July 27, 2023, was the 70th anniversary of the official end of the Korean War. In the DPRK this date is widely celebrated, and this year one of the main events in the ceremonies was the arrival of a Russian delegation, led by Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu.
On July 25, the DPRK’s official press agency, KCNA reported: “At the invitation of the Ministry of National Defense of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), a military delegation of the Russian Federation led by Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu will pay a congratulatory visit to the DPRK on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the victory in the Great Fatherland Liberation War.” The report continues: “the visit will mark an important occasion in further developing the traditional friendly relations between the DPRK and Russia in keeping with the demand of the times.”
Sergey Shoygu was met at the airport by the DPRS’s Defense Minister Kang Sun-nam, the Chief of the General Political Bureau of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) Jong Kyong-thaek, the Chief of the General Staff of the KPA, Park Su-il, and the Vice Foreign Minister, Im Chon-il, as well as the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Russian Federation to the DPRK, Alexander Matsegora and other embassy staff.
On July 26, Sergey Shoygu laid a wreath at the Liberation Monument, which commemorates “the martyrs of the Soviet Army who unsparingly dedicated their lives to the sacred war for Korea’s liberation in the noble internationalist spirit” and also – as North Korean protocol dictates – at the foot of the statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il on Mansu Hill.
The delegation also visited the Mangyongdae memorial complex, which marks the birthplace of Kim Il-sung. Sergey Shoigu wrote a greeting in the Visitors Book: “The Mangyongdae Revolutionary Site is a visual testimony to the deep and sincere respect of the DPRK’s people for President Kim Il-sung, who built the first independent state in Korea and laid a foundation for the friendly relations between our two countries. I wish the people of the DPRK peace, well-being and fresh successes in building a socialist state!”.
On the same day Sergey Shoygu and Kang Sun-nam led talks, in which Jong Kyong-thaek and Im Chon-il, as well as the Russian Defense Minister Aleksey Krivoruchko and Deputy Foreign Minister Andrey Rudenko also participated. This is significantly, since shortly before the visit to the DPRK, Andrey Rudenko had a meeting with South Korean special envoy Chang Ho-jin , who held the post of ambassador of the Republic of Korea in Moscow until April 2023, and Aleksey Krivoruchko formerly served as the CEO of the Kalashnikov Concern and now supervises the organization of military and technical support for the Russian Armed Forces and is responsible for planning the development of weapons, military and special-purpose equipment.
As for the content of the talks, the media of both countries merely reported that “the participants discussed questions relating to the further development of strategic ties and the traditionally friendly relations between North Korea and Russia, in accordance with their history of mutual understanding… The parties exchanged opinions of mutual concern related to both regional and global issues, and reached an agreement on all points.”
The talks were followed by a reception in which, and a reception was held, at which Kang Sun-nam made a speech in which he stated that Sergei Shoigu’s visit “will serve as a significant occasion in demonstrating the might of the militant unity of the armies and peoples of the two countries, established in the historic struggle against the common enemy and further consolidated in the common front against the hostile forces’ moves for a war of aggression”. He added that “the present conflicting international military and political situation requires the armies of the two countries to resolutely stand against the U.S. brigandish strategy for world supremacy and further strengthen their mutual cooperation and collaboration on the principle of defending national sovereignty and interests”, and expressed support for the “Russian army and people just struggle to protect their country’s sovereignty and security”.
Sergey Shoygu met the leader of the DPRK several times during his visit. Firstly, Kim Jong-un and Sergey Shoygu visited the Weaponry Exhibition-2023, held to mark the anniversary of the end of the Korean War. Kim Jong-un explained to Sergei Shoigu about the weaponry and military hardware being developed under the defense plan approved in the 8th Congress of the WPK and recently issued to the KPA, and talked to him about global trends and arms development strategies.
The two parties had plenty to discuss. The photographs and videos published by the PDRK media show a wide range of weaponry, including ICBMs and a drone that appears to be modelled on the US Global Hawk surveillance aircraft.
According to the KCNA, during their conversation the DPRK leader “expressed his views on matters of mutual concern in relation to the struggle against the violence and lawlessness of imperialists, the upholding of the sovereignty and development interests of both the countries, and the achieving of international justice and peace”, and expressed confidence that the Russian army and people will achieve great success in their struggle to build a strong state.
And the on July 26, Kim Jong-un held an official reception for the members of the Russian military delegation at the headquarters of the Central Committee of the WPK. The head of the Russian delegation handed Kim Jong-un a personal letter from Russian President Vladimir Putin, and then both parties “shared cherished memories of the deep-rooted history of friendship between Russia and North Korea and assessed issues of mutual interest relating to defense and security, including the regional and international security situations, exchanged views and came to a shared understanding”.
In their meeting in the headquarters of the Central Committee of the WPK, Kim Jong-un and Sergey Shoygu discussed “a number of issues in depth in order further develop tactical-strategic assistance and cooperation between the two countries on defense and security.”
Thirdly, Kim Jong-un took part in a military parade, which was attended by the Russian delegation. The parade included a demonstration of the Hwasong-17 and Hwasong-18 intercontinental ballistic missiles, unmanned reconnaissance aircraft and unmanned attack aircraft – but, for the sake of concision, we will discuss the hardware shown to the Russian Defense Minister article at the exhibition and the parade in a separate article.
Kim Jong-un and Sergey Shoygu also met at an official reception and concert to mark “Victory Day” – the 70th anniversary of the end of the Korean War. Most of the country’s military leadership, including the commanders of major units of the Armed Forces, were present at the reception. Lee Byong-chol made a speech in which he stressed that “this visit is an occasion that clearly demonstrates the strength of our two countries’ cohesion and solidarity, which has been achieved, at the cost of blood, by following a shared path in order to realize a common ideal and achieving a mutual goal, and which is becoming stronger day by day.” For the author, it is significant that the language of friendship sealed by the shedding of blood, which until now has been used to describe relations between the DPRK and the PRC (and a reflection of China’s support during the Korean War) is now being used in relation to Russia.
In the speech which he made in response, Sergey Shoygu sincerely congratulated the North Korean people on the 70th anniversary of the victory in the Great Fatherland Liberation War (as the Korean War is known in the PDRK) and stressed that the KPA had honorably inherited the combat traditions of the Baekdusan guerrilla unit led by Kim Il-sung, and, closely united around its Supreme Commander-in-Chief, had become the world’s strongest army.
The delegation left the country on June 27, and its departure was marked with no less ceremony – including the singing of anthems, the presence of guards-of-honor etc. – than the meeting itself.
Alongside the Russian delegation, the DPRK also hosted a visit by a Chinese delegation headed by Li Hongzhong, a member of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and the Vice Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress. We will discuss this visit in a separate article, and here confine ourselves to commenting that this is the first time that foreign delegations have visited North Korea since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
At a time when many are expecting to see a change in South Korea’s policy in relation to Ukraine (Yoon is still holding out, but…), the visit of the Russian military delegation to the DPRK raised many questions about whether the two countries would discuss any military cooperation (and if so, what specific issues). Especially in view of the fact that Krivoruchko was Aleksey, spotted among the members of the delegation.
The U.S. Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, expressed his view quite directly: “We’re seeing Russia desperately looking for support, for weapons, wherever it can find them to continue to prosecute its aggression against Ukraine. We see that in North Korea ….” Principal Deputy Spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State, Vedant Patel, has also suggested that the Russian and Chinese delegations’ visits to Pyongyang are connected with their support for North Korea’s unlawful weapons development programs, which pose serious threats to regional peace, and that Russia and China should use their influence over Pyongyang instead to help rein in North Korea’s destabilizing activities.
The South Korean media, commenting on the meeting, also speculated that “the two sides may have discussed the provision of North Korean weapons to Russia to support Moscow’s war with Ukraine”, and, following that, on July 27, the Republic of Korea’s Foreign Ministry stressed that any trade in armaments between North Korea and other countries would constitute a violation of a UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution.
As we have seen in the past, rumors of North Korea providing assistance with shells or even troops are not uncommon, and such claims have been made both in anti-Pyongyang propaganda and by certain Russian “patriotic” sources. More level-headed analysts confine themselves to noting the great potential for military cooperation, and the fact that much of the DPRK’s artillery systems and ammunition are compatible with Russian-made equipment. According to their estimates, “if we compare the current capabilities of North Korea and the EU, our eastern neighbor alone has the potential to provide Russia with more munitions than the entire EU combined”.
In relation to this issue, the present author will allow himself to speculate, in purely abstract terms, about how, if the situation develops further, military or paramilitary cooperation between the two countries might potentially unfold in the future.
Such cooperation could vary in extent, depending on how far the Russian leadership chose to ignore the sanctions imposed by the UNSC. Although, in the current period of global turbulence, the importance of this organization is declining, and the sanctions are seen as aimed at exerting an economically stranglehold over the DPRK, Russia voted for these sanctions in the Security Council, and thus any open violation of them might entail a number of serious risks, including potential attempts to change the structure of the Security Council and deprive Russia does of its right of veto. These potential consequences cannot simply be ignored.
Another factor, which the author is unable to discuss due to lack of data, relates to whether, given the state of the special military operation, any outside assistance is required.
Measures involving military or paramilitary cooperation, some of which the author has already referred to, can be divided into four categories:
The first category includes measures that could be tried today, given the vague wording of some of the sanctions resolutions.
- Russia could to start conducting joint maritime rescue drills with the DPRK, comparable to those conducted with China, and this would not breach the UNSC sanctions.
- This also applies to contacts between military personnel, rather than the armed forces themselves. For example, if the borders are gradually opened, then it would be possible for a group of Russian military officers to visit the DPRK as tourists and visit, among other sites, the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum, where they could share their thoughts on the current situation.
- It might also be worth looking at various options for expanding educational cooperation between the militaries of the two countries, which are currently limited to language internship exchanges for students in military colleges. In addition to improving language learning, such exchanges are important as they enable the two countries to forming a realistic understanding of each other, and train personnel who could then participate in other forms or other types of cooperation.
- Representatives of the DPRK could also be included among the military correspondents permitted to visiting areas where the special military operation is under away, subject to appropriate restrictions.
The second category includes measures than could be taken in the near future, if the decision were made to secretly violate the sanctions regime.
- This would involve the unofficial (at this stage) presence of North Korean military observers in areas where the special military operation is under away, and / or allowing them to study captured US or South Korean military hardware.
- North Korean military construction workers have demonstrated their ability to build civilian facilities quickly, for example in 2016 and 2020, when many people were left homeless as a result of natural disasters (typhoons), and large numbers of apartments needed to be built urgently before the beginning of winter. Following the accession to Russia of four regions with destroyed infrastructure, and the arrival of large numbers of refugees from conflicts, a great deal of new housing needs to be constructed. When the People’s Republic of Luhansk existed as an independent republic, the DPRK expressed interest in contributing to the reconstruction of the region, and in August 2022, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin was open to the possibility of involving builders from the DPRK in the reconstruction of the Donbass.
- Military and technical cooperation involving the two countries’ studying each others’ technology and equipment construction plans, but not extending to actual arms deliveries. This would, in effect, involve the exchange of ideas that each country could use in the construction of its own equipment.
The third category involves steps that could be taken if, for some reason, the decision were made to abandon the sanctions altogether, in favor of full-scale military cooperation. Many of the following actions would be a clear violation of the UNSC sanctions, which is not at present in Moscow’s interests.
- Firstly, this would be the supply of armaments (for more details, see Vladimir Khrustalyov’s text, in which he sets out in detail what weapons and ammunition could be useful in Donbass and why). But is should be remembered that the only railway bridge crossing the border between Russia and the DPRK has a limited capacity, and any increased traffic would be observed by enemy reconnaissance satellites.
- The training specialists from the DPRK in military academies and seminars organized to chare experience. There has also been talk of captured weapons being transferred to the DPRK.
- The military construction workers mentioned above could be used to construct dual-use facilities, including roads or other essential infrastructure that could also serve as fortifications, including underground facilities. However, if such activity were detected, it could provoke accusations of complicity in military action.
Finally, in the fourth category, the author includes steps that he considers should not be taken except in dire necessity, and the consequences of such a decision, both domestically and internationally, could outweigh any benefits.
- So, direct military assistance, including the sending of “volunteers”, should not be considered. Firstly, any involvement by the KPA in the special military operation would raise a great many problems, including logistical and language challenges. Secondly, public opinion in Russia would strongly disapprove of the presence of a large contingent from a third country, which would be seen as an admission that Russia’s own forces are insufficient for it to beat Ukraine. Thirdly, the appearance of “volunteers” on one side would leave the other side to take similar steps, and the collective West would find it easier and more convenient to send an equally large and well armed contingent to Ukraine. Fourthly, any additional international involvement in the conflict may exacerbate regional tensions in Southeast Asia.
- For Russia to supply North Korea with its most advanced weaponry would raise a host of practical problems, and it is not clear what purpose such a step would serve, beyond just “making things difficult for South Korea.”
The above speculations by the author are purely hypothetical. We do not know what Sergey Shoygu and his counterpart from the DPRK really agreed on, but it may be that we will soon find out. In any event, the visit by such a senior delegation is a direct demonstration of Pyongyang’s support for Moscow, and a sign of a close alliance between the two countries.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of China and Modern Asia at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”