Russia's Potential Involvement in North Korea's Diplomacy: A Closer LookRussia,NorthKorea,diplomacy,internationalrelations,foreignpolicy
Russia's Potential Involvement in North Korea's Diplomacy: A Closer Look

Russia’s Potential Involvement in North Korea’s Diplomacy: A Closer Look

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Will Russia Commit to North Korea Connections?


As Russia invades Ukraine, it has forged a closer relationship with North Korea. This is reflected in strengthened trade, security, and energy cooperation. However, it remains to be seen whether Russia will commit to building robust infrastructure links to cement this trend. Such linkages could include pipelines, railways, and energy grids. While discussions have taken place sporadically since 1998 about linking Moscow, Pyongyang, and Seoul via railways and liquefied natural gas pipelines, little progress has been made. The New Northern Policy, aimed at enhancing economic and political cooperation with northern countries, could have provided a basis for cooperation between the nations, but failed to progress beyond talks. However, between North Korea’s missile testing and the sanctions imposed on Russia, any linkages either through Seoul’s northern neighbor or directly to Russia seem improbable in the near future.

Russia‘s Needs and North Korea’s Desperation

In the short term, Russia needs funds, bodies, armaments, and other supplies to support its ongoing attack on Ukraine. To replace the lost markets, Russia has to look for new ones in the medium and long term. North Korea, on the other hand, requires energy to fuel its nuclear program and military, increased trade, food, medicine, technical expertise, and other forms of sanctions relief. Increasing Russia-North Korea connection via pipelines, railways, and energy grids could help both Russia and North Korea to accomplish their objectives.

Integration Infrastructure Investment not Valuable Enough?

While integration infrastructure investment could bring a host of benefits, there remains a question of whether or not trade with Pyongyang is valuable enough for Russia to sustain such investment. Citigroup estimated in 2018 that it would cost “$63.1 billion in the long term to rebuild…railroads, roads, airports, sea ports, power plants, mines, oil refineries, and gas pipelines” to upgrade North Korean infrastructure to be on par with South Korea’s. However, this would “open up the north’s mineral wealth to exploitation: its deposits of 200 minerals, including the world’s second-largest deposit of magnesium and a range of rare earth metals, are thought to be worth approximately $10 trillion.” Russia and China already have pipeline and refinery infrastructure near North Korea, and synergizing them would be relatively easy.

The Changing Role of China

The influence of China over North Korea and Russia is growing, and it wishes to expand this. Its pursuit of self-sufficiency and sanction-proofing could make China increasingly capable of withstanding penalties for aiding North Korea and Russia, as well as more incentivized to enhance support for these two states. China has sent Russia small arms, and it may end its official policy of not supplying Russia with lethal aid soon. Therefore, we should not expect China to dissent with Russia and North Korea expanding their ties. At the same time, the existing vicious cycle between their increasing cooperation and Western sanctions, decoupling, and supply chain diversification will likely be amplified. Expect a more open partnership between the nations’ Venn diagram of transnational crime and government, which would enable each country to evade sanctions, increase trade, and prop up each other’s economies.


The recent increasing cooperation between North Korea, Russia, Iran, and China amidst Western sanctions and decoupling could justify pipelines, transit, energy grid, military, and other projects between North Korea, Russia, and possibly China and Iran as well. North Korea could offer cheap labor, manufacturing, raw materials, and regional balancing in peacetime or war to a counterbalance to the US-dominated alliances in the region. Whether Russia commits to North Korea connections remains a vital question, and if it does, such increased integration could have significant implications beyond the region.

North Korea-Russia DiplomacyRussia,NorthKorea,diplomacy,internationalrelations,foreignpolicy

<< photo by Tobias Bjørkli >>

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