Concrete evidence suggests a close relationship between Russia and North Korea. In July, Russia’s defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, visited North Korea for negotiations, followed by the third summit meeting between President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in September and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s visit in October. While this cooperation appears to have immediate power-politics motives, it is based on an unsustainable ideological foundation. The two countries need support from the other for the defense of principles that the other consistently violates. This misalignment may render Russia’s cooperation with North Korea unsustainable in the long run.
The cooperation between North Korea and Russia is primarily driven by considerations of power rather than a commitment to shared principles. North Korea seeks allies to establish a sense of normalcy following the Supreme People’s Assembly enacting a law on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s Policy on Nuclear Forces in September 2022, making nuclear weapons a permanent element of the country’s defense policy. However, while North Korea has underscored the international norm of non-interference in domestic affairs and criticized U.S. interventions and interference, the country’s foreign ministry has swiftly endorsed Russia’s violations of Ukraine’s sovereignty and the alteration of Ukraine’s state borders through the use of force. In the short term, principles hold little weight when geopolitical tensions between North Korea and the West compel the country to support Russia, yet Russia’s actions contradict the same principles that North Korea has consistently condemned the United States for violating.
After escalating the conflict in Ukraine, Russia finds itself in need of more ammunition than it can produce or had previously acquired from Iran. Suspicious Russian naval movements have been observed between North Korea and the Russian submarine base in the port of Dunai, near Vladivostok. A recent analysis by the Royal United Services Institute suggests that these movements may involve shipments of ammunition from North Korea to support Russia’s war effort in Ukraine.
In addition to ammunition, Russia may view North Korea as a potential proxy in its power politics and nuclear brinkmanship. Putin perceives that the United States is using Ukraine in a similar capacity, willing to accept the risks of a nuclear conflict as a quid pro quo for military aid. For Putin, Ukraine is a U.S. asset in the global game of brinkmanship. There exists the possibility that North Korea could play a similar role for Russia. The readiness to approach the nuclear brink is often regarded as the primary source of bargaining leverage in the nuclear bargaining game. This concept was elucidated in the 1960s by the American game theorist Thomas Schelling, whose ideas on nuclear deterrence have been considered the intellectual underpinning of U.S. Cold War deterrence strategy. Within this framework, the use of an unpredictable and daring ally may prove useful in power-political brinkmanship games.
Yet, for Russia, its cooperation with North Korea deviates from its historical principles. As convincingly demonstrated by William C. Potter, Russia (and the Soviet Union) has traditionally championed nuclear non-proliferation. Apart from the Cuban Missile Crisis; it never stationed its nuclear weapons outside its own territory, a practice prohibited by Article 1 of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The risk of nuclear missiles ending up in Ukraine was mentioned by Putin as one of the key reasons for the Russian aggression in Ukraine. However, the recent alignment and open support for the main proliferator indicate that power-political motives are guiding also Russia’s behavior.
While Russia has been critical of what it considers the United States’ use of Ukraine as a proxy, this is unlikely to deter Moscow from employing a similar strategy itself. It has been a recurring pattern in Russia’s international behavior that criticism of U.S. power politics does not dissuade Russia from adopting similar tactics in response. This could, however, lead to problems in Russia’s long-term strategy. Russia’s credibility in non-proliferation diplomacy diminishes, while its “justification” for the war in Ukraine becomes contradictory with its close cooperation with North Korea, the primary proliferator. Concurrently, North Korea’s insistence on sovereignty and non-interference in its internal affairs loses credibility when it supports Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty.
Russia may be repeating a mistake it made in the 1960s, which ultimately soured Sino-Soviet collaboration. Then, Soviet power politics in Czechoslovakia undermined the credibility of a joint fight against what both perceived as Western imperialism, as China believed the Soviet Union itself practiced “social imperialism.”
This historical lesson may suggest that, in the long term, both Russia and North Korea could face challenges when seeking assistance in the pursuit of their principles from the main violator of those principles.
Timo Kivimäki is a Professor of International Relations at the University of Bath (UK) and Senior Non-Resident Fellow at the Sejong Institute (Seoul, Republic of Korea). Professor Kivimäki joined the University of Bath in January 2015. Previously he has held professorships at the University of Helsinki, University of Lapland, and at the University of Copenhagen. Professor Kivimäki has also been director of the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies (Copenhagen) and the Institute of Development Studies of the University of Helsinki.
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