Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

North Korea’s Russian Turn Is More Bark Than Bite

The new pact seems like a return to form for North Korean parasitism.

Screen Shot 2024-06-20 at 12.00.02 PM

Kim Jong Un has been an inept diplomat and a poor steward of North Korea’s resources, such as they are, but he remains the gold standard internationally for outrageous sound bites. North Korea ended 2023 and began 2024 with the shocking declaration that South Korea is no longer, contrary to decades of declarations and internal propaganda, an entity with which the North can unify. Due to the “hostility” of the Yoon Suk Yeol government—hostility manifested in Yoon’s refusal to do like his predecessor and offer concessions to the North and float symbolic but ultimately pointless proposals for inter-Korean cooperation—Kim declared that the entire proposition a waste of time. 

Unfortunately, North Korea seemingly has something other than peaceful coexistence in mind. It blamed the South and its leadership for this situation, decried them for allegedly seeking the North’s overthrow and absorption into the South’s system, and declared that the North reserved the right to attack and utterly obliterate the South if provoked. Such words prompted some anxiety among long-time North Korea observers, who became concerned that the North had made a “strategic decision to go to war”; they judged the situation across the peninsula is now more dangerous than at any time since 1950. In the first couple of months of 2024, this concern was, possibly, the hottest topic among the community of Pyongyang-watchers. 


Such fears have thus far proven unfounded, however. Kim Jong Un may have only himself to blame for asking too much of the Trump administration in 2019; he did not have a backup plan for bringing North Korea out of isolation and believed South Korea’s progressive Moon Jae-in government’s claim to a path to a better future for the North. Nevertheless, he does continue to act out of a sense of betrayal, lashing out at both the South and the U.S. Fortunately, he has not yet abandoned his survival instincts and provoked a conflict that would result in his country’s destruction. His outrage has instead manifested in the North sending balloons of garbage (and worse) across the border, followed by insults from his famously tart-tongued young sister. 

Concern has instead shifted in a different direction, namely the relations between North Korea and Russia, and what consequences this might have for regional (if not international) order. Since last year it has become evident that Moscow and Pyongyang are drawing closer, with the North supplying munitions to Russia for use in its war against Ukraine and Russia returning the favor by assisting North Korea in its ambitions for space. Russia’s ill-advised invasion of its smaller neighbor has demonstrated clear problems with the quality of its forces and its munitions, but also revealed how few friends it has that are willing to assist it in times of difficulty. 

Vietnam, whom Moscow assisted in preventing a U.S.-led forced unification in the 1960s and ’70s? No. India, with whom Russia has had a friendly relationship since the dawn of the Cold War? No—and India’s prime minister all but reprimanded Vladimir Putin in public for his decision. China, Russia’s “no-limits” partner, which shares Moscow’s ambitions of rewriting the rules of international institutions by strengthening ties with the Global South? There is no evidence that Beijing is directly supplying lethal aid to Russia for its war (although it appears to supply it with components that could be used as such). In fact, if one digs deep enough (and does some reading between the lines), the PRC seems rather unhappy with Putin’s decisions, and may use its example as a case of what not to do in Taiwan. 

So this leaves Russia, short as it is on men and munitions, to go hat in hand to North Korea for assistance, thus reversing the grantor-grantee relationship Moscow and Pyongyang enjoyed in the Cold War. In return, North Korea has seemingly acquired a more active partnership with Russia than it ever enjoyed with Beijing. China may have looked the other way when it came to Pyongyang’s WMD, missile, and space-program development but have stopped well short of materially assisting it. 

But between idea and reality, as Eliot might have said, lies the shadow. North Korea’s initial efforts at establishing a space program—which would give them an intelligence edge and bragging rights over the South—with Russian assistance have not been successful. Russia’s use of North Korean munitions on the battlefield has also not been a rousing success, as half of them reportedly blow up mid-air rather than meet their targets. 

Much as fears of North Korea starting a cataclysmic conflict out of pique have thus far proven unfounded, concerns over the nature of their partnership will also probably prove exaggerated. North Korea’s arms won’t prove decisive on the battlefield in Ukraine, and its space program won’t put the South at a massive disadvantage, nor is it likely that North Korea and Russia are likely dreaming up a new act of aggression in concert against their neighbors. Moscow is bogged down in Donetsk, and Kim Jong Un’s declaration from earlier this year was probably, as my colleague Aidan Foster-Carter suggests, for his domestic audience

In some ways, North Korea seems to have returned to its historic positioning between Russia and China from the Cold War, using each in turn to acquire what the other will not provide. Right now, the North Koreans seem to favor Russia, but this will last only until Pyongyang runs into the limits of what Moscow can provide, after which they will begin cozying up to Beijing again, provided Beijing still has the largesse to help them (much less the intent). 

For now, North Korea’s partnership with Russia is about as dangerous as its declarations of hostility to the South—more so in appearance than in reality.