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What North Korea's shift toward Russia means for its global strategy

A man watches a television screen showing a news broadcast with a picture of North Korea's latest satellite-carrying rocket launch, at a railway station in Seoul on Nov. 22.
Jung Yeon-Je/AFP via Getty Images
A man watches a television screen showing a news broadcast with a picture of North Korea's latest satellite-carrying rocket launch, at a railway station in Seoul on Nov. 22.

SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea's spy agency told lawmakers last month that North Korea was able to put its first military reconnaissance satellite into orbit, after two failed attempts, with technical help from Russia.

That is hardly surprising, as Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly stated that his country was willing to help North Korea with its satellites, when leader Kim Jong Un visited the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia's far east in September.

But that's not the whole picture. South Korea's military also believes that North Korea may have sent over a million artillery shells and other munitions to Russia for use in Ukraine.

And so by repaying North Korea's munitions with technical assistance, the two neighbors may have completed the first major transaction of a new phase in relations between the government in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, and Moscow, which some analysts see as part of a major strategic shift in North Korea's foreign relations.

The diplomatic and economic dance between Pyongyang and Moscow is burgeoning

Following the collapse of nuclear negotiations with the United States in 2019, Pyongyang has made it increasingly "clear that they're not going to negotiate their nuclear weapons away," says Lee Ho-ryung, a researcher at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, a government think tank in Seoul.

"And that means they need someone else — a third country, not the U.S. — to help them develop," she says. "To them, it was Russia."

This comes despite North Korea's mutual defense commitments with China, its largest trading partner. Analysts and defectors say Pyongyang is wary of becoming too reliant on Beijing.

Last month in North Korea, the fourth Russian delegation to visit Pyongyang since July discussed with their hosts joint prospecting for gold, iron and rare earths, exporting Russian meat and grain, and plans for a Russian ballet troupe to perform in Pyongyang.

Russia's Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Alexander Kozlov (center) arrives with his delegation in Pyongyang on Nov. 14.
Kim Won Jin / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Russia's Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Alexander Kozlov (center) arrives with his delegation in Pyongyang on Nov. 14.

While it's not clear whether any of this cooperation might violate international sanctions on North Korea, what is clear is that the diplomatic and economic pas de deux between Pyongyang and Moscow is burgeoning.

Politically, analysts say, Pyongyang is increasingly trying to position itself as a key player in an emerging anti-U.S. bloc led by China and Russia, whose leaders last year declared their relationship a "no-limits" partnership and have stepped up military drills in Asia and beyond. North Korea has voiced its support for Russia's war in Ukraine, and for years backed Hamas, Iran, China and Cuba in their confrontations with the U.S.

Shortly after his summit with Putin, Kim urged his country's diplomats to "further promote solidarity with the nations standing against the U.S. and the West's strategy for hegemony."

At the same time, though, Pyongyang has been closing embassies in certain countries. Since October, nine either have closed or are scheduled to close. Lee, the researcher in Seoul, argues that these closures are occurring as North Korea is focusing limited resources on building ties with and opening missions in anti-U.S. countries such as Nicaragua.

Pyongyang has assailed increasing trilateral cooperation among the U.S., South Korea and Japan, using what it sees as a U.S. attempt to form an "Asian version of NATO" as justification for tightening its own ties with Russia and China.

North Korea has "defined the future global and regional order as a new Cold War," says Lee. "And they stress this three-versus-three new Cold War structure ... because that structure is advantageous for North Korea in the short term to create strategic space," she says.

International events helped Pyongyang's foreign policy shift

Seen from another angle, international events have helped catalyze North Korea's strategic shift.

"The war between Russia and Ukraine and the intensifying competition between the U.S. and China opened up the possibilities for cooperation with China and Russia," says Park Hyeong-jung, a researcher emeritus at the Korea Institute for National Unification, a South Korean government think tank.

"So this is, for North Korea, a kind of coincidental salvation," Park says.

North Korea needed to shift to a new strategy because its previous one — of trying to bargain away part of its nuclear and missile programs in exchange for sanctions relief and normalized ties with the U.S. — fell apart.

To think it could succeed in the first place was a failure of Kim's strategic judgment, Park says. Then again, Kim saw a rare alignment of positive factors and tried to capitalize on it.

"North Korea comes out to the negotiating table only when the frame of negotiations is favorable to them," Park says, "and the Moon-Trump-Kim era was just that." (Moon Jae-in, who favored engagement with Pyongyang, was South Korea's president at the time).

Following an initial summit with then-President Donald Trump in Singapore in 2018, Kim "really thought he could make progress with the Americans," says Robert Carlin, a visiting scholar at Stanford University and former State Department official.

But when Trump walked out of a 2019 summit in Vietnam, after rejecting Kim's offer of partial denuclearization in exchange for lifting sanctions, it "was an enormous blow to Kim," says Carlin, "both personally and as a symbol of his office, and the aura of his leadership."

Analysts are not sure whether Pyongyang can get what it wants from its backers

Clues to Kim's thinking can be seen in a series of 27 letters Kim and Trump exchanged in 2018 and 2019. Trump showed the letters to journalist Bob Woodward.

In his final letter to Trump in August 2019, Kim wrote: "If you do not think of our relationship as a stepping stone that only benefits you, then you would not make me look like an idiot that will only give without getting anything in return."

This pool image distributed by Sputnik agency shows North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un during his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia on Sept. 13.
Vladimir Smirnov / Pool/AFP via Getty Images
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Pool/AFP via Getty Images
This pool image distributed by Sputnik agency shows North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un during his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia on Sept. 13.

The letter illustrates how Kim "thought he had been double-crossed," Carlin says. "And as far as they were concerned, that's it. You can't deal with the Americans."

Analysts are not sure, though, that Kim can get everything he wants from Moscow and Beijing, either.

Researcher Lee argues that China is wary of getting so close to Russia and North Korea that it invites an even tighter grouping of the U.S., South Korea and Japan, which could threaten Beijing.

And if things go badly for Russia in Ukraine, Pyongyang could suffer a repeat of what happened after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, when a drop in aid contributed to a famine in North Korea that killed up to 3.5 million people.

NPR's Se Eun Gong contributed to this report in Seoul.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.