How North Korea became Russia’s ally
North Korea continues to support Russia almost a year after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Kim Yo-Jong, sister of the country’s leader Kim Jong-un and a senior figure in the country’s ruling Workers’ Party, promised last month that Pyongyang would always “stand in the same trench as the Russian army.” Could we call North Korea an ally of Russia? How is North Korea’s media reporting the war? Is it true that North Korean workers are being sent to occupied eastern Ukraine? The Bell discussed all this with Andrei Lankov, a professor at Seoul’s Kunmin University and one of the world’s leading experts on the secretive “hermit nation.” Here’s what he had to say:
- Russia is engaged in a major conflict with the west and is now guided by a familiar geopolitical principle: the enemy of my enemy is my friend, Lankov said. Pyongyang is susceptible to the same idea, even though a few years ago Russia joined UN sanctions. Generally speaking, the Kremlin’s only concern is North Korea’s nuclear program, which has the potential to establish a dangerous precedent and erode Russia’s status as a nuclear power, according to Lankov.
- Today, Lankov said, North Korea is simply a situational ally for Russia. The relationship between the countries is entirely pragmatic: Moscow can ask Pyongyang for weapons and ammunition (for many years North Korea produced huge quantities of ammunition for Soviet artillery systems), or to recognize annexed territory in Ukraine. In return, Pyongyang can rely on Russian support as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. In May, for example, Russia vetoed further UN sanctions against North Korea.
- North Korea’s newspapers write nothing about the war in Ukraine. Since the start of 2020, the country’s leaders decided news from the outside world should be as brief as possible. Now, though, things could change, according to Lankov. Kim Yo-Jong’s speech was quite unusual as North Korean leaders very rarely make explicit statements about conflicts far from home.
- Earlier this month, there was great excitement over a story that North Korea might send workers to Russian-occupied eastern Ukraine. Lankov feels there is a good chance this story could be true. Traditionally, many North Koreans were willing to pay bribes to get work in Russia because it generates a good income. On the other hand, most likely we are talking about workers already in Russia. Since the start of the pandemic, North Korea has closed its borders. With no international air traffic, it is not possible for a new workforce to reach other countries.
- Some Russian commentators fear Russia could turn into North Korea, but Lankov does not believe this likely. Firstly, the North Korean system emerged from a popular revolution. Russia’s power vertical, by contrast, was developed over a longer period after democratic elections. Secondly, North Korea is a small country with a rigid hierarchy and a population steeped in Confucian principles and reverence for their superiors. Russia is not like that. “The country is too big, too complicated and too diverse,” Lankov said. “If I was looking for an equivalent, I’d be more inclined to look at Iran.”
Why the world should care
Media outlets have reported on growing cooperation between Russia and North Korea in recent months. However, these countries are a long way from any fully-fledged alliance. At the moment, it helps both sides to offer symbolic support to one another against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine and Russia’s international isolation.