Author: Harry Bennett


As 2024 kicked off, the White House confirmed a fresh security concern arising from the war in Ukraine: Declassified information was revealed noting that Russia was using North Korean short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) to attack Ukrainian targets.

Sources from the Biden administration have stated that North Korea provided Russia with artillery shells, rockets and ballistic missiles. Commenting further, Defence Minister of South Korea, Shin Won-sik, has suggested that North Korea has supplied 7,000 containers filled with 152mm/122mm artillery rounds and other military equipment to Russia over the last year.

In addition to the supply of weaponry to aid Russia in Ukraine, the Russia-DPRK relationship has begun to flourish into a deeper cultural and economic relationship, which signifies the shared isolationism that the two countries hold. In late March of 2024, Russia displayed this on-going relationship on the international stage by vetoing a United Nations Security Council resolution that would have extended the 14 year long North Korea UN Panel of Experts mandate. The move to veto the resolution may be closely tied to the on-going illegal arms dealing between the two countries, which Russia would not wish to be scrutinised even further.  In addition to political manoeuvring on the international stage, the two countries have also engaged in the trade of goods, such as oil, despite the current sanctions. The two countries have engaged in diplomatic meetings and made further steps to boost cultural adjournment; for example, in February of 2024, North Korea opened its borders for the first time since the outbreak of COVID-19 to a group of 100 Russian nationals.

The aim of this article is to contextualise the motivation of both Russia and North Korea in exacerbating their bilateral relationship. The article will also summarise the potential future development of the on-going relationship, and the security concerns that such a relationship has and will inflict on Europe and the Indo-Pacific region.

Russia’s motivation:

Russia’s motivation for warming its relationship with North Korea has two core elements. First and foremost, Russia is involved in an active conflict in Ukraine. With conflict comes the need for ammunition and missiles, which North Korea is able to supply at short notice.

More potently however, the increased formality of the relationship signifies a further attempt by Russia to reshape the global order that has existed since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Essentially, North Korea and Russia perceive themselves as sharing a common threat, as both states view NATO expansion on their border and American hegemony over the global order as a direct security threat to their national interests. It is therefore within Russia’s interest to bring those states with a shared common threat into the war in Ukraine through alternative means. As with North Korea, Russia has also stepped up its relationship with Iran, and accepted 400 Shahed 136 drones to be used in attacks against Kyiv and across Ukraine. Likewise, the emerging anti-western coalition that is present within the now globalised Ukraine War is a suitable partnership for China, who itself has signified its own imperial interests within the Asia Pacific.

Commenting on the coalition taking place in Ukraine, Professor Niall Ferguson described what emerged in 2022-2023 as the beginning of “Cold War 2.0”. While America and the European Union come to the aid of Ukraine, it is not within the interest of the Russian Federation to stand alone in the war, and therefore unofficial arms dealing and closer ties with Pyongyang are within its geopolitical interests. In addition, by warming its relationship with the DPRK, Russia is signalling to the Western sphere that any attempt to counter Russian foreign policy objectives will be met with a more unified multipolar world, united in challenging American dominance.

North Korea’s motivation:

The alignment between Russia and North Korea also serves a significant purpose for the powers that be in Pyongyang. In warming the relationship, North Korea has two clear diplomatic objectives; the first is to branch out from its over reliant relationship with China, and the second is to disrupt American hegemony. In the eyes of General Secretary Kim Jong Un, the latter of these points is vital to the security of North Korea, which views the threat of American influence on the Korean DMZ line as mirroring that of Russia’s perceived threat of NATO on the Ukraine-Russia border. In addition, by suppling weapons to be used in an active conflict in Ukraine, Pyongyang is able to obtain data that it would not be able to obtain purely from its own testing of missiles. The war in Ukraine therefore serves as a testing ground for North Korea to boost its own military intelligence in preparation for a potential conflict on the Korean Peninsula or in the wider Indo-Pacific region. As noted by National Security Council spokesperson John Kirkby, North Korea may also be using the relationship as an opportunity to obtain fighter aircraft, surface-to-air missiles, armoured vehicles, and other war materials from Russia.

Alongside the DPRK’s diplomatic objectives, the warming of DPRK-Russian relations has aided North Korea in its own domestic agenda. Prolonged COVID-19 restrictions and international sanctions have resulted in a catastrophic economic environment within the state. While North Korea does not release its own economic data, predictions from international observers outline that 60% of the country is believed to be living under the poverty line – with the economy having declined drastically over the last five years, hitting a contracting low of 4.5% in 2020. Anwita Basu, Head of Europe at Country Risk at Fitch Solutions, described the arms transfer as a ‘’mega deal’’ for Pyongyang, which will see the North Korean economy grow by 1% in 2024. Alongside economic growth, the agreement has seen North Korea receiving food and advanced technology to aid the state with its own domestic agenda.  In March 2024, it was reported that, following a satellite investigation, Russia has began supplying oil to the DPRK, with an initial five tankers arriving from Vostochny port.


While arms trading continues, it is at this moment unclear whether a formal arms treaty will be signed between Russia and North Korea. In order for this to happen, both sides may wait until after the 2024 American Presidential Election, so as to gauge the consensus in the North Atlantic. A personnel change in the White House could accelerate the possibility of a diplomatic end to the Russia invasion of Ukraine, which in turn may freeze Russian interest in warming their alliance with the DPRK. In addition, before a formal agreement, Russia must assess the political consensus of such an agreement; giving thought to how such a public demonstration of financial and political friendship towards sanctioned North Korea may affect wider geopolitical relationships. North Korea must also be weary of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s approach to such an agreement. Any potential formal agreement may rest on China’s relationship with Russia and its position on the war in Ukraine.

In the short term, however, Putin may act on his word to visit North Korea, and collaboration between the states may advance from arms trading towards a sharing of cyber intelligence and other sensitive technologies. Overall, the current relationship has already aided Russian military objectives in Ukraine, and will continue to affect the security dynamics in East Asia. The development of the relationship possesses serious security challenges for both Europe and Asia, which may act as a catalyst for Japan and South Korea to request further American security measures in the region.