclear program as a means to secure economic advantages.

Aishwarya Sanjukta Roy Proma

Aishwarya Sanjukta Roy Proma is a Research Associate at the BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD). She is a research analyst in security studies. She obtained her Master's and Bachelor's in International Relations from the University of Dhaka, Bangladesh.

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