In a recent spectacle that unfolded on the world stage, Kim Jong Un, the totalitarian leader of North Korea, embarked on a journey to Russia via bulletproof train. The purpose of his visit was clear: to discuss arms and aid with Russian President Vladimir Putin, one of the world’s most prominent autocrats. This summit, laden with geopolitical significance, offers a striking window into the shifting alliances and aspirations of two nations that have often defied international norms and expectations. Most clearly, it marks both the start of a new alliance and the end of Russia’s protracted, decades-long effort to rival the United States and China as a recognized superpower.
Since the Korean War, North Korea has maintained its status as a secluded nation devoid of trade or interaction with the West. Accordingly, its limited foreign policy consisted mainly of relations with two states: the USSR and China.
The former played a pivotal role in establishing North Korea’s communist regime in the aftermath of World War II, thus laying the groundwork for a close relationship that lasted decades. The USSR provided North Korea with essential economic and military support, propping up the Kim family and North Korea’s primitive economy. However, with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, this alliance crumbled, leaving North Korea increasingly isolated.
Consequently, China has served as its primary ally and leading trade partner since 1991. It sees North Korea as a useful annoyance to the United States and a regional strategic partner. But, relations have recently been strained due to North Korea’s nuclear testing, with China supporting UN Security Council Resolution 1718, which placed economic sanctions on North Korea. Therefore, the “Hermit Kingdom” has been eager to shore up its position with a new partnership.
Russia has undergone its own transformation in the post-Soviet era. Following the end of the Cold War, Russian politicians embarked on a quest to embrace elements of capitalism and democracy while seeking integration with the Western world order. Concurrently, they aimed to gain global legitimacy and establish a new reputation of strength and power within a US-dominated unipolar system. To an extent, that project succeeded: Much of the USSR’s prestige was retained, and Russia was able to successfully project substantial influence abroad.
But that era has come to an end. Putin’s imperialist aims manifested in the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, which violated international law and sovereignty norms and has put Moscow at odds with the whole of the West. Russia rejected initial pleas from world leaders, including the UN Secretary-General, to call off the invasion. In response, the Western world and international community reacted strongly, implementing sanctions, severing trade ties, and effectively alienating Russia. Among other political setbacks, Russian diplomats were expelled from several nations and Russia lost its seat on the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). Just this week, Russia lost its bid to rejoin the UNHRC.
Facing these setbacks, Russia may have expected to have the support of a fellow “revisionist power” in China, but it has been disappointed. In fact, China has remained studiously “impartial” and unwilling to overtly support Putin’s imperial ambitions by supplying material support for the war. More than 18 months later, the war drags on, and Russia is increasingly grappling with dwindling supplies and diminishing resources.
The solution? Russia wants to buy ammunition from North Korea, a nation with “tens of millions of aging artillery shells and rockets” in stockpiles due to its ongoing stalemate with South Korea. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visited Pyongyang in July, and now Kim has come to meet Putin in Moscow.
The material elements of a Russia-North Korea deal are clear—intelligence and aid in exchange for artillery. But the symbolic nature of this burgeoning alliance is worth examining in greater detail.
North Korea, a pariah state, desperately needs support, resources, and strategic partners. Russia has offered to share weapons intelligence with Pyongyang in the form of rocket technology and reconnaissance satellites. The intelligence gleaned from the Russian military and funds gained from ammunition sales could significantly enhance the technological capabilities of North Korea’s military apparatus and, therefore, its stature on the world stage. From a prestige perspective, it also allows Kim to posture as a notable world leader, negotiating as an equal with a state as mighty as Russia.
For Russia, amid crippling Western sanctions and a shortage of shells, acquiring ammunition from North Korea would provide a lifeline. The influx of military supplies would bolster Russia’s ability to sustain its military operations and maintain its foothold in contested Eastern Ukrainian territories. However, purchasing North Korean weaponry would also mark a low ebb for Russia’s international standing. In the past, Russia has supported international sanctions that punish nations for purchasing weapons or providing military technology to Pyongyang. Now, Moscow seems keen to strike a deal.
That Russia is negotiating with North Korea at all is strongly symbolic. Engagement with North Korea is a testament to Russia’s complete rejection of the principles and norms espoused by the Western-led liberal international order. In this order, countries are expected to abide by democratic governance, respect human rights, and adhere to international laws and treaties. At the very least, world powers in the 21st century are expected to pay lip service to these values, even if they ignore them in practice. Russia’s willingness to blatantly engage with a rogue state like North Korea highlights its eagerness to forge a path beyond the constraints imposed by the Western world order.
This pivot away from the West is one marked by a sense of disillusionment. Once considered a superpower, Russia now finds itself marginalized. The effectiveness of Western sanctions on the Russian economy has served to emphasize just how vulnerable Russia is. The embarrassing failure of the Russian military to quickly win a war against a smaller, weaker neighbor in Ukraine has also reverberated on the international stage. Whereas Russia was once seen as a future pillar of the international order, it is now one of its pariahs.
As Russia withdraws into the shadows and aligns itself with autocratic regimes, it leaves only two great powers standing—the United States and China. The competition for hegemony has taken on a bipolar aspect, with Western democracy competing against “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Russian kleptocracy has fallen by the wayside. Over the course of their meeting, Putin and Kim dined lavishly, exchanged opulent gifts, and established, in Putin’s words, “good neighborly relationships.” The Putin-Kim summit is, therefore, a testament to two nations’ desperation—one for allies, and the other for artillery shells. It also represents Russia’s total withdrawal from the established international order and its weakness in relying on a pariah like North Korea. Russia’s bold and public exit from the stage of great power politics heralds a new era of geopolitical competition. As Russia and North Korea forge this unexpected partnership, China and the United States watch from the sidelines, the remaining two players shaping the world’s balance of power.