A New Beginning: Moscow and Pyongyang

Russia needs a steadfast ally in the Far East, and North Korea appears to be more than willing to take on the role. With the DPRK's relationship with China quickly souring and Russia seeking closer ties in the region, the two countries could quickly become politically and economically intertwined.


Russia and North Korea, faced with a changing geopolitical environment, appear to be forming an unlikely friendship. As Russia searches for an ally in the Far East, North Korea seems eager to supplement China as its ally, with whom relations have soured in recent years. There remain a number of unaddressed considerations, but the nations' economic cooperation, historical ties, and respective ideologies have laid a strong foundation for Russia's latest partnership.



The DPRK is a long way from the turmoil in Donbass, where negotiation efforts are overshadowed by rising tensions between Russia and the West. However, as Moscow and Washington pivot to East Asia, the ties between Russia and DPRK will play an increasingly crucial role in geopolitics. Historic relations with Pyongyang ranged from close intimacy during the Stalin era to diplomatic disinterest after the fall of the USSR. Ties between both countries have since deepened, though not to the same level as during Soviet times. In wake of the Ukraine crisis, relations between Pyongyang and Moscow are changing with remarkable speed.


Recent Events

In commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the end of WW2, the Kremlin invited North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un to visit Moscow’s annual parade on victory day. Although the trip was cancelled, allegedly for financial reasons, the ticket to Moscow may have benefitted Kim Jong-Un’s standing at home where diplomatic success is desperately needed. For both nations, victory over the Axis is highly symbolic: the Soviet Union sacrificed millions of soldiers in its struggle against Nazi Germany, and Koreans regard the victory over Imperial Japan as the end of a long national tragedy. To this day, North Korea’s state propaganda strongly emphasizes the Korean resistance against Japan.

The DPRK-Russia rapprochement began prior to Ukraine, though was accelerated after the crisis broke out. In September of 2012, Russia agreed to write off 90% of North Korea's debt and the two nations agreed that the remaining amount would be invested in the DPRK’s infrastructure. Visits between Russian and North Korean officials increased during the last couple of months, and further investment projects are currently being discussed. Additionally, several weeks ago Russia’s department of foreign affairs announced a “year of friendship” with North Korea, one of the latest of many substantial policy changes between Moscow and Pyongyang over the last several months.

After the crisis, North Korea formally supported Russia in the Crimea Crisis and recognized Crimea as part of the Russian Federation. This move was unexpected, considering North Korea did not back Russia during the confrontation in Georgia and because it is not counted as one of Russia’s closest allies, meaning Pyongyang’s decision constitutes an ideological breach with its guiding political principles basing on non-interference and self-determination.


The Reasoning Behind the Russia-DPRK Thaw

The recent diplomatic developments between Pyongyang and Moscow can be explained by historical, political and economic factors.

Similar perceptions, allies, and enemies

Both states condemned American interventions in Libya, Iraq and Yugoslavia, are staunch supporters of the principle of non-interference, reject humanitarian interventions, and criticize the export of Western-style democracy. Pyongyang and Moscow voted against several UN resolutions against the Syrian regime, while maintaining close ties to Damascus and Tehran. Russia and the DPRK are concerned about Japan’s military buildup and disagree with Tokyo over territorial issues (Russia-Japan: Kirill Islands; DPRK-ROK-Japan: Dokdo). Pyongyang and Moscow share good relations to Beijing while fearing Chinese dominance, and likewise perceive America’s pivot to Asia as a geopolitical threat.

Economic Cooperation

Under pressure of sanctions, Russia and North Korea are both interested in trade and stable economic growth. Russian companies have shown interest in exploiting North Korea’s resources, and North Korea is believed to have one of the world’s greatest deposits of rare earth metals; in return, Russia might invest in North Korea’s infrastructure and railroad system. Russia and North Korea published plans to build a Russia-Korea pipeline crossing the DPRK into South Korea, benefitting North Korea’s economy and fostering relations between Seoul, Moscow and Pyongyang to make the Russian Far East the hub of Asia’s energy supply.

Historical ties

Russia’s influence in North Korea dates back to the Soviet-DPRK alliance in 1949. Immediately after the victory over Japan, Soviet occupied the Northern part of the Korean peninsula installing a Pro- Russian Communist leadership. North Korea’s first leader Kim Il Sung participated in WW2 fighting alongside with Soviet troops in Stalingrad, while his son and political heir Kim Jong-Il was born in the Russian Far East. Besides those personal ties, the USSR played a crucial role during the Korean War, equipping the Korean government with tanks and aircrafts.


Russia has repeatedly condemned North Korea’s nuclear program and participated in sanctions against Pyongyang. Russia fears that an arms race in East Asia and a possible military build up of Japan, dramatically shifting the balance of power in the region. North Korea and Russia will also have to pay heed to Beijing, as the PRC regards the Korean peninsula as part of its traditional sphere of influence. Additionally, closer military and political ties between Russia and North Korea might jeopardize the warming relations between the Moscow and Seoul, whose investment in the Russian Far East and cooperation in technology development remain important for Russia’s crisis-shaken economy. 

Why now?

Although there are many reasons for a partnership between Russia and North Korea, the timing can be explained in terms of three driving factors:

1) After Putin was sworn in for the third time as president of the Russian Federation, the Russian leadership pursued an enhanced presence in East Asia. Russia’s pivot to Asia can be explained by economic factors and Chinese growth, as well as possibly a counteraction to America’s growing involvement in East Asia. North Korea is a capable military partner and serves as a buffer state between US-affiliated South Korea and Russia’s Far East.

2) Russia needs reliable partners in wake of Ukraine and Syria to garner international support. Although Russia has good trade relations with China and South Korea, it still lacks an all-weather partner in Asia. The Ukraine Crisis has also shown that Chinese support for Russia is limited.

3) The North Korea-Russia rapprochement is driven by North Korea's recent détente with China, which began immediately after the death of Kim Jong-Il. As a result of North Korea’s continued nuclear buildup, the once-good relations between the DPRK and China were heavily damaged. Cross border trade is likely to continue declining as relations sour further, and Beijing has repeatedly summoned North Korea on political issues. In light of these factors, North Korea’s only option left may be a re-alignment towards Russia.



Although relations between Pyongyang and Moscow began to improve in 2012, the Ukraine Crisis and the continuous war in Syria have accelerated its speed. From this point of view, the rapprochement was not only triggered by Ukraine but also by a globally changed political landscape, and can be expected to continue to improve in the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, a political alliance between both countries is currently unlikely due to the unresolved nuclear question, as well as China’s growing strength and warming relations between Seoul and Moscow.



Photo courtesy of Flickr, some rights reserved