North Korea Chairman Kim Jong Un just finished an eight-day visit to Russia, his longest overseas trip since assuming power in 2011. Kim personally praised the trip as a “clear manifestation” of his prioritization of ties with Russia. North Korea state media described the trip as an opportunity for the two countries to consolidate “the traditional ties of good neighbor and cooperation” and added that the Russia-North Korea relationship is “based on the comradely friendship and militant unity.” The Russia-North Korea relationship is probably the best it has been since the end of the Cold War.
Keen followers of communist media would pay attention to the phrase “militant unity” in the Korean Central News Agency report. “Militant unity” in communist jargon is often reserved for military allies sharing a common enemy.
Indeed, Kim’s delegation featured a great number of North Korean army officials, notably Jo Chun Ryong, who is in charge of munitions policies and accompanied Kim on several visits to shell and missile factories. Jo’s presence was significant considering the possibility and rumors of North Korea supplying Russia with ammunition for its war in Ukraine in exchange for advanced Russian military technologies, including a reconnaissance satellite, long-range missiles, and drones.
During Kim’s visit, the two countries signaled not only a mutually beneficial arms trade but also a compatible worldview. Kim and Russian President Vladimir Putin saw their common struggle against the United States as a “fight against imperialism.”
But just how far can the revived Russia-North Korea “militant unity” go? Unlike during the Cold War, when North Korea and the Soviet Union were bound by an alliance treaty obliging each side to come to one another’s defense in case of attack, the current manifestation of “militant unity” is devoid of any binding legal basis. The 2000 Russia-North Korea Treaty of Friendship, Good Neighborliness, and Cooperation does not include any binding clauses on automatic mutual military assistance; it only says that both countries will consult with one another when danger arises. This gives Russia and North Korea much leeway to turn a blind eye if either of them does not see any interests in involving itself in a conflict.
And for Russia especially, it must weigh its ties with South Korea as well. The nonbinding nature of the 2000 Russia-North Korea treaty was due to Moscow’s efforts to maintain a “diplomatic equidistance” between North and South Korea. Committing to “militant unity” with Pyongyang would undo most of Russia’s hard work to foster ties with Seoul since the end of the Cold War.
The new “militant unity” between North Korea and Russia is also undermined by Russia’s declining power. The Cold War version of “militant unity” was built on the Soviet Union’s rising power and its confidence in competing for global influence in the 1960s – not only against the United States but also against China. Moscow was committed to North Korea’s security not because of the U.S. military presence in South Korea but because of Moscow’s concern for rival Communist China’s influence in North Korea.
That is hardly the case with Putin’s Russia, when the country is being bogged down in Ukraine and facing international isolation. Russia has neither the capability nor the intention to compete for influence in Asia. Russia is increasingly dependent on China and it makes little sense for Moscow to compete against its closest partner in China’s sphere of influence at a time when it needs Chinese support for the war in Ukraine. Consequently, Russia will not feel any pressure to provide North Korea with sensitive military technologies to compete against anyone, which may disappoint Kim.
Some analysts have expressed concern that China may have watched the Kim-Putin summit with consternation, for it gives Kim an alternative option to lessen North Korea’s dependence on China. However, such a view overlooks the fact that North Korea has already recognized China as its most important security partner. Unlike Russia, China is North Korea’s only treaty ally. Kim has met Chinese President Xi Jinping five times in 2018 and 2019, more than any other foreign leader; importantly, those meetings typically occurred before Kim’s summits with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and/or U.S. President Donald Trump.
The Kim-Putin summit may have brought the two countries closer, but not necessarily at China’s expense, because China currently maintains cordial relations with both Russia and North Korea. Putin is expected to visit Beijing next month, and before Kim visited Russia, he met Chinese Vice Premier Liu Guozhong during the celebration of North Korea’s 75th foundation anniversary on September 9.
It is worth remembering that Soviet leader Joseph Stalin did not agree to send ground troops to his ally, North Korea. Instead, he delegated the responsibility to China, which bore most of the brunt of fighting and defending North Korea’s security in the immediate years after the Korean War. Stalin believed that the Soviet Union should prioritize events in Europe and not Asia; that focus has not changed. It is hard to imagine that Putin would send Russian troops to any Korean contingency at a time when he is seeking to protect Russia’s western front against the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
This is a natural disadvantage that leaves Russia unable to compete with China when it comes to influence in North Korea. Beyond helping North Korea undermine international sanctions and providing it with advanced military technologies, the latter of which is doubtful, there is little Moscow can do to guarantee North Korea’s security. Although they share a small land border, Russia and North Korea do not have a common strategic focus simply because of geography.
Arms trade is thus the most likely form of mutual support between Russia and North Korea. Russia is more likely to sell North Korea advanced weaponry and help it modernize its aging warplanes rather than to completely transfer those technologies. This explains why North Korean hackers breached Russian weapon makers’ computers to steal their military secrets.
If the arms trade is the most suitable form of mutual assistance, the quality of North Korea’s weapon supply poses another challenge. The country can at best produce Cold War-era unguided ammunition, which can fit Russian artillery, not smart ammunition like South Korea can produce and supply to the United States for use in Ukraine. Russia can do a makeover for those Cold War weapons to make them “smart,” but the United States has assessed that North Korean ammunition could not be a game changer on the battlefield.
Importantly, because unguided ammunition is the only help Pyongyang can provide, the North Korea-Russia “militant unity” is susceptible to Russia’s dire need for war materiel. If the war in Ukraine is somehow managed, removing Russia’s demand for ammunition, that will decrease Putin’s dependence on North Korea.
The North Korea-Russia “militant unity” is more of an ad hoc coalition rather than a security alliance reminiscent of the Cold War. As Kim and Putin’s Cold War predecessors knew too well, fighting imperialism needs more than just photo ops, bombastic rhetoric, and outdated ammunition. The revival of “militant unity” better reflects Moscow and Pyongyang’s perception of their past, not of their present and future.