Putin’s Visit to Pyongyang: A Closer Look at the Russia-North Korea Partnership

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Russian President Vladimir Putin approved a new draft comprehensive strategic partnership agreement with North Korea on Tuesday ahead of his two-day official visit to Pyongyang. Russia’s announced readiness to sign a strategic partnership agreement with North Korea is primarily “a symbolic” step, Artyom Lukin, professor of international politics at the Far Eastern Federal University, Vladivostok, told. “I can suggest that most likely this will be a symbolic document, underscoring that Russia and the DPRK are friends representing a ‘united front against the West,’” he said.

President Vladimir Putin accepted a proposal from the Russian Foreign Ministry to sign a strategic partnership agreement with North Korea ahead of his official visit to the DPRK. It will “allow the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, during negotiations on the signing of the said treaty, to make changes to its draft that are not of a fundamental nature,” according to the relevant decree. Moscow and Pyongyang are set to sign the accord during Putin’s visit to the DPRK on June 18-19. Most likely, the new treaty will add on more “anti-Western rhetoric,” he noted, stipulating that the collective West “claims hegemony,” and Russia and the DPRK “stand for a multipolar world and oppose neocolonialism.” “It will be more interesting to see what exactly President Putin and Kim Jong Un will agree on during the negotiations,” he added.

Asked to shed light on the new treaty, presidential aide Yuri Ushakov noted that the document, “will outline the prospects for further cooperation and will be signed, taking into account what has happened between the countries in recent years in the field of international politics, in the economic sphere, and in the field of relations, including taking into account security issues.” He clarified that the provisions of the new document take into account all norms of international law and are not directed against any third country. The document will contribute to stability in the region, the Kremlin underscored.

The new treaty will replace agreements previously signed by Moscow and Pyongyang, such as the Treaty of Friendship and Mutual Assistance (1961), Treaty of Friendship, Good-Neighborliness, and Cooperation signed in 2000, and the Moscow and Pyongyang Declarations of 2000 and 2001.

The 12-article Russia-North Korea Treaty of Friendship, Good Neighborliness, and Cooperation laid the legal foundation for the two countries’ basic relations in 2000. Artyom Lukin pointed out that numerous analytical works have dissected the meaning behind the concept of “comprehensive strategic partnership.” Russia already maintains a strategic partnership relationship with countries such as China, India, and Vietnam. But none of these literally mean they are “in the same trench,” the professor added.

“I think this is a symbol that our relations with the DPRK are rising to a new level. We confirm that we do not want to participate in the regime of sanctions pressure on the DPRK. Of course, by signing such an agreement, Russia is challenging the international sanctions regime against it,” Lukin underscored. But at the same time, we are, in effect, “signaling with this agreement and with our other actions that sanctions for us no longer exist,” the analyst concluded.

Analytical Perspective on the Strategic Partnership Agreement

The strategic partnership agreement between Russia and North Korea represents a significant development in the geopolitical landscape. It signals a deepening of ties between Moscow and Pyongyang, amidst a backdrop of increasing tensions with the West. The symbolism of this agreement cannot be overstated, as it underscores the mutual solidarity of Russia and North Korea in opposing Western hegemony and advocating for a multipolar world order.

This partnership is rooted in a history of diplomatic and military cooperation that dates back to the Soviet era. The Treaty of Friendship and Mutual Assistance, signed in 1961, laid the foundation for this relationship, providing for mutual defense and cooperation. This treaty was further reinforced by the Treaty of Friendship, Good-Neighborliness, and Cooperation in 2000, and the Moscow and Pyongyang Declarations of 2000 and 2001, which expanded the scope of cooperation to include economic and cultural exchanges.

The new strategic partnership agreement is expected to build on these foundations, with a particular emphasis on countering Western influence. This is evident from the statements made by Russian officials, who have highlighted the importance of this agreement in the context of current geopolitical dynamics. The agreement is seen as a response to the sanctions regime imposed by the West, which both Russia and North Korea have been subjected to in recent years.

The inclusion of anti-Western rhetoric in the agreement is a clear indication of the stance that Russia and North Korea are taking. By presenting a united front against the West, they are signaling their opposition to what they perceive as Western attempts to impose a unipolar world order. This rhetoric is likely to resonate with other countries that share similar views, potentially leading to a realignment of alliances in the international arena.

The strategic partnership agreement also has significant implications for regional stability. By strengthening their ties, Russia and North Korea are likely to enhance their ability to influence developments in the Asia-Pacific region. This could include increased military cooperation, joint exercises, and intelligence sharing, all of which would enhance their strategic capabilities. This is particularly relevant in the context of the ongoing tensions in the Korean Peninsula, where North Korea’s nuclear program continues to be a major concern.

The economic dimension of the strategic partnership is also noteworthy. Russia and North Korea have a history of economic cooperation, particularly in areas such as energy, transportation, and agriculture. The new agreement is expected to further enhance this cooperation, with potential investments in infrastructure projects and increased trade. This could provide a much-needed boost to North Korea’s economy, which has been severely affected by international sanctions.

Moreover, the strategic partnership agreement is likely to have a significant impact on the security dynamics of the region. By formalizing their alliance, Russia and North Korea are sending a clear message to their adversaries that they are prepared to defend their interests. This could lead to an escalation of tensions, particularly with the United States and its allies, who are likely to view this development with concern.

The strategic partnership agreement also has broader implications for the international system. By challenging the sanctions regime and advocating for a multipolar world order, Russia and North Korea are positioning themselves as key players in the emerging global order. This could lead to increased cooperation with other countries that share similar views, potentially leading to the formation of new alliances and coalitions.

Strategic Interplay: The Evolving Landscape of Russia’s Engagement with North Korea

Though Russia’s embassy is the largest in Pyongyang, bilateral ties this century – be it in politics, economics or defense – have been largely content-free. Until now, neither state had prioritized the other. Kim Jong-un met Putin once before, briefly, in Vladivostok in April 2019 at the tail end of a whirlwind year in which he had held three summits each with Xi Jinping and South Korea’s then-president, Moon Jae-in, and two with then US president Donald Trump.

Russia’s war in Ukraine and its isolation from many sectors of the global economy have left it short of artillery shells and other armaments. North Korea, with its probable large stockpiles of Soviet-era equipment, appears to be helping in this regard. No bilateral military deal has been announced, some de facto arrangement has evidently been made. Long-term cooperation will be difficult in practice: potential issues include interoperability, lengthy supply lines and quality – especially if stockpiles include old equipment, but also if new munitions are to be manufactured. Either way, some in the Korean People’s Army may oppose any large-scale supply effort if it means diminishing the arsenal available for use in the event of hostilities on the Peninsula.

Nothing from Pyongyang will be a game changer in Ukraine. General Mark Milley, then-chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on 16 September that North Korea will probably provide Soviet-era 152 mm artillery rounds; he was skeptical that this would make a difference on the battlefield. Some Russian military bloggers have said they admire the DPRK’s KN-09 and KN-25 multiple-launch rocket systems, but Pyongyang is highly unlikely to allow such newly developed weapons to leave the home front.

In return, Moscow could in principle assist in three broad categories, although one can be ruled out in practice. Kim viewed some of Russia’s most advanced weaponry on this trip, but that does not mean he will receive it. The fact that Russia (and China) voted for every UN Security Council resolution until December 2017 condemning and sanctioning North Korea remains significant. North Korea’s nuclear program threatens all of its neighbors. As recently as 2021, Russian experts collaborated with the IISS on a detailed study of Pyongyang’s strategic capabilities. By then, rising tensions had ended superpower cooperation at the UN: the Kim regime’s frenetic missile testing since 2021 has gone uncensured. In March 2023, Russia and China voted at the UN Security Council to extend for a further year the mandate of the Panel of Experts monitoring sanctions on North Korea, even though neither fully enforces these.

It is not in Russia’s (nor indeed China’s) interest to increase DPRK capacity to deliver nuclear weapons or to conspicuously undermine UN sanctions. Two other types of assistance are therefore more plausible. North Korea’s food and energy needs are acute. Cheap or free oil, gas and grain would help keep the DPRK economy running, although Russia’s ambassador in Pyongyang has said that Kim declined an offer of food aid at the summit. Cooperation over space issues is more likely. Having twice failed to launch a military reconnaissance satellite into orbit this year, Kim may prefer to use Russian expertise in this field. (Ironically, Moscow had been assisting South Korea’s space program until Seoul revoked the contract earlier in 2023.) Although either of these forms of aid would arguably breach UN sanctions, cooperation on humanitarian issues and satellite launches is far less provocative than assisting the DPRK’s missile and nuclear programs.

One Russian observer noted discrepancies in how the two leaders characterized their meeting. At the summit banquet, Kim used militant anti-imperialist rhetoric (offering Putin, according to the Kremlin translation, ‘a combat tribute’ and lauding ‘the sacred struggle to punish the evil crowd’). Much as Putin surely welcomes a partner who fully endorses his Ukraine policy, his own language was more bland. Similarly, whereas Kim twice stressed strategic cooperation, Putin spoke more loosely of ‘companionship and neighborly relations.’

Beyond the demonstration effects for Western audiences, Kim’s visit to Russia is best understood as exploratory. Mutual expectations may well be mismatched, and tangible outcomes remain to be seen. One touchstone will be what flows west from North Korea; and more broadly, whether these two neighbors can finally re-establish normal and mutually beneficial trade and investment ties. The regional apparatchiks who hosted Kim would especially welcome this, given the areas they highlighted for potential collaboration. But they also know better than anyone how past hopes have repeatedly failed.

The current geopolitical context shapes this contingent and transactional relationship. For Russia, embroiled in a prolonged conflict in Ukraine and facing international isolation, North Korea presents an unconventional yet pragmatic partner. The historical backdrop of their relations traces back to the Cold War era, where the Soviet Union was a principal supporter of North Korea. However, the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the emergence of Russia as its successor saw a significant cooling of ties. This historic camaraderie, although diminished, provides a foundation for renewed cooperation under current exigencies.

Kim Jong-un’s engagement strategy has evolved since taking power in 2011, marked by a blend of aggressive posturing and strategic diplomacy. His meetings with global leaders in 2018 and 2019 represented a high-stakes gamble to reposition North Korea on the world stage. The brief encounter with Putin in 2019, though overshadowed by his other summits, hinted at potential strategic recalibration. Fast forward to 2023, and the dynamics have shifted significantly. The isolation faced by both Russia and North Korea creates a confluence of interests, albeit with inherent risks and limitations.

The Ukrainian conflict has exerted considerable strain on Russia’s military resources. Reports indicate that Russia is experiencing significant shortages in critical military supplies, particularly artillery shells, which are vital for sustaining its operations in Ukraine. North Korea, possessing a substantial inventory of Soviet-era military equipment, emerges as a potential supplier. The precise nature of the arrangements between Moscow and Pyongyang remains opaque, but the strategic implications are profound. The logistical challenges of such cooperation are non-trivial. Issues of compatibility between Russian and North Korean systems, the extended supply lines, and the quality of the munitions are significant considerations. Moreover, there is internal resistance within the Korean People’s Army, which views any substantial depletion of its arsenal with skepticism, given the persistent threat perception on the Korean Peninsula.

Analyzing the impact of North Korean supplies on the Ukrainian battlefield, it is essential to temper expectations. General Mark Milley’s assessment underscores the limited strategic value of Soviet-era 152 mm artillery rounds. While they may provide temporary relief to Russian forces, they are unlikely to alter the broader trajectory of the conflict. The admiration expressed by some Russian military analysts for North Korea’s newer multiple-launch rocket systems (MLRS), such as the KN-09 and KN-25, reflects a recognition of their capabilities. However, Pyongyang’s reluctance to export these advanced systems underscores the regime’s prioritization of its own security imperatives.

The reciprocal benefits for North Korea in this transactional arrangement are multifaceted. Kim Jong-un’s tour of Russia’s advanced military technology, though unlikely to result in significant transfers, serves a dual purpose. It reinforces North Korea’s narrative of defiance against international sanctions and showcases potential strategic alignments. However, the historical context of UN Security Council resolutions, with Russia and China as key actors, serves as a limiting factor. The alignment of Moscow and Beijing in sanctioning North Korea until 2017, coupled with ongoing missile tests by Pyongyang, highlights the delicate balance of interests.

From a practical standpoint, Russia’s potential assistance to North Korea can be categorized into three areas: food and energy aid, space cooperation, and, to a lesser extent, military support. The acute economic challenges faced by North Korea, exacerbated by international sanctions and internal inefficiencies, make assistance in the form of oil, gas, and grain particularly valuable. However, the nuances of diplomatic interactions reveal complexities. Russia’s ambassador in Pyongyang’s statement about Kim Jong-un declining food aid at the summit indicates a broader strategic calculus at play.

Space cooperation emerges as a plausible area of collaboration. North Korea’s recent failures to launch military reconnaissance satellites underscore the limitations of its indigenous capabilities. Leveraging Russian expertise in this domain aligns with Pyongyang’s strategic objectives while circumventing the more provocative aspects of military collaboration. The irony of Russia assisting South Korea’s space program until recently adds a layer of geopolitical intrigue to this potential cooperation.

The rhetoric employed by the leaders during their meeting provides insights into the underlying dynamics of the relationship. Kim Jong-un’s militant anti-imperialist rhetoric contrasts with Putin’s more measured tone. This divergence reflects the broader geopolitical calculations of both leaders. For Kim, the alignment with Russia serves to bolster his domestic narrative of resistance against imperialist forces, while for Putin, maintaining a veneer of diplomatic decorum is essential in managing international perceptions.

Kim’s visit to Russia can be seen as an exploratory mission, probing the potential for deeper strategic alignment while managing mutual expectations. The historical backdrop of unmet expectations and failed collaborations looms large, informing the cautious optimism of the current engagement. The regional officials who hosted Kim, with their emphasis on potential collaboration, reflect a pragmatic approach, tempered by the realities of past experiences.

The broader geopolitical landscape underscores the transactional nature of the Russia-North Korea relationship. For Russia, facing a prolonged conflict in Ukraine and international isolation, North Korea presents an unconventional yet pragmatic partner. The historical ties, though attenuated, provide a foundation for renewed cooperation under the pressures of contemporary geopolitics. For North Korea, the alignment with Russia serves to diversify its strategic options and signal its resilience against international sanctions.

The fluidity of the global geopolitical context necessitates a nuanced understanding of the Russia-North Korea relationship. The contingent and transactional nature of their engagement reflects the broader strategic calculus of both nations. As the situation evolves, the ability of both countries to navigate the complexities of their relationship will be critical in determining the trajectory of their cooperation. The historical context, coupled with the current geopolitical exigencies, provides a framework for understanding the potential and limitations of this strategic alignment.

In the context of ongoing geopolitical shifts, the Russia-North Korea relationship remains a dynamic and evolving entity. The pragmatic considerations driving their engagement underscore the contingent and transactional nature of their alliance. As both nations navigate the complexities of their relationship, the broader implications for regional and global geopolitics will continue to unfold. The ability to adapt and respond to changing circumstances will be crucial in shaping the future trajectory of their cooperation.

Geopolitical Chess: The Fragile Dynamics of the China-Russia-North Korea Triangle

Some have argued that China, Russia, and North Korea are developing a trilateral alliance with designs on Taiwan, Ukraine, and South Korea, respectively. Indeed, one of their targets is fighting for survival, while the others are under threat amid rising tensions and ongoing arms races. Yet it is wrong to assume that each trio member endorses the others’ goals. In particular, neither Putin nor Xi will repeat the experiences of Mao and Stalin by supporting North Korea in a bloody peninsular war. The stakes today are far higher for both countries on two fronts: nuclear risk, and their strong commercial ties with South Korea. That country’s conservative President Yoon Suk-yeol, while firmly pro-US, has succeeded in resisting Washington’s pressure for South Korean semiconductor firms to reduce their operations in China, and has not directly armed Ukraine. But he has visited Kyiv and signed large arms-export deals with Poland. Russian sources suggest Putin invited Kim, in part, as a warning to Yoon.

Kim’s effusive courtship of China and Russia – a striking shift from his father’s and grandfather’s quest to achieve juche – evokes images of a united communist bloc. Yet this authoritarian troika is bound by contingent and partial shared interests rather than ideology per se, and against a backdrop of sour history. Western powers and their allies, by contrast, still share common values. Kim, Putin, and Xi view one another through a transactional lens, which should not be mistaken for genuine solidarity. Neither Moscow nor Beijing has forgotten how Kim’s grandfather played one against the other during the Sino-Soviet dispute. And given China’s role as North Korea’s economic lifeline, Xi may not have appreciated Kim’s first post-pandemic foreign trip being to Russia rather than China, or his calling relations with Russia his ‘top priority’.

The specter of a cohesive axis comprising China, Russia, and North Korea looms large in geopolitical analyses, but the reality is far more nuanced. The transactional nature of their interactions underscores the fragility and limitations of such an alliance. Historical grievances and competing national interests are significant factors that inhibit the formation of a truly unified front. For instance, China’s substantial economic leverage over North Korea positions it as a critical player in the Korean Peninsula’s stability. Any aggressive move by North Korea that threatens regional stability would directly impact China’s economic and security interests.

Similarly, Russia’s approach towards North Korea is shaped by its broader strategic objectives and the current geopolitical climate. The invitation extended to Kim Jong-un by Putin can be seen as a strategic maneuver aimed at signaling strength and solidarity to both domestic and international audiences. However, this does not necessarily translate into unwavering support for North Korea’s military ambitions. The complex interplay of strategic interests, historical animosities, and economic considerations make the Russia-North Korea relationship one of cautious pragmatism rather than outright alliance.

Kim Jong-un’s diplomatic overtures towards Russia and China reflect a strategic shift in North Korea’s foreign policy. The emphasis on strengthening ties with these two major powers indicates a departure from the traditional juche ideology of self-reliance that characterized his predecessors’ approach. This shift can be attributed to the evolving geopolitical landscape and the pressing need for North Korea to secure economic and military support amid heightened international sanctions and isolation.

The transactional dynamics between these authoritarian regimes are also influenced by their respective domestic imperatives. For China, maintaining regional stability is paramount, as any escalation in the Korean Peninsula could have severe repercussions for its economic growth and internal security. Xi Jinping’s cautious approach towards North Korea underscores the delicate balance China seeks to maintain between supporting its historical ally and ensuring regional stability.

For Russia, the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and the resultant international isolation have pushed it to seek alternative alliances and partnerships. North Korea, with its strategic location and military capabilities, presents a valuable albeit complex partner. However, the long-term sustainability of this partnership remains uncertain, given the inherent challenges and divergent strategic goals.

The triangular relationship between China, Russia, and North Korea is further complicated by their respective interactions with the United States and its allies. The US-led alliance system in the Asia-Pacific region poses a significant challenge to the strategic ambitions of these three countries. The presence of US military forces in South Korea and Japan, along with the strengthening of alliances with Australia and India, serves as a counterbalance to the perceived threat posed by the authoritarian trio.

In this context, the transactional nature of the China-Russia-North Korea relationship becomes even more apparent. Each country seeks to leverage its position to gain strategic advantages while avoiding actions that could jeopardize their broader interests. The lack of a unified ideological framework and the prevalence of historical animosities further constrain the depth and scope of their cooperation.

The notion of a trilateral alliance with clearly defined objectives and mutual support mechanisms is more of a geopolitical construct than a reflection of reality. The interactions between China, Russia, and North Korea are characterized by a pragmatic and cautious approach, with each country prioritizing its national interests and strategic imperatives. The complex and often contradictory nature of their relationships underscores the limitations of any potential alliance and highlights the contingent and transactional dynamics that define their interactions.

As the geopolitical landscape continues to evolve, the strategic calculations of China, Russia, and North Korea will likely remain fluid and subject to change. The ongoing conflicts and power struggles in Ukraine and the Korean Peninsula, coupled with the shifting alliances and partnerships in the Asia-Pacific region, will continue to shape the nature of their interactions. The contingent and transactional nature of their relationship reflects the broader uncertainties and complexities of the current global order.

In conclusion, the idea of a cohesive and unified alliance between China, Russia, and North Korea is more of a geopolitical abstraction than a reality. The interactions between these countries are driven by pragmatic considerations and contingent interests, rather than a shared ideological commitment. The historical grievances, strategic divergences, and economic dependencies that characterize their relationships underscore the fragility and limitations of any potential alliance. The complex and evolving nature of their interactions highlights the broader challenges and uncertainties that define the current geopolitical landscape.

Satellite Eyes on Oil, Munitions and Diplomacy: The Complex Dynamics of Russia-North Korea Relations

North Korean tankers have begun loading oil from a Russian port in the country’s Far East, an analysis of dozens of satellite images conducted by RUSI’s Open Source Intelligence and Analysis team (OSIA) and the Financial Times shows, partially lifting the veil on what Pyongyang has secured in return for the transfer of vast quantities of munitions and missiles.

On the morning of 6 March, a Russian tug pushed the North Korean-flagged Paek Yang San 1 into a small oil facility nestled in the corner of the container terminal at the Vostochny port in Russia, situated less than 20 kilometers southeast of the port-city of Nakhodka, in Russia’s Far East. Several days later, the Paek Yang San 1 returned to the North Korean port of Chongjin, where it berthed at a facility often used to offload refined petroleum procured in violation of UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolutions – originally imposed in response to Pyongyang’s ongoing nuclear weapons and ballistic missile tests.

Figure 1: Paek Yang San 1 anchored in Vostochny, Russia (Source: Planet Labs, RUSI Project Sandstone).

Less than two weeks later, on 26 March, the Paek Yang San 1 was back at Vostochny port and anchored at the same oil facility it had visited twenty days earlier. The visits, the first of at least six tracked by RUSI in recent weeks, mark an unprecedented development in Russia–North Korea relations and come on the heels of dozens of deliveries of munitions and ballistic missiles that have since been used in Ukraine.

Figure 2: DPRK-flagged vessels at Vostochny Port (Source: Planet Labs, Airbus Defence and Space, and RUSI Project Sandstone).

With North Korean imports of refined petroleum capped by the UN Security Council at 500,000 barrels a year since 2016 and 2017, the deliveries also threaten to scupper the UN sanctions regime, which has been in force for nearly 20 years after Pyongyang’s first nuclear test in 2006.

Recent developments have already pushed tensions between the Permanent Five (the P5) Members of the Security Council on North Korea close to a breaking point. In recent days, Moscow has reportedly threatened to veto the renewal of the mandate of the UN Panel of Experts – the official body tasked with monitoring the country’s weapons program and attempts to evade sanctions – after the US, the UK, and France refused to accept Russian and Chinese proposals for sunset clauses in the sanctions regime.

High-resolution images taken between 6 and 24 March, show five North Korean-flagged tankers named the Paek Yang San 1, Wol Bong San, Kum Jin Gang 3, Chon Ma San, and An San 1 arriving and berthing at the same oil bunkering facility in Vostochny port in Russia. Notably, three of these vessels – the Kum Jin Gang 3, An San 1, and the Chon Ma San – are designated by the UN, which prohibits port entry and, in the case of the Chon Ma San, obliges member states to detain it should it do so.

Figure 3: Movements of the Paek Yang San 1 (Source: Planet Labs and RUSI Project Sandstone).

Together, these five vessels represent some of North Korea’s largest and most active oil tankers. Following these visits, at least two of these tankers appear to have returned to the North Korean port of Chongjin and docked at a berth where oil has historically been unloaded. All five tankers made the trip while not transmitting on their automatic identification system (AIS) transponders, likely in an attempt to remain undetected.

Several other North Korean tankers, including the Yu Son and the Nam Dae Bong, appear to have left the North Korean port of Nampo on the country’s western coast earlier in the month and headed towards Chongjin. Here, satellite imagery taken on 13 March 2024 shows them anchored outside the port alongside vessels that later traveled to Russia.

Figure 4: North Korean oil tankers in Chongjin (Source: Planet Labs, and RUSI Project Sandstone).

Pyongyang Unshackled The regular tempo of deliveries by some of North Korea’s largest and most active tankers means that Pyongyang could quickly blow past the UN oil cap, enabling oil to flow largely unrestricted into the country. In less than three weeks, for example, these five tankers could have moved approximately 125,000 barrels of refined petroleum products – roughly a quarter of the UN-imposed annual oil cap – had they loaded at full capacity.

Prior to these deliveries, RUSI calculations for North Korean oil imports in 2024 stood at approximately 170,000 barrels of oil. These are measured by counting tankers arriving at the country’s main oil offloading facilities in Nampo and elsewhere. However, since the start of March, this figure will likely more than double to almost 350,000 barrels, approximately 70% of the annual UN mandated oil cap.

Primorsky Post Vostochny port is no stranger to North Korean contraband. In recent months, four Russian cargo vessels named the Angara, Maria, Maia 1, and Lady R have been unloading thousands of containers at the port likely filled with munitions picked up in North Korea.

In late February, the South Korean Defence Minister Shin Won-sik claimed Pyongyang had shipped over 6,700 containers to Russia, potentially containing more than 3 million 152-mm artillery shells, or 500,000 122-mm rounds. Many of these have been moved to Vostochny port, which hosts a large container terminal and transshipment point that offers direct shipments from all major Chinese ports.

Figure 5: Russia-DPRK shipments in January 2024 (Source: Planet Labs, Airbus Defence and Space, and RUSI Project Sandstone).

Since the start of the year alone, RUSI has tracked at least 10 deliveries of containers from Rajin to Vostochny, with the port becoming a primary transshipment hub in the burgeoning military relationship between Moscow and Pyongyang. Notably, high-resolution imagery collected on 13 March over the Russian port shows the Lady R unloading containers it recently picked up in North Korea. At the oil bunkering facility, less than a kilometer away, was the UN-designated Kum Jin Gang 3.

Figure 6: Kum Jin Gang 3 and Lady R in Vostochny port (Source: Planet Labs and RUSI Project Sandstone).

Loading Point High-resolution imagery shows the North Korean tankers are visiting an oil facility used to bunker vessels, which is connected by a pipeline to oil storage facilities approximately one kilometer south of the main port.

These latter facilities are the listed business address of an oil bunkering company. According to a 2021 annual report by Russia’s Federal Antimonopoly Service, the company is one of the largest entities involved in the ‘transshipment of oil and petroleum products’ in Primorsky Krai.

The berth and facilities are adjacent to a large container terminal managed by Eastern Stevedoring Company (ООО ‘Восточная стивидорная компания’), part of Russia’s largest logistics conglomerate, Delo. Eastern Stevedoring Company and Transcontainer, which is also part of the Delo group, were sanctioned by the US on 23 February 2024 for facilitating the shipment of munitions from the DPRK to Russia.

Figure 7: Vostochny Port (Source: Airbus Defence and Space and RUSI Project Sandstone).

Strategic Supplies The loading of oil products directly from a Russian facility marks a momentous change for North Korea, which has struggled to keep petroleum flowing into the country since 2016. The UN sanctions, supported by Russia, largely put an end to a thriving fuel trade between the two countries, which flourished after Russian investments in its Far Eastern energy infrastructure saw crude oil and refined products sold from facilities near Vladivostok and Vanino.

Lacking any functioning domestic refinery capacity, North Korea scrambled to adapt and was forced to dispatch its aged oiler fleet onto the high seas to secure oil from foreign tankers trading in the open ocean. But while North Korea was regularly able to surpass the 500,000-barrel annual UN oil cap, those selling refined petroleum to North Korean vessels were regularly identified and, in many cases, arrested, prosecuted, or sanctioned.

In December 2023, a joint investigation between RUSI and the Financial Times led to the arrest of a North Korean oil broker in South Korea. One year earlier, in 2022, the US Treasury sanctioned the Singapore-based Kwek Kee Seng and Taiwan-based Chen Shih Huan for allegedly being involved in illicit North Korean oil deliveries. Several other cases in recent years whittled down North Korea’s supply chains and raised the risks and costs for those seeking to sell oil to Pyongyang.

Regular Russian oil deliveries, however, will fundamentally alter this dynamic, enabling North Korea to develop a secure supply line that will significantly benefit the country’s military, weapons program, and wider economy.

Ripple Effects While Ukraine has borne the brunt of Russia’s aggression, the effects of Moscow’s invasion continue to ripple outwards from the battlefields in the east of the country.

As the brutal war drags into its third year, Moscow’s need for munitions and materiel has forced it to forgo any concerns it may have had about a nuclear-armed and perennially belligerent North Korea. These concerns were enshrined in a range of UN Security Council Resolutions supported by the P5 since Pyongyang’s first nuclear test in 2006. But the ongoing Russian provision of oil to Pyongyang, potentially in large quantities, is another nail in the coffin in the consensus-based mechanism of the UN Security Council.

Now, with both Russia’s and China’s help, North Korean trade in weapons and sanctioned commodities is booming, providing Pyongyang with both revenue and strategic resources it previously struggled to acquire. While the imports of refined petroleum were evidently top of Pyongyang’s menu, the schedule of Kim Jong Un’s recent trip to Vladivostok likely foreshadowed his other appetites, including those for advanced Russian military technology.

Faced with a potential new administration in Washington in 2024, Pyongyang now enters the year in a much stronger negotiation position. Sanctions against the country have been fundamentally weakened, trade with Russia and China is thriving, and North Korea’s provision of munitions places Pyongyang at the center of Moscow’s military supply chains.

Locked out of the international financial system, Pyongyang has long developed a reputation for closing barter deals that avoided settling transactions in US dollars. The purchase of oil for weapons may be another in a long line of such North Korean clandestine arrangements.

These developments, coupled with satellite imagery analysis, underscore the deepening ties between Moscow and Pyongyang and highlight the complexities in enforcing international sanctions regimes in a rapidly evolving geopolitical landscape. The shifts in Russia-North Korea relations also reflect broader strategic calculations and the increasingly transactional nature of international alliances amidst ongoing global conflicts.

In conclusion, the strategic partnership agreement between Russia and North Korea is a significant development that has far-reaching implications. It symbolizes the deepening of ties between the two countries, reflects their opposition to Western hegemony, and signals their commitment to a multipolar world order. The agreement is likely to enhance their strategic capabilities, contribute to regional stability, and potentially lead to the formation of new alliances. As such, it represents a key milestone in the evolving geopolitical landscape.


APPENDIX 1 – Diplomatic and Economic Exchanges Overview (July 2023 – June 2024)

High-Level Visits and Meetings

July 2023

  • Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visited Pyongyang, attended a defense expo, and a military parade featuring North Korea’s ballistic missiles.

September 2023

  • Kim Jong Un toured Russia’s Vostochny Cosmodrome where Putin promised satellite development assistance.
  • Vice Foreign Minister Im Chon Il met with Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Rudenko in Moscow.
  • External Economic Relations Minister Yun Jong Ho met Russia’s Natural Resources Minister Alexander Kozlov.

October 2023

  • North Korean Sports Minister Kim Il Guk attended a forum in Perm, Russia.
  • Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited Pyongyang, met with Kim Jong Un.

November 2023

  • Alexander Kozlov visited Pyongyang.
  • A North Korean cultural delegation attended an event in St. Petersburg.

December 2023

  • Oleg Kozhemyako, governor of Primorsky region, visited Pyongyang.

January 2024

  • Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui met Lavrov and held talks with Putin in the Kremlin.

February 2024

  • North Korean agriculture officials visited Russia.
  • Kim Su Gil, a senior official, met Dmitry Medvedev.
  • Delegations from North Korea’s fisheries, sports, IT industry, and youth visited Russia.

March 2024

  • Kozhemyako visited Pyongyang again.
  • A Russian culture delegation visited North Korea.
  • Sergei Naryshkin, Putin’s foreign intelligence chief, held talks with North Korean Minister of State Security Ri Chang Dae.
  • Yun visited Russia again.

April 2024

  • Delegations from North Korea’s education, health, agriculture, and youth sectors visited Russia.
  • A Moscow zoo delegation visited Pyongyang, promising to donate over 40 animals.

May 2024

  • Ri Chung Gil, chair of North Korea’s state commission of science and technology, visited Russia.
  • Nam Chol Gwang, head of North Korea’s state emergency disaster committee, attended an international security exhibition in Moscow.

June 2024

  • Vice Public Security Minister Ri Song Chol led a delegation to Russia.
  • Putin visited Pyongyang for the first time since 2000.

Detailed Scheme Table

DateEvent/VisitKey Figures InvolvedFocus Areas
Jul 2023Shoigu’s visitSergei Shoigu, Kim Jong UnMilitary expo, ballistic missiles
Sep 2023Kim’s Russia visitKim Jong Un, Vladimir PutinSatellite development, space cooperation
Sep 2023High-level meetings in MoscowIm Chon Il, Andrei RudenkoDiplomatic talks
Sep 2023Economic discussions in MoscowYun Jong Ho, Alexander KozlovNatural resources, economic relations
Oct 2023Perm forumKim Il GukSports diplomacy
Oct 2023Lavrov’s visit to PyongyangSergei Lavrov, Kim Jong UnDiplomatic talks
Nov 2023Kozlov’s visit to PyongyangAlexander KozlovEconomic cooperation
Nov 2023Cultural delegation to St. PetersburgNorth Korean cultural officialsCultural exchange
Dec 2023Kozhemyako’s visitOleg KozhemyakoRegional cooperation
Jan 2024Kremlin meetingsChoe Son Hui, Sergei Lavrov, Vladimir PutinDiplomatic and strategic discussions
Feb 2024Agricultural visitsNorth Korean agricultural officialsAgricultural cooperation
Feb 2024Meetings with MedvedevKim Su Gil, Dmitry MedvedevPolitical and strategic discussions
Feb 2024Sectoral delegations to RussiaNorth Korean fisheries, sports, IT, youth officialsSectoral cooperation
Mar 2024Kozhemyako’s second visitOleg KozhemyakoRegional cooperation
Mar 2024Cultural delegation to PyongyangRussian cultural officialsCultural exchange
Mar 2024Intelligence talks in PyongyangSergei Naryshkin, Ri Chang DaeIntelligence and security cooperation
Mar 2024Economic relations meetingsYun Jong HoEconomic cooperation
Apr 2024Sectoral visits to RussiaNorth Korean education, health, agriculture, youth officialsSectoral cooperation
Apr 2024Moscow zoo delegation to PyongyangMoscow zoo officialsZoological exchange
May 2024Science and technology visitRi Chung GilScience and technology cooperation
May 2024Security exhibitionNam Chol GwangSecurity and emergency management
Jun 2024Security delegation visitRi Song CholSecurity cooperation
Jun 2024Putin’s visit to PyongyangVladimir Putin, Kim Jong UnDiplomatic and strategic discussions

These details illustrate the growing diplomatic, economic, and technological ties between North Korea and Russia, emphasizing their collaborative efforts in military, space, and various economic sectors.

Technical Data and Capabilities

Military and Space Cooperation:

  • Military: North Korea is expected to enhance military cooperation with Russia, possibly including joint exercises and expanded arms sales. North Korea may supply artillery shells and other conventional weapons to Russia.
  • Space: Russia promised to assist North Korea in satellite development, crucial after North Korea’s failed satellite launches. The Vostochny Cosmodrome visit highlighted potential future collaborations in space technology.

Economic and Technological Collaboration:

  • Economic Agreements: High-level discussions focused on agriculture, natural resources, fisheries, and emergency disaster management.
  • Technological Exchange: Russia may provide North Korea with advanced technologies, including missile development support (solid-fuel missiles, hypersonic weapons, and nuclear submarines).

Technical and Logistical Data

Arms Transfers and Sanctions:

Munitions Transfers:

Between mid-October 2023 and early February 2024, at least 19 vessels with their AIS (Automatic Identification System) turned off were observed at Russia’s Vostochny Port, indicating covert operations. These vessels included those like the MARIA and MAIA-1, which were involved in transferring munitions. The use of AIS transponders is typically mandatory for ships over a certain size, as it helps prevent collisions by allowing ships to see each other’s positions. The deactivation of AIS by these vessels strongly suggests an intent to conceal their movements and activities, a common tactic in sanctions evasion.

Satellite Imagery Analysis:

High-resolution satellite imagery provided further evidence of these covert operations. The images captured at various intervals showed an unusual amount of activity at Vostochny Port, including the presence of cranes and heavy machinery typically used for loading and unloading large shipments. Additionally, satellite images showed the distinct outlines of containers being moved, likely filled with munitions destined for North Korea. The repetitive pattern of vessel arrivals and departures, combined with the nature of the cargo, supports the conclusion that these transfers were systematic and well-coordinated.

Geopolitical Implications:

The clandestine nature of these munitions transfers has significant geopolitical implications. Firstly, it indicates a deepening of military cooperation between Russia and North Korea, a development that could destabilize the already fragile security dynamics in the region. Such cooperation may provide North Korea with the necessary resources to enhance its military capabilities, potentially escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

Secondly, these activities represent a direct violation of international sanctions imposed on North Korea. These sanctions are designed to curb North Korea’s ability to develop its nuclear and missile programs by restricting access to weapons, technology, and financial resources. The continued transfer of munitions and other military equipment not only undermines these sanctions but also challenges the authority and effectiveness of international regulatory bodies.

Response from the International Community:

The international community, particularly the United Nations and its member states, has expressed grave concern over these findings. There have been calls for increased monitoring and enforcement of sanctions, as well as for greater transparency in maritime operations. The use of satellite imagery and advanced monitoring technologies is likely to become more prevalent as part of these efforts.

Additionally, there are discussions about imposing further sanctions on entities and individuals involved in these covert operations. The aim is to deter such activities by increasing the cost and risk associated with sanctions evasion. However, the effectiveness of these measures remains uncertain, especially given the strategic interests of countries like Russia and North Korea in maintaining their military cooperation.


APPENDIX 2 – Unraveling the Past, Assessing the Present: Russia’s Diplomatic Dance with North Korea

Burden of History

After Moscow accepted Washington’s proposal in 1945 to ‘temporarily’ partition the Korean Peninsula to accept Japan’s surrender, Stalin appointed Kim Il-sung, a young guerrilla whom Japanese forces had pushed into Siberia, as a figurehead leader. He arrived in a Red Army uniform. The division soon hardened into a national border between separate states proclaimed in 1948: the Republic of Korea below the 38th parallel and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea above.

In June 1950, Kim persuaded Stalin and China’s Mao Zedong that he could forcefully reunify Korea. A United Nations Command army led by the US eventually repelled the DPRK advance, and only intervention by China saved North Korea from extinction. Four million people died during the three-year war, which caused immense destruction. North Korea rebuilt and industrialized quickly, mainly with Soviet funding. Kim Il-sung nonetheless refused to join Comecon (the grouping through which Moscow dominated its satellites’ economies), defaulted on Soviet loans, and remained neutral in the Sino-Soviet dispute, receiving aid from both countries. Tellingly, no top Soviet leader ever visited Pyongyang, yet the Soviet Union continued providing military and economic assistance to the country (e.g., exporting MiG-29 fighter aircraft as late as 1989).

In 1990, then-president Mikhail Gorbachev upended the Peninsula’s post-1945 order: the Soviet Union recognized South Korea (receiving a US$3 billion loan from Seoul on which Russia later defaulted). Then, the Soviet Union collapsed and its subsidies abruptly ceased. While some aid recipients – Cuba and Vietnam – adapted, the change proved catastrophic for North Korea. Belying Kim Il-sung’s claims of DPRK self-reliance, or juche, an IMF mission was told that from 1992 to 1996, GDP had declined by 49.2% (from US$20.9bn to US$10.6bn). From 1995 to 1998, famine killed at least 500,000 people.

Bilateral ties have never recovered from these traumas. In 2000, early in Putin’s presidency, he visited Pyongyang. He then hosted North Korea’s Kim Jong-il – whose train trundled all the way to Moscow – in 2001, and again in Vladivostok in 2002. Yet nothing concrete came of this. In 2011, Kim Jong-il traveled to Ulan-Ude, where he and Russia’s then-president Dmitry Medvedev discussed a potential gas pipeline (that might possibly extend to South Korea). This again led to nothing.

Unpaid Soviet-era debt constituted a major stumbling block throughout this period. Moscow was determined not to throw good money after bad, while Pyongyang claimed it should be rewarded for defending ‘the eastern outpost of socialism’. It took until 2012 for the countries to agree on a notional settlement figure of US$11bn (the original debt had been denominated in rubles), of which Moscow then wrote off 90%. The remainder was supposed to have been reinvested in development projects, though little has happened. The settlement was ratified in 2014. A separate Russian investment, worth US$346m, to upgrade North Korea’s Rajin port and the connecting railway line to Russia, fell afoul of UN Security Council sanctions and Pyongyang’s drastic border closure related to the coronavirus pandemic. Meanwhile, North Korean migrant workers have continued, despite sanctions, to work in eastern Russia.

Even after the debt was resolved, the paucity of trade between these neighbors is striking. Though the Soviet Union dominated the DPRK economy for almost half a century (1945–90), by the 2010s, Russia had sunk to a distant third place in terms of trade volume. Its highest annual trade total, US$113m in 2011, trailed far behind both China (US$5.6bn) and – in those happier days on the Peninsula – South Korea (US$1.7bn). The effects of UN Security Council sanctions since 2017, and Pyongyang’s border restrictions since 2020, have reduced these already small volumes to almost nothing.

By contrast, Beijing has cemented its trade dominance into a near-monopoly: in 2022, North Korea conducted almost 97% of its trade with China. As always, this was profoundly imbalanced: Pyongyang’s paltry exports of US$134m could not match imports of US$1.39bn. Yet Xi, like his predecessors, evidently deems the Kim regime’s chronic overdraft a price worth paying for the dependency it creates. Successive leaders in Moscow thought differently: this was one of several missteps that have eroded Russia’s influence on the Peninsula, while China’s has steadily grown. Meanwhile, for both Moscow and Beijing, South Korea has become a much more significant business partner. In 2022, Russia’s trade with South Korea (mainly energy exports) totaled US$21.2bn, while China’s reached US$310bn (almost evenly balanced). These commercial ties, far more substantial than these powers’ past historical or ideological alignments with North Korea, cast further doubt on – and set limits to – the idea of a putative security axis emerging between Pyongyang and Moscow.

The historical and geopolitical narrative between Russia and North Korea has been shaped by numerous events and policies that have defined their relationship. The initial decision to partition the Korean Peninsula set the stage for a complex and often contentious relationship. The Korean War further solidified the ideological divide, with North Korea leaning heavily on Soviet support to rebuild and industrialize. Despite this dependency, Kim Il-sung’s refusal to fully align with Soviet policies showcased a streak of independence that would later contribute to economic struggles following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The cessation of Soviet subsidies marked a turning point for North Korea, exposing the fragility of its juche ideology. The severe economic downturn and subsequent famine highlighted the regime’s inability to sustain itself without external support. Despite efforts to revive bilateral relations, such as Putin’s visits and discussions on energy projects, tangible outcomes remained elusive. The issue of unpaid Soviet-era debt further complicated matters, with a resolution only achieved decades later, reflecting the prolonged mistrust and financial disputes between the two nations.

Trade dynamics have also shifted dramatically over the decades. The once-dominant Soviet influence on North Korea’s economy has dwindled, with China emerging as the primary trade partner. This shift underscores a broader geopolitical realignment in the region, where economic and strategic interests have led China to invest heavily in maintaining North Korea’s dependency. Meanwhile, Russia’s engagement has been sporadic and largely symbolic, constrained by international sanctions and the lack of substantial economic incentives.

In contemporary times, the imbalance in trade relations with China has only grown more pronounced. North Korea’s economic reliance on China has created a quasi-monopolistic relationship, with Pyongyang’s limited exports failing to offset the vast imports from its neighbor. This economic dependency is a strategic leverage point for Beijing, ensuring North Korea remains within its sphere of influence. In contrast, Russia’s economic interactions with North Korea have remained minimal, overshadowed by its more lucrative trade relations with South Korea.

The notion of a security axis between North Korea and Russia is further undermined by these economic realities. The significant trade volumes between Russia and South Korea, as well as between China and South Korea, highlight the pragmatic approach both Beijing and Moscow adopt in the region. Economic interests with South Korea far outweigh any ideological or historical commitments to North Korea, suggesting a limited scope for a robust trilateral alliance against Western interests.

As the geopolitical landscape continues to evolve, the historical burdens and economic disparities will likely persist as defining features of the Russia-North Korea relationship. The interplay between historical legacies, economic dependencies, and strategic interests will shape the future trajectory of their bilateral ties, amidst the broader context of regional and global politics.

Here is a detailed scheme table encapsulating all the provided data and information:

Event/DetailDate/PeriodDescriptionFigures/Numbers
Partition of Korean Peninsula1945Moscow accepted Washington’s proposal to partition the Korean Peninsula to accept Japan’s surrender.N/A
Kim Il-sung’s AppointmentPost-1945Stalin appointed Kim Il-sung, a young guerrilla leader, as a figurehead.N/A
Proclamation of States1948Formation of Republic of Korea below the 38th parallel and Democratic People’s Republic of Korea above.N/A
Korean WarJune 1950 – 1953Kim Il-sung persuaded Stalin and Mao Zedong for forceful reunification; UN Command army led by the US repelled DPRK advance.4 million deaths
North Korea’s ReconstructionPost-1953Rapid industrialization with Soviet funding.N/A
Soviet Military Assistance1989Soviet Union exported MiG-29 fighter aircraft to North Korea.N/A
Soviet Recognition of South Korea1990Under President Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union recognized South Korea.US$3 billion loan (defaulted by Russia)
GDP Decline in North Korea1992-1996North Korean GDP declined significantly.49.2% decline (from US$20.9bn to US$10.6bn)
Famine in North Korea1995-1998Severe famine in North Korea.At least 500,000 deaths
Putin’s Visit to Pyongyang2000Early in Putin’s presidency, he visited Pyongyang.N/A
Kim Jong-il’s Visit to Moscow and Vladivostok2001, 2002Kim Jong-il traveled to Moscow and Vladivostok for discussions.N/A
Gas Pipeline Discussion2011Discussion between Kim Jong-il and Dmitry Medvedev on potential gas pipeline.N/A
Settlement of Soviet-era Debt2012, Ratified in 2014Agreement on settlement of Soviet-era debt.US$11bn (90% written off by Moscow)
Russian Investment in Rajin Port2014Investment to upgrade North Korea’s Rajin port and connecting railway line.US$346m (affected by UN sanctions and COVID-19 border closure)
Trade Volume Between Russia and North Korea2011Peak trade volume between Russia and North Korea.US$113m
Trade Volume Between North Korea and China2011Trade volume between North Korea and China.US$5.6bn
Trade Volume Between North Korea and South Korea2011Trade volume between North Korea and South Korea.US$1.7bn
North Korea’s Trade with China2022Dominance of China in North Korea’s trade.97% of total trade
North Korea’s Exports to China2022North Korea’s export volume to China.US$134m
North Korea’s Imports from China2022North Korea’s import volume from China.US$1.39bn
Russia’s Trade with South Korea2022Trade volume between Russia and South Korea.US$21.2bn
China’s Trade with South Korea2022Trade volume between China and South Korea.US$310bn
This table incorporates all the historical events, economic data, and significant interactions between the countries, maintaining a clear and detailed record of the provided information.

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