Russia wants to strengthen ties with neighboring North Korea. North Korean state media reported that Vladimir Putin wrote in a letter to his counterpart Kim Jong-un that it is in the interests of both countries to seek further rapprochement. An alliance between the countries would certainly not bode well for North Korea, which is recovering from two years of corona isolation.
The cooperation between the two countries would primarily provide military support to Russia. “This is about practical help, assistance and extra people in the occupied Ukrainian regions. North Korea is one of the few countries in the world that officially recognizes these republics. They must be built and strengthened. When Putin deploys Russians there and they die, it’s not good for Putin. Therefore, it is more convenient for him to deploy North Korean workers. They are cheaper and do a good job, and you don’t see them in the statistics of fallen soldiers in Russia’, says professor of Korean studies Remco Breuker from Leiden University.
North Korea also has much to gain from better ties with Russia. ‘For the North Korean soldiers, it is extremely valuable training if they go that way. They are probably paid and equipped by Russia. It would not be the first time since the Yom Kippur war in Syria that North Korean soldiers have fought with.’ According to Breuker, however, Putin should not count on arms supplies. “I find it difficult to imagine that, because North Korea is counterfeiting Russian weapons. It must be very bad if Russia wants to fight with it.’
For North Korea, cooperation is also economically attractive. “North Korea needs foreign money and access to foreign markets. If Russia and North Korea strengthen ties, it will open doors for the Kim Jong-un regime to benefit from access to Russian markets and markets in other parts of the world.” In addition, according to Breuker, the country would no longer stand alone. “North Korea can become a partner in a kind of informal anti-UN, with countries like Russia, Syria, Belarus and China, other unfree countries. It would be a huge boost for the North Korean regime.’
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South Korean example
An alliance could mean that the North follows the South’s example. “After the Korean War, South Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world, even poorer than North Korea. One of the ways to rebuild that economy was by sending workers abroad, but also by supplying mercenaries to the US military in Vietnam: about 350,000 during the war there. So much money has been made that it has been one of the key factors in South Korea’s economic miracle. It cannot have gone unnoticed in Pyongyang.’
North Korea has a more difficult relationship with China. The country is hugely dependent on China, which sees North Korea as an important buffer between China and South Korea. With new President Yoon Suk-yeol, the country is much more clearly pro-American than its predecessor, so South Korea is the geographic beginning of the Western world for China. Breuker finds it difficult to predict what China will do in the event of intensified cooperation between North Korea and Russia. ‘It can go either way. Either China is not happy about it and the relationship is cooling, or a more mature relationship is developing between the three countries. In fact, I suspect the latter will be the case.’
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Breuker expects North Korea, bolstered by improved relations with Russia, to use tougher rhetoric against the West. “They have learned a clear lesson from the Russian invasion, which is that if you have nuclear weapons, you can go very far without anyone harming you. North Korea has nuclear weapons, so I suspect a harsher tone.’ North Korea is often laughed at in the West, but according to Breuker, it is wise to take the Kim regime seriously. “A country as ridiculous as North Korea can certainly exert serious political influence. What they’re doing is working, I’m afraid. The party in North Korea has been in power for more than 70 years. It’s a model that works and which causes a lot of suffering. It is important not to underestimate what is going on there.”
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