What kind of cooperation and support could the two leaders be referring to? One could be manpower.

Is Vlad really snuggling up to Kim? Is this yet another sign of the international pariah, Vladimir Putin, reaching out to another dictator for friendship, having in February sealed one “without limits” with China’s autocrat, Xi Jinping? Or is the cold and calculating Russian President after something?
As a result of Russia’s estrangement over its continuing atrocities in Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin last week vowed to “expand Russia’s comprehensive and constructive bilateral relations” with North Korea. In a letter to his counterpart, Kim Jong Un, on Pyongyang’s liberation day, which marked the end of Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule over the Korean peninsula, Putin claimed that the move would be in the interests of both countries. Replying, the North Korean despot said the Russian-North Korea friendship, which had been “forged in the anti-Japanese war” had been “consolidated and developed century after century”, adding that “strategic and tactical cooperation, support and solidarity between the two countries have been put on a new high stage, in the common front for frustrating the hostile forces’ military threat and provocation”. Kim didn’t identify the “hostile forces”, but he was clearly referring to the US and its allies.

Kim Jong Un

So what kind of cooperation and support could the two leaders be referring to? One could be manpower. Only a month ago the Russian ambassador to North Korea, Alexander Matsegora, said in an interview with the Russian daily newspaper, Izvestia, that Moscow would be interested in hiring North Korean workers to rebuild Ukraine’s war-ruined Donbas region, now largely under Russian control. Eager for foreign currency, Pyongyang has long dispatched North Korean workers to Russia in order to make money to send home. According to US estimates, some 30,000 North Korean workers were in Russia before the UN Security Council, of which Russia is a member, passed a resolution in December 2017 banning member states from hiring North Korean workers, in response to Pyongyang’s launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile the month before. However, many remained in Russia and carried on working using student or travel visas. This led to the claim of hypocrisy, as Russia was clearly violating the UN resolution at the very moment it was voting for it! Matsegora’s remarks on July 19 attracted further condemnation of Moscow’s blatant willingness to ignore the UN resolution. But supporters of Moscow say that, as Russia itself is under sanctions, it obviously has no reason to abide by any restrictions on employing North Korean workers.
Russia’s relations with North Korea go back to the founding of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea when the Soviet Union, the predecessor state to the Russian Federation, was the first to recognise the DPRK on 12 October 1948. The once friendly relationship deteriorated after the collapse of the Soviet Union but the Ukraine war is bringing the two countries together again. Shortly after the outbreak in February, North Korea defended Russia’s action and in March, along with Belarus, Eritrea and Syria, Pyongyang voted against a UN resolution demanding that Russia end the invasion. Last month, ahead of Matsegora’s remarks, Pyongyang became the third country after Russia and Syria to recognise the independence of the two Russian-backed breakaway regions—the self-styled Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics in Ukraine’s Donbas region.
Kim Jong Un’s enthusiastic response to Vladimir Putin’s letter reflects the fact that ten years into his reign, North Korea has become more isolated than ever. When he took over on the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, some observers thought the regime would soon collapse, and economic opening under Chinese supervision would follow. However, in a speech in 2012, the young dictator laid out his plans to build an “economically powerful state”, and “improve the people’s livelihood”. He reformed laws governing agriculture and state-owned firms, allowing a degree of private enterprise in the economy. He also invited outside experts to advise him on setting up new special economic zones and he awarded official status to hundreds of the country’s informal markets. Kim also embarked on a binge of “socialist construction”, filling Pyongyang with futuristic skyscrapers and water parks. Trade with China also picked up, driven largely by a new class of quasi-entrepreneurs operating from within state-owned firms.
But in recent years reforms have been cut back and people’s lives have become more restricted, with increased repression inside the country. Border controls have been tightened and the nuclear programme, started by Kim’s father, has been accelerated, notably through tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles which, Pyongyang claims, are capable of reaching America. The subsequent international sanctions imposed on North Korea to slow down its nuclear programme, even strengthened in 2017 after those tests, left Kim Jong Un with little money to advance goals other than building up his arsenal and testing his missiles.
Then the Covid pandemic struck, closing the border with China. The once flourishing trade between the two countries of up to $300 million per year came to a halt, and despite recent rumours of a limited opening, the border is likely to remain closed for the foreseeable future. Tourism in North Korea is moribund, and most foreign diplomats have left. Aid organisations are locked out, making it difficult to determine what is going on in the country. There are strong indications of growing distress, with even the country’s privileged suffering food shortages. According to an assessment last year by the World Food Programme, 11 million of the population of 26 million are undernourished and in need of humanitarian assistance.
Matters became worse in May this year when Pyongyang reported its first case of Covid. According to Kim, the cause of the outbreak was the South sending over “Covid-laden balloons”! Earlier, having sealed its borders at the start of the outbreak, Pyongyang had insisted that not a single case of Covid had been recorded during the first two years of the pandemic. Even now the official death toll is only 74, described by state-run media as an “unprecedented miracle in the history of the world health community”. Experts have cast serious doubt on this figure, claiming that North Korea has the world’s worst healthcare systems, with ill-equipped hospitals, few intensive care units, and no Covid treatment drugs or vaccines.
After basking in the global spotlight at summits with former US President Donald Trump in 2018 and 2019, Kim is now stuck at home, grappling with a decaying economy, worsened by the pandemic-related border closures. Negotiations with Washington have been deadlocked for more than two years after he failed to win badly needed sanctions relief from Trump. President Joe Biden’s administration seems in no hurry to cut a deal unless Kim shows a willingness to wind down his nuclear weapons programme, a “treasured sword”, which Kim sees as his biggest guarantee of survival. This is why Moscow’s overtures have been so welcome in Pyongyang. Both Russia and North Korea are willing to break rules and flout international norms, so there is clear benefit in both countries’ mutual cooperation.
But Kim should be in no doubt that Vladimir’s love is transactional and the real reason why he wishes to charm him is because after six months he is losing the war in Ukraine and is desperate for weapons. Having exhausted much of its weapons stock, Moscow is urgently searching the world for resupplies. Vlad is well aware that Kim has large stocks of artillery ready for a war against the South, precisely the weapons that would be hugely welcomed by Russia’s besieged forces. Any transfer of artillery pieces would be straight-forward as there is a convenient rail link between the two countries, the Baranovsky-Khasan-Tumangang line which feeds into Russia’s Trans-Siberian railway. Both countries are beset by punishing economic sanctions and are looking for ways to help each other, so what better way is there for Moscow and Pyongyang to show this new spirit of cooperation than the transfer of much-needed weapons—all the while thumbing their noses at the West?
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998. He is currently Visiting Fellow at the University of Plymouth.