July 2023

Dangers of desperation

What can we conclude from Russia, the world’s second biggest arms exporter, reaching out to impoverished North Korea to supply it with weapons?  

And what does Pyongyang, a veteran sanctions-dodging rogue state, plan to get out of forging a closer relationship with Moscow?

Last month’s message from leader Kim Jong-un, marking Russia’s national day, was flatteringly sycophantic. ‘Justice is sure to win,’ he told Vladimir Putin vis-à-vis Ukraine. ‘And the Russian people will continue to add glory to the history of victory.’

Is this just about Ukraine and bonding between authoritarian regimes? Or should we be keeping a closer eye, particularly given Russia’s recent open, internal fracturing bringing the country itself into that sphere of coup d’états and failed states?

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, to give this country of 26 million its full name, emerged from the Soviet Union’s victory in the Second World War. Like Germany in Europe, Korea in Asia was split into two nations with competing values facing each other across a hostile border. The North flew the flag for Soviet communism; the South for Western capitalism and democracy.

In the early 1950s, the Korean peninsula became the first hot conflict of the Cold War which ended in a 1953 ceasefire stalemate that remains in place today. The Soviet Union’s writ held sway until the early 1990s, during which time South Korea became a fully developed democracy and North Korea a ruthlessly closed dictatorship.

After the Soviet collapse, China stepped in as North Korea’s pivotal protector. A series of initiatives to bring the Hermit Kingdom more into the international community came to little.   With its economy going nowhere and citizens close to starvation, Pyongyang used organised crime networks and fellow rogue states to develop nuclear weapons.

North Korea’s ability to threaten nuclear war gives it an elevated status on the geopolitical leader board, together with an ‘I-told-you-so’ message to countries like Libya and Ukraine which, on Western promises, abandoned their nuclear weapons and development programmes. A swathe of the Global South, from Egypt to South Africa together with hawkish factions in Japan and South Korea, are also taking note.

From one perspective, the revived love-in between Moscow and Pyongyang could be compared to two drunks at a bar exchanging fantasies about future glory.

From another, however, they strengthen the argument of a new emerging Cold War which the wider world and Asia, in particular, intends to avoid.

North Korea has reportedly been sending Russia an assortment of military hardware such as small arms, artillery shells, rockets and uniforms.  A year ago, in exchange for grain and fuel, Pyongyang recognised Moscow’s sovereignty over captured territory in Ukraine and now has its eye on Russia integrating the country into its energy grid by building pipelines.

There is little reason to think this idea with get anywhere. During less fractious times, similar economic initiatives in this Northeast Asia region moved slowly, if at all.

In the early 1990s the United Nations spearheaded plans to set up economic zones bridging China, Mongolia, Russia and North Korea.  Later that decade, Moscow, Pyongyang and Seoul liaised over rail links and pipelines and, as recently as 2017, South Korea unveiled a New Northern Policy which included cooperation with North Korea on a slate of economy plans including on gas, rail, ports, farming and fishing.

What we saw instead, however, was a desultory 2021 scene of Russian diplomats having to leave North Korea during Covid by riding a hand-pushed cart along a deserted rail track – hardly a symbol of glittering economic partnership.

An added obstacle is how China views Russia’s growing influence with a country it has long regarded as an ally and buffer state against encroaching Western expansion.  To make it work, all three governments would need to show levels of diplomatic alliance-building so far unseen in their playbooks. 

Only Moscow, in its previous incarnation as the Soviet Union, has real experience in building intricate multi-government institutions. China and North Korea have very little.

Beijing’s recent attempts globally, whether in Europe or the South Pacific, have foundered. Russian allies on its Ukraine war can be counted on one hand, comprising near failed states such as Syria, Belarus and Eritrea. 

Meanwhile, American-led coalitions are strengthening and much of the Global South sits on the fence, wisely arguing that this is not their conflict. 

The West should not be complacent about Russia’s activities with North Korea and its wider attempts at coalition building.  But it should be viewed less as a projection of influence and power and more as an act of desperation.

The real danger, of course, is that Russia’s sovereign land mass stretches from Europe to Asia and what happens in one continent will impact the other. Both Moscow and Pyongyang are run by dictators with nuclear weapons and the closer they move towards failure, the more likely they are to use them.