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What can North Korea do for Russia - and can Moscow return the favour?

Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un shake hands during a meeting.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un shake hands during a meeting. Copyright Euronews
Copyright Euronews
By Giulia Carbonaro
Published on Updated
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Isolated on the world stage, both Moscow and Pyongyang need each other now more than ever.

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North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un arrived in Russia on Tuesday morning before an expected meeting with his long-time ally Vladimir Putin

A range of topics are expected to be on the agenda, ranging from defence to humanitarian aid. 

But what exactly do the two need from one another? 

朝鮮通信社/KCNA via KNS
This Sept. 10, 2023 photo provided by the North Korean government shows that North Korea leader Kim Jong Un waves from a train in Pyongyang as he leaves for Russia.朝鮮通信社/KCNA via KNS

Up for discussion on Tuesday will be potential military aid for the Russian president’s war effort in Ukraine, according to US officials.

Aboard his personal bulletproof train bound for Russia, Kim was joined by top military officials handling his nuclear-capable weapons and munitions factories, together with an unspecified number of members of the country's ruling party and government. 

The presence of military officials fuels speculations the North Korean leader is seeking  Russian technology to support his plans to build advanced weapons, including nuclear-powered submarines and spy satellites. 

While the date and the location of the meeting between Kim and Putin are not yet known, they are expected to boost cooperation in a mutually beneficial way. 

On one hand, Putin needs artillery shells for his invasion of Ukraine - something North Korea can produce, according to Fyodor Tertitskiy, expert in North Korean history and military.

On the other hand, Pyongyang desperately needs food and humanitarian aid. 

Its isolation during the COVID pandemic has caused devastating food shortages in the country, Tertitskiy explained to Euronews.

‘Nothing will happen’ without Xi Jinping’s approval

Tertitskiy is doubtful a meaningful deal could be struck by the two leaders, however.

“I’m not sure they will agree on anything, actually,” he told Euronews.

Tertitskiy believes there is a limit to how far the cooperation between Pyongyang and Moscow can go - a limit called Xi Jinping, China's president.

“Nothing will happen unless Xi Jinping gives it a green light,” he said. “But if it does happen... they’ll strike a deal [that will be] about the war in Ukraine.”

According to Tertitskiy, “North Korea’s goal will be to get at least something from Russia, because if you look at the actual trade balance for 2022 it was zero,” he said. “North Korea is currently in great need of assistance of various types, first of all food.”

In the past 20 years, Russia has followed China’s lead on North Korea, with Putin backing up Xi over sanctions on Pyongyang.

Despite his public support of the Ukraine invasion and recognition of Crimea’s annexation by Russia in 2014, Pyongyang has not reaped any real economic benefit from siding with Moscow, said Tertitskiy.

China still provides most of the economic trade North Korea depends on.

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Leverage and food in return for weapons

A trilateral coalition between North Korea, China, and Russia against the West (and South Korea) which Kim Jong Un might be dreaming of has so far eluded him.

Yet, at the possible meeting with Putin, the North Korean Supreme Leader may get the chance to gain some leverage on a crucial ally and, indirectly, on Beijing too.

What Russia needs in return is ammunition. And lots of it. 

This is something North Korea can produce these in “plentiful amounts,” Tertitskiy said.

“North Korea has a huge military industry. They have lots and lots of stuff that the military industry is constantly manufacturing. And artillery is very important to North Korea, so I think they’d probably supply something directly to Russia,” he said.

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North Korean artillery - much of which copies Soviet munitions - is compatible with Russia's aging Soviet systems and wouldn’t need complex adjustments. 

This is especially handy for Russia to replenish artillery stocks drained in Ukraine.

Tertitskiy thinks a deal between Pyongyang and Moscow is “unlikely” to significantly change the course of the war in Ukraine, because North Korea’s willingness to help Russia will incentivise the West to aid Kyiv more.” 

But the brutality of the conflict could escalate with the North Korean weapons added into the mix.

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