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

The North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is set to make a rare trip to Russia this month to meet his long-time ally Vladimir Putin and discuss potential military aid for the Russian President’s war efforts in Ukraine, according to US officials.

The meeting between the two authoritarian leaders, which sounds like something straight out of a Bond film, is expected to tighten the cooperation between the two countries and help both Jong Un and Putin.

On one hand, Putin needs artillery shells for its invasion of Ukraine which North Korea has the ability to produce, said Fyodor Tertitskiy, a senior research fellow at Kookmin University (Seoul) and an expert in North Korean history and military.

On the other hand, North Korea desperately needs food and humanitarian aid, because its isolation during the pandemic has caused devastating food shortages in the country, Tertitskiy said.

Weapons and humanitarian aid are expected to be the main issues on the table during the two leaders’ meeting. But what does this mean for Russia’s war in Ukraine? Can a deal between North Korea and Russia change the speed or even the direction of the invasion?

‘Nothing will happen’ without Xi Jinping’s approval

Tertitskiy is doubtful that the meeting between Jong Un and Putin will even take place – and that if it does, a meaningful deal could be struck by the two leaders.

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

Tertitskiy believes that there’s a limit to how far the cooperation between Pyongyang and Moscow goes – a limit that bears the name of Xi Jinping, China’s President.

“Nothing will happen unless Xi Jinping gives it a green light,” he said. “But if it does happen and they’ll strike a deal this 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 Jinping in his decisions over sanctions against Pyongyang.

North Korea also has no real trade relations with Russia, and despite his public backing of the invasion of Ukraine and its recognition of Crimea’s independence 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.

Leverage and food in return for weapons

The 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, with Beijing and Moscow keeping close ties and Pyongyang remaining heavily reliant on Beijing.

Any meeting with Putin this month might be the North Korean Supreme Leader’s chance to gain some leverage on a crucial ally and, indirectly, on Beijing too.

What Russia needs in return for this humanitarian help is ammunition for its invasion of Ukraine, and 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, especially given that Russia is using rather obsolete equipment,” he said.

That means that the North Korean artillery – many of which are likely copies of Soviet munitions – would be compatible with the Russian obsolete Soviet systems and wouldn’t need complex adjustments. This, in turn, would help Russia replenish the artillery stock it drained in Ukraine.

Tertitskiy thinks that 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 Ukraine more.” 

But the brutality of the conflict could escalate with the addition of North Korean weapons on the battleground.

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