Impact of N. Korea-Russia cooperation likely to be limited but should not be overlooked: experts

SEOUL, North Korea and Russia’s move to strengthen their military ties following the rare summit between their leaders may benefit the two isolated countries in the short term but is unlikely to have a lasting or fundamental impact on the economic and political front, experts said Wednesday.

The assessment followed Washington’s revelation that Pyongyang had sent more than 1,000 containers of military equipment and munitions to Moscow for its use in the war against Ukraine. Britain’s defense ministry later said it is “almost certain” that North Korean munitions have arrived in western Russia.

In return, North Korea apparently wants Russia to transfer high-tech weapons technology, such as a military spy satellite and a nuclear-powered submarine, as it is pushing to advance its nuclear and missile programs.

“Russia is unlikely to provide something major in exchange for the artillery shells. It may supply some energy and food assistance, or dated weapons technology, but providing high-tech weapons technology would be too big of a loss for Russia,” Kim Byeong-yeon, an economics professor at Seoul National University, said in a forum hosted by the unification ministry and the state-run Korean Institute for National Unification.

Kim said even if ties between North Korea and Russia normalize, it would have a very low “synergy” in terms of economic benefit.

“Russia may turn a blind eye on North Korean workers in the country or conduct energy trade, but there is not enough demand for trade that would substitute that with China,” Kim said, forecasting that even if the North’s economic growth turns around on the back of improved ties with Russia, it would not be sustained.

This illustration depicts a suspected arms agreement between North Korea and Russia.

Junya Nishino, a political science professor at Japan’s Keio University, echoed the view.

“The current Russia-North Korea cooperation is the result of Russia’s predicament following its attack on Ukraine,” Nishino said, stressing such ties are “temporary and expedient” rather than “solid.”

“In the long-term perspective, the North’s relationship with China is still much more important than that with Russia.”

Still, some experts warned that the impact of changes on the geopolitical front should not be overlooked.

Troy Stangarone, senior director at the Korea Economic Institute, said Pyongyang’s strengthening ties with Russia, alongside its recovering trade with China, provide some “breathing space” for the recalcitrant regime.

Stangarone forecast the North’s supply of munitions to rake in around US$300 million to $600 million per million artillery shells, given that Russia, which is in need of 8 million shells on an annual basis, is unlikely to pay top value for the artillery shells that would cost $600 or less per shell.

“So when you fold that in with increased trade with China, when you fold in their cryptocurrency thefts, there is a very strong revenue stream coming in for North Korea that allows them to take and purchase the things they need to purchase,” he said.

“You know we are in a changing geographic and geopolitical situation and North Korea is taking advantage of that. It’s in a better position than it was three years ago … I think that’s the real challenge that we face,” Stangarone said.

Andrei Lankov, a political science professor at Kookmin University, agreed that the slew of changes has consequently eased the burden on the North.

“A new era has begun and we don’t know when it will end. The most important factor that has emerged is the Sino-U.S. rivalry,” Lankov said. “North Korea had to engage in very complicated diplomacy over the past 20-30 years to resolve its economic difficulties, now it doesn’t.”

Source: Yonhap News Agency