By Maria Del Carmen Corte (HRNK Satellite Imagery Analysis Associate), Ava Jane Moorlach (HRNK Research Intern), and Kathy Yu (HRNK Research Intern)
Edited by Raymond Ha, HRNK Director of Operations and Research
June 8, 2023
Following the one-year anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the 73rd anniversary of the Soviet-North Korea arms agreement on March 17, it has become crucial to consider North Korea’s role in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. The categorical denial of any weapons accords between Russia and North Korea is both concerning and significant in the context of the ongoing conflict. In January 2023, media outlets highlighted the remarkable denial of North Korea arming Russia, the first denial of the Russo-North Korean arms trade issued in the months following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
What does the Kim regime stand to gain from its relationship with Russia, and what repercussions may result from the continued growth of this relationship? This article examines prospects for Russo-North Korean relations, particularly in light of Moscow’s recent decision to suspend the New START treaty.
North Korea has a long history of arms dealings. It has been denounced for exporting weapons to various countries in violation of international sanctions. North Korea was a major supplier of weapons to the Middle East throughout the 1970s and 1980s, and it armed communist regimes in Africa and Asia throughout the Cold War. After the Soviet Union’s dissolution, North Korea’s economy became increasingly dependent on arms dealership, narcotics trafficking, and cyber operations. According to Dr. Bruce E. Bechtol Jr., professor of political science at Angelo State University, “for decades, North Korea has proliferated weapons, including conventional arms, ballistic missiles, and chemical agents, to states such as Iran and Syria.” Notably, Pyongyang has continued to pursue arms deals in Africa in recent years.
The international community responded to North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006 with UN Security Council Resolution 1718. This resolution imposed harsher sanctions, implemented an arms embargo, and intensified scrutiny of Pyongyang’s weapons program. Despite sanctions and diplomatic pressure, North Korea has continued to develop and export weapons, including ballistic missiles and conventional weapons such as tanks and artillery. In April 2008, the United States also released evidence to suggest that North Korea had assisted Syria in the construction of a covert nuclear reactor. Allegations of arms trafficking by North Korea have continued to surface in recent years, causing serious concern among the international community.
North Korea’s Arms Trade with Russia
North Korea’s arms trade has evolved throughout the course of its short history. Its origins can be traced to Soviet state-building north of the 38th parallel after World War II. The USSR commenced its relationship with North Korea in its efforts to consolidate a communist hegemony. Moscow saw Pyongyang as an important ideological and natural resource-rich ally. Between the end of Japanese occupation in 1945 and before the Korean War in 1950, North Korea was heavily dependent on the Soviet Union. Moscow provided monetary and military resources to the burgeoning state as a means of control. The Soviets used the lack of stability in the region to their advantage by directly influencing the origins of the North Korean state and its military. The first disclosed trade of USSR-manufactured weaponry in exchange for North Korean raw materials was in 1949. This began to formalize Russo-Korean arms sales.
The sale of weaponry intensified during the Korean War. Armed with Soviet weaponry, North Korea invaded the South. The military structure of North Korea was modeled directly off of the Soviet military, at the behest of the USSR. The Soviet contribution of arms was crucial to the war effort. The contribution of MiG-15 warplanes kept the critical USSR access point open on North Korea’s northern border. The border between the two nations is less than 20 miles long. However, it was a major route for Moscow to supply arms, money, and resources to the war effort.
The Soviet Union’s relationship with North Korea evolved over changes of leadership in both countries. Historical records indicate that the relationship was distrustful and complex rather than harmonious. Bilateral relations between the Soviet Union and North Korea became tense during this period, primarily due to ideological differences and strategic disagreements. North Korea criticized the Soviet Union for what they perceived as a “capitulation” during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Additionally, Kim Il-sung’s opposition to Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization efforts further distanced North Korea from Moscow. While bilateral relations experienced significant tensions as a result, they did not reach a point of complete severance.
The bilateral relationship deteriorated rapidly with the fall of the USSR. Pyongyang had relied heavily on agricultural and energy resources from Moscow. The Soviet Union’s fall in the early 1990s precipitated the breakdown of North Korea’s public distribution system. This directly contributed to the Arduous March, which South Korea’s Unification Ministry estimates resulted in the loss of between 506,000 and 1,125,000 lives. North Korea became increasingly isolated and withdrew from the global stage. The post-Soviet government in Moscow, driven by limited resources and strategic considerations, displayed a greater emphasis on developing investment and commercial relations with South Korea rather than maintaining close diplomatic ties with the isolated nation. Moscow established diplomatic relations with Seoul in September 1990. While maintaining a presence in North Korea held importance, both for political leverage in the relationship with South Korea and other considerations, Russia shifted its focus towards fostering economic partnerships and investment opportunities with South Korea. There was continuous communication between Russia and North Korea, with Russia maintaining a large diplomatic mission in Pyongyang.
Kim Jong-un has attempted to improve and upgrade relations with Russia following his father’s death in 2011. For several years, his relationship with Vladimir Putin was largely uneventful. However, in recent years, North Korea has been a vocal supporter of Russia’s war in Ukraine. It was one of five countries to recognize the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk. North Korea also voted against the UN General Assembly resolution that called on Russia to withdraw its military forces from Ukraine. This vocal support sits in direct opposition to Pyongyang’s ardent denial of its arms trade with Russia. The Vice Director of Military Foreign Affairs at North Korea’s Ministry of National Defense vocally admonished allegations of arms trading as attempts by hostile countries to tarnish North Korea’s reputation and invoke UN Security Council resolutions. To date, North Korea has systematically denied all allegations of arms exports to Russian forces in Ukraine.
North Korea’s Evolving Weapons Trade Amidst the Russia-Ukraine War
After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, North Korea capitalized on the growing rift between the United States and Russia by deepening its alliance with Moscow, intensifying nuclear-weapons rhetoric, and leveraging the Sino-Russian partnership to its advantage. It is unsurprising that North Korea has remained in a position of relative strength since the outset of the conflict, leaving the United States with few viable options for advancing nuclear negotiations.
North Korea has made significant strides in its weapons program, conducting tests of its newly developed intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) system on March 10, followed by the launch of its first suspected ICBM since 2017 on March 24. At the same time, North Korea passed a new law that refurbished and clarified its nuclear precepts and regulations on nuclear weapons. With the passage of the law, Kim Jong-un stated that the country’s status as a nuclear weapons state “has now become irreversible” and that there would “never be any declaration of giving up our nukes or denuclearization” in future negotiations.
As Ukrainian forces targeted bridges leading to the occupied city of Kherson to disrupt Russian supply routes, and in the midst of attacks surrounding the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, Kim Jong-un sent a congratulatory message to Vladimir Putin on the 77th anniversary of Korea’s liberation in August 2022. Kim expressed warm greetings and reaffirmed the strong strategic and tactical cooperation, support, and solidarity between the two countries.
Since September 2022, declassified American intelligence has indicated that Russia has purchased rockets and artillery shells from North Korea on a large scale. The weapons supplied to Russia, however, appear to be rudimentary and unsophisticated. An order was issued in October 2022 to North Korean shell-producing factories to produce more conventional artillery shells, including grenades, rockets, and anti-aircraft shells. Two leading shell factories, the Kanggye General Tractor plant, and the Chanjagang Machine Tools Factory in Manpo, were among the factories that received the order.
This was notable for three reasons. Firstly, the timing of the order was unusual and unexpected. In the final quarter of the fiscal year, from October to December, factories typically prepare for end-of-year reviews and are focused on meeting annual quotas rather than beginning new production projects. Secondly, the order demanded finished products, rather than the intermediate goods the factory typically produces. Thirdly, the products were not moisture-proofed, a typical practice to ensure the longevity of munitions in storage. Taken together, this indicates that North Korea produced weapons intended for immediate use.
In November 2022, satellite imagery showed a train crossing the Tumangang Friendship Bridge (Korea-Russia Friendship Bridge) for the first time since it was closed in February 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This passage across the only land connection between North Korea and Russia drew the attention of the White House and 38 North. That month, the White House made a statement claiming that North Korea attempted to conceal its activities by funneling weapons through the Middle East and North Africa.
North Korea’s Ministry of Defense has repeatedly denied exporting weapons to Russia. The basic agreement between North Korea and Russia also prohibits the participation of North Koreans in the war, and North Korea also appears to have delayed sending workers to Ukraine to participate in reconstruction projects. This suggests that North Korea may be concerned with the perception of sending mercenaries to directly aid Russian troops in Ukraine.
Three insights can be drawn from these observations. First, economic sanctions on Russia have successfully choked its ability to produce and access weapons, forcing it to turn to allies such as Iran and North Korea. Second, this situation provides some insight into North Korea’s dire economic situation following the COVID-19 pandemic. The economic situation in North Korea, particularly in regard to the impact of sanctions, is a complex issue that Joshua Stanton explores in depth in HRNK’s latest report, The Root of All Evil. Third, it suggests a strengthening of Russo-North Korean relations and a potential avenue for continued future partnership.
Despite the recent denial of any weapons deal between the two countries, North Korea-Russia relations are highly likely to endure. However, the strength of this relationship depends on the result of the conflict in Ukraine. North Korea’s arms trade with Russia has been a significant aspect of the bilateral relationship, which has persisted despite international sanctions and diplomatic pressure. While the historical record shows a sometimes volatile, distrustful and complex relationship between the two countries, Kim Jong-un has attempted to reestablish closer relations with Russia, particularly by supporting Russia's war in Ukraine.
In light of Russia's recent decision to suspend the New START treaty, it is imperative to assess prospects for the alliance between North Korea and Russia, especially on the heels of the commemoration of the 1949 Soviet-North Korean arms agreement. The 75th anniversary milestone underscores the significance of historical ties between the two nations as well as the urgency of a comprehensive reexamination of the bilateral relationship.
Maria Del Carmen Corte is the Satellite Imagery Analysis Associate at HRNK and a recent MALD graduate of Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, where she studied International Security and Humanitarian Affairs with an emphasis on the Korean Peninsula. Ava Jane Moorlach is a Research Intern at HRNK and current student at American University studying Interdisciplinary Studies in Communication, Legal Institutions, Economics, and Government. Kathy Yu is a Research Intern at HRNK and a rising senior at Duke University pursuing a Bachelor's Degree in Economics, a minor in History, and earning a certificate in Politics, Philosophy, and Economics.
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HRNK staff members and interns wish to dedicate this program to our colleagues Katty Chi and Miran Song.