Why the North Korea-Russia alliance is worrying America

The U.S. is bristling over a potential military support deal between North Korea and Russia, which would likely further entrench the grinding war in Ukraine and bolster Pyongyang’s nuclear aims.

North Korea is considering supplying Moscow with artillery rounds and rockets in return for critical technology and food, in a deal that could be inked later this month during a planned visit by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to Moscow.

David Maxwell, the vice president at the Center for Asia Pacific Strategy, said it was in both North Korean and Russian interests to follow through on the deal, and Kim especially might see a trade as another way to bolster his image.

“From a North Korean perspective, I think Kim Jong Un values the meeting because it makes him appear as somewhat relevant,” Maxwell said. “I’m sure that we’ll see their domestic internal propaganda spin this as one of the quasi-great powers coming to beg for aid from North Korea.”

North Korea has not directly supported Russia’s armed forces during the war in Ukraine, although Pyongyang did reportedly supply the mercenary company Wagner Group with rockets and artillery. That led to U.S. sanctions against North Korean entities responsible for the arms transfers.

But U.S. officials have recently warned that the North Korea-Russia ties may soon tighten. 

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu traveled to North Korea in July and asked for military support, according to White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan, who said Russia was growing increasingly desperate to fill its munition stocks in the Ukraine war.

“We have continued to squeeze Russia’s defense industrial base and they are now going about looking to whatever source they can find,” Sullivan told reporters Tuesday. 

The conflict in Ukraine has devolved into a grinding war of attrition, one in which Russian President Vladimir Putin hopes to prevail by outlasting Ukraine. Artillery rounds are among the most important types of munitions on both sides — the U.S. has even turned to allies (including South Korea) for help to keep up with Ukraine’s expenditure rates.

Russian forces are expending artillery at a much higher rate than Ukraine, and while they are not desperate, they do need additional sources of production, said George Beebe, director of grand strategy at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

“This is a war that’s being fought over resources, the ability to generate forces to supply the battle lines with arms and ammunition,” he said. “Russia has big advantages in both those areas. So the Russians are trying to preserve their advantages.”

North Korea, which is still technically at war with South Korea in a frozen conflict, has a strong defense industrial base for the production of artillery shells. North Korean forces consistently fire artillery rounds near the border, particularly in response to joint U.S.-South Korean drills. 

Russia has almost no significant economic ties to North Korea, and though Moscow has supported Pyongyang, it has largely done so out of support for China, according to Fyodor Tertitskiy, a senior research fellow at Seoul’s Kookmin University.

Tertiskiy said in an analysis that the Shoigu visit saw North Korea welcome the Russian defense minister with open arms, including red banners naming him a “comrade,” which he said “suggests that Pyongyang is looking back to Cold War times in hope of a return to the flow of economic aid from Moscow.”

Kim met Putin for the first time in 2019, and the two have maintained friendly relations ever since, including during the war in Ukraine.

On Russia’s National Day in June, Kim pledged “full support” for Putin and the Kremlin as he claimed they “continue to add glory to the history of victory.”

In late August, the White House said both Putin and Kim had recently traded letters, and The New York Times first reported on their planned meeting. The Kremlin declined to comment Tuesday on the reports of an upcoming Kim-Putin meeting.

The U.S. appears to be trying to expose the potential deal in the hopes of dashing it. At the White House Tuesday, Sullivan warned that North Korea would “pay a price” from the international community if it supported Russia with lethal aid.

Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder also said any arms transfers agreement would “violate multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions.”

“And it would prolong the unnecessary suffering of Ukrainian civilians who are impacted by Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine,” he told reporters Tuesday.

Earlier this year, the U.S. publicly aired intelligence indicating that China was considering providing lethal aid to Russia, in part to dissuade Beijing from following through. There are no indications an official arms trade happened.

North Korea-U.S. tensions have grown increasingly hostile during the Biden administration. The U.S. has renewed major military exercises on the Korean Peninsula, infuriating North Korean leadership. Pyongyang has also dramatically increased its missile tests in the past two years.

Experts are divided on whether the U.S. can use its leverage to scuttle a potential deal between Moscow and Pyongyang, given how much North Korea is already sanctioned.

David Silbey, a military historian at Cornell University, said it was “almost a positive for Kim Jong Un to be threatened by the U.S.”

“It fits into his narrative that the West is coming after him,” Silbey said. 

However, China has some leverage over North Korea, Silbey said, and the U.S. may be able to pressure Beijing to curb any emerging deal.

“The question becomes whether we can convince them or push them to use that leverage against North Korea,” Silbey said. “I don’t see the Chinese stepping in to do this. From their perspective, this is a nice distraction for us.”

While the terms of the potential deal are not clear, it could end up being very lucrative for North Korea.

Pyongyang needs more food to feed its population, oil for energy and critical technology for a variety of uses in its nuclear program, including the miniaturization of nuclear warheads and improved technology for satellites after recent failed launches.

North Korea also wants to weaken its dependence on China as a trading partner, said Naoko Aoki, an associate political scientist with the RAND Corporation focusing on East Asian security.

“North Korea and China have a very difficult relationship. They’re sometimes very close. Sometimes close from the outside but not too friendly privately,” she said. “For any opportunity to diversify that would be a good opportunity from the North Korean perspective, and at this point they don’t have too many friends.”

On Russia’s side, the deal would expand its informal alliance of eastern authoritarian powers — with a common interest in undermining American power.

Iran, for example, has supplied Russia with suicide drones for use in Ukraine and was invited into the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) economic alliance last month. 

China has declared a “no limits” partnership with Russia while conducting frequent drills with Moscow during the Ukraine war.

“Russia’s motivation here is not just to demonstrate that it can sustain its advantages and artillery for a long time to come. It’s also part of a broader trend on the part of Russia and China to be reaching out to parts of the global south that the United States has labeled rogues,” said Beebe of the Quincy Institute.

“That includes North Korea. It includes Iran and it is, in part, an attempt to demonstrate to the United States that it no longer has the ability to isolate and punish the states the way it did 20 years ago.”

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