Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un shake hands during their meeting in Vladivostok, Russia on April 25, 2019.

North Korea-Russia relations are warming up amid war in Ukraine

Russia’s relationship with North Korea goes back decades. Now, there are reports that Russia is getting military assistance from North Korea amid the war in Ukraine. Yet, both governments deny it. 

The World

The Russian military has been steadily losing ground in Ukraine for months. That’s despite the fact the Kremlin has mobilized tens of thousands of new recruits for the war. 

Moscow is also getting help from abroad. Iran is supplying Russia with drones. And, according to Western officials, the Iranians are providing ballistic missiles as well. 

Now, there are reports that Russia is getting assistance from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea — or North Korea — as well, with the country providing artillery shells, rockets and winter military uniforms to Russia. 

Yet, both governments deny it. 

“We have information that despite the public denials that we’ve heard from the DPRK, that the DPRK is covertly supplying Russia’s war in Ukraine, with a significant number of artillery shells,” US State Department spokesperson Ned Price said earlier this month.

Russia’s relationship with the country goes back decades.

Sung-yoon Lee, who teaches Korean politics and foreign relations at the Fletcher School at Tufts University, said that the role of the Soviet Union is crucial to the history of North Korea. 

Kim Il-sung, the founder of the North Korean state, was glorified by the former Soviet Union. Kim was an officer in the Soviet Army. After World War II, Joseph Stalin chose Kim to be the leader of North Korea, and supported his decision to invade South Korea in 1950. 

“The Soviet Union became thereafter North Korea’s most important supporter militarily, politically and, perhaps most importantly, economically, throughout the Cold War,” Lee said. 

That relationship was not always smooth. And with the fall of the Soviet Union, relations between Russia and North Korea cooled down a lot.

But a decade later, that changed. Pyongyang rolled out the red carpet for Vladimir Putin when he became the first top leader of either the Soviet Union or Russia to visit North Korea, Lee said. During that visit, crowds at the airport cheered and waved Russian and North Korean flags to welcome Putin. Lee said this was the start of a new era of warmer relations between Russia and North Korea.

“When it comes to security matters, the two nations have always been partners, and with Putin’s dreadful war in Ukraine, the old dynamics of the Cold War — Russia, China, North Korea on one side, and the United States, South Korea and Japan on the other side — this Cold War rift has come back,” Lee explained.

He said it makes sense for Kim Il-sung’s grandson, Kim Jong-un, to be supplying Putin with military equipment.  

Fyodor Tertitskiy agrees. He’s a researcher at Kookmin University in South Korea, where he studies the North Korean military.

Tertitskiy said the Russian military has lost a lot of its modern equipment in Ukraine, and it’s now using older artillery and tanks.

“For that, you need ammunition, and North Korea uses a lot of Soviet equipment, and North Korea can supply exactly this kind of ammunition which might have been provided to them by the USSR ironically,” he said.

Tertitskiy said North Korea needs the cash, as well as oil, food and humanitarian assistance from Russia. And the country is very military industry-oriented, putting it in a good position to provide military hardware. 

Tertitsky said there’s reason to be skeptical — there hasn’t been a smoking gun, or concrete evidence that North Korea is supplying Russia with lots of weaponry. 

But, he said, the fact that these reports are so believable says something about the state of Russia’s military and its war in Ukraine.

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