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[All Politics is Global] Escalating Russia-North Korea Arms Trade a Critical Security Threat

North Korea and Russia continue to trade arms in flagrant breach of UN resolutions, threatening regional security and raising weapons proliferation risks.



FILE PHOTO: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un meets Russia's President Vladimir Putin at the Vostochny ?osmodrome in the Amur Oblast of the Far East Region, Russia, September 13, 2023 in this image released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency. (Adapted from ©KCNA via REUTERS)

North Korean Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui was in Moscow on January 16 to "laud comradely ties with Russia." There, she held rare talks in the Kremlin with President Vladimir Putin. This comes amid reports of the latest ballistic missile transfers between North Korea and Russia in a flagrant breach of United Nations sanctions. On the meeting agenda was Putin's proposed visit to North Korea.

Northeast Asian security stands seriously endangered. The weapons procurement and supply between Pyongyang and Moscow blatantly violate multiple UNSC resolutions. They include resolutions 1718 (2006), 1874 (2009), and 2270 (2016), which require a demilitarization path for DPRK. The resolutions were imposed beginning in 2006 in response to North Korea's nuclear weapons program. 

On January 9, 2024, the foreign ministers of nearly 50 countries issued a joint statement on this matter. They included European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell and Secretary of State Antony Blinken of the United States. Foreign ministers of the United Kingdom, Japan, Canada, France, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, and South Korea also participated.

The joint statement condemned "the alleged arms transfers in the strongest possible terms." It further stated that the weapons were among over 500 missiles and drones that Russia launched against Ukrainian targets between December 29, 2023, and January 2, 2024. The statement underlined that "the transfer of these weapons supports Russia's war of aggression and undermines the global non–proliferation regime."

Mutual Visits

It is well known that, since the autumn of 2023, Russia has been using more North Korean weapons against Ukraine. These include a missile that landed in Kharkiv, the country's second-biggest city. Apart from Ukraine, the security implications of the budding Russia-North Korea equation extend to other parts of Europe, and the Korean Peninsula.

A representative from the prosecutor's office shows parts of an unidentified missile, which Ukrainian authorities believe to be made in North Korea and was used in a strike in Kharkiv. January 6, 2024. (©REUTERS/Vyacheslav Madiyevskyy)

In August 2023, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, US envoy to the United Nations, apprised the UN Security Council about the problem. She informed her colleagues that Moscow was negotiating "potential deals for significant quantities and multiple types of munitions." 

Her warnings were followed by the reported news that North Korea's dictatorial leader Kim Jong Un had crossed the border into Russia. He arrived by train on September 12, 2023, for a meeting with President Vladimir Putin. 

This time, Kim and Putin held a summit at the Vostochny Cosmodrome. It is the most significant satellite launch center in eastern Russia. Putin showed Kim Jong Un around the site and assured Moscow's help to Pyongyang in building satellites. Kim also toured Russian weapons factories and took note of the latest Russian military equipment.


The Kim–Putin Axis

Following Kim's Russia visit, North Korea announced the launch of its first military spy satellite. It also revealed plans to launch three more such satellites in 2024. According to Pyongyang's state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), Kim was visiting arms factories in January. He emphasized the "strategic importance of the production of major weapons." As well, he urged North Koreans to step up their military capabilities and nuclear war deterrent.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un meets Russia's President Vladimir Putin (not pictured) at the Vostochny Cosmodrome in the Amur Oblast of the Far East Region, Russia, September 13, 2023, in this image released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency. (©KCNA via REUTERS)

Arms transfers and weapon-trade politics are widely considered to be strong instruments for states to achieve multifarious foreign policy goals. 

Russia and North Korea's mutual exchange of arms comes in the form of ballistic missiles for Moscow. In exchange, the latter could provide aircraft, armored vehicles, equipment for producing missiles, and other advanced military equipment and technologies to Pyongyang

Furthermore, Russia's use of DPRK-made ballistic missiles in Ukraine provides North Korea with technical and military insights. 

Above all, the recent Kim–Putin axis is a harbinger of Cold War bloc politics. It holds the extended potential of a Beijing-Moscow-Pyongyang alignment, thus pushing Northeast Asian stability to a tipping point.

Troubling Proliferation 

Irresponsible arms transfers can destabilize an entire region. They can enable violations of arms embargoes and contribute to human rights abuses. Weapons trade and arms–related barter understandings can particularly be subverting. They have the potential to fuel interstate conflict, intrastate conflict, and, most importantly, enable repressive policies within states. 

The motivations of states to engage in arms transfers primarily revolve around domestic and international security concerns — and their strategic, political, and/or economic interests. Strategic transfers take place to gain influence over their respective foreign and domestic policy goals. This can be seen clearly in the case of Russia and North Korea.

The weapons linkages between Russia and North Korea are a serious proliferation threat and a primary international security challenge. Worrisome proliferation ingredients include huge stockpiles of conventional arms and weapons of mass destruction. This is especially true in uncertain military and security establishments. 

This presents an ominous situation for the region, especially when read in correlation to the series of non–compliant behaviors demonstrated by North Korea. The climbing graph of Russia–North Korean arms transfers is condemnable. It deeply disturbs regional security and stability and challenges enduring peace on the Korean Peninsula.


Author: Dr Monika Chansoria

Learn more about Dr Chansoria and follow her column "All Politics is Global" on JAPAN Forward, and on X (formerly Twitter). The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the views of any organization with which she is affiliated.


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