North Korea is adept at grabbing attention through both rhetoric and weaponry. On Friday it announced that it had launched its first “tactical nuclear attack submarine”, though the South Korean military said it did not appear to be operational. The most important development of recent days, however, is the report that Kim Jong-un will soon visit Russia, to discuss weapons sales with Vladimir Putin. Moscow has also proposed trilateral naval drills with China. An old but never easy three-way relationship is picking up again.
Mr Kim’s grandfather rose to power thanks to the Soviet Union’s support; China’s close but fraught relationship with its neighbour is longstanding. Yet from 2006, Moscow and Beijing were sufficiently concerned about Pyongyang’s weapons programme to support a series of UN security council sanctions, even as their differences with the west on other matters mushroomed. Last year, however, they blocked a US-drafted resolution to tighten sanctions.
The shift began with Donald Trump. His lurch from threats of “fire and fury” to bestowing a bilateral meeting on Mr Kim pushed a previously disdainful Xi Jinping into embracing Pyongyang. When a second Trump summit broke down, Mr Kim courted Russia too, to remind the US that he had options, and held his first meeting with Mr Putin in 2019.
But the invasion of Ukraine was a turning point. North Korea is one of a handful of countries to have enthusiastically backed Russia at the UN. A year ago, US intelligence said it believed that Moscow was buying huge quantities of artillery shells and rockets from Pyongyang as its stocks were rapidly consumed. This summer, Mr Kim personally guided Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s defence minister, around an arms exhibition.
The pandemic appears to have left North Korea in desperate circumstances. The leadership cut the country off entirely and seized the opportunity to tighten its grip over every aspect of life – leaving people unable to feed themselves. China is believed to have been propping it up with emergency supplies. Nonetheless, while food is desperately needed, the regime is likely to press Moscow hard for technological assistance. Pyongyang’s alarming progress in its weapons programmes proceeds, but it still needs expertise and income to advance further.
On Russia’s part, its need for help from its former protege is another indication of its reduced status. And while the compatibility of Pyongyang’s older Soviet-copy arms is presumably a factor, the discussions also suggest that China so far remains unwilling to sell Russia weaponry, despite its “no limits” friendship, diplomatic backing and the ongoing sale of dual-use equipment.
Neither Moscow nor Beijing wants to see North Korea advance its capabilities. It is a costly, unreliable partner. They want to avoid nuclear proliferation in the region and to limit the development of US-Japan-South Korea partnership: though it is primarily a response to China’s growing might, concerns about Pyongyang have contributed. Russia would like to maintain its battered relationship with South Korea – a major trade partner prior to the invasion of Ukraine – rather than push it closer to the US.
But even if Mr Putin stops short of sharing technology, income from arms sales is more likely to be used to fund weapons development than it is to feed malnourished North Koreans. Russian purchases might also encourage others to buy from Pyongyang again. The renewed ties are cause for significant concern, and not only in Ukraine.