With Japan, the United States and South Korea condemning North Korea’s supply of military equipment and ammunition to Russia for use in the war in Ukraine, the three countries are closely monitoring what Moscow will give or may have given Pyongyang in return.
There are concerns about a potential transfer from Russia to North Korea of nuclear and ballistic missile-related technology in Pyongyang’s pursuit of, for example, a military spy satellite and a nuclear-powered submarine.
If such a deal took place, it could further undermine regional security and the international non-proliferation regime – a development that would also affect China, North Korea’s main economic and diplomatic benefactor.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (front L) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (front R) share a laugh as they meet at the Vostochny Cosmodrome space launch center in the Russian Far East on September 13, 2023. (KCNA/Kyodo)
Some Russian experts believe that delivery of such advanced, sensitive technology is unlikely, and that Russian aid is limited to energy and food and possibly dated weapons.
“North Korea wants satellite technology, improved missile technology and submarine technology,” said James Brown, a professor of political science at Temple University’s Japan Campus in Tokyo. “Russia would like to give the impression of a willingness to provide these technologies, but in reality they would be reluctant to do so.”
Pyongyang is believed to be preparing to launch a military reconnaissance satellite, possibly with assistance and advice from Moscow, following a meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Russian President Vladimir Putin in September in the Russian Far East. Details of the meeting are unknown.
After two failed attempts in May and August, North Korea had said it would make a third attempt in October, but such a launch has not happened. Speculation about military cooperation grew after Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visited North Korea in July.
“Even if they missed the October date, it could happen in November or later,” Brown said in an interview. “But Kim Jong Un’s visit was only in September, so even if the Russians gave them some technology, you can’t use it yet. It takes a long time.”
Meeting on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in San Francisco last week, Japanese Foreign Minister Yoko Kamikawa, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin confirmed that military cooperation between Russia and North Korea constitutes a “serious threat” to international peace and stability, according to South Korea’s foreign ministry.
At a meeting on 7-8 In November in Tokyo, Kamikawa, Blinken and their colleagues from the Group of Seven industrialized nations strongly condemned arms transfers from North Korea to Russia – which are in violation of UN Security Council resolutions – and called on the two countries to “immediately cease all such activities. “
Those meetings came after South Korean officials said on November 2 that South Korea’s military estimated that North Korea had shipped about 2,000 containers of military equipment and ammunition to Russia, up from 1,000 containers disclosed by the White House on October 13.
South Korea’s National Intelligence Service believes North Korea has delivered more than 1 million artillery shells to Russia – roughly equivalent to two months’ worth of supplies for the country – in over 10 shipments since early August.
Citing U.S. intelligence and other sources of information, Akiko Yoshioka, a researcher at the Canon Institute for Global Studies in Tokyo, said North Korea supplied ammunition to Russia – including the Wagner mercenary group – and Moscow supplied oil and grain to Pyongyang well before the September 13 meeting. between Putin and Kim at the Vostochny Cosmodrome.
“Mr. Putin may have expressed readiness to help Mr. Kim launch satellites. But I am skeptical of Russia offering advanced, expensive missile technologies in exchange for a limited amount of North Korean munitions,” Yoshioka said in a separate interview.
“Military cooperation could involve conventional capabilities, but not nuclear and missile capabilities, because Russia opposes a nuclear-armed North Korea.”
She also cited Russia’s concern over the possibility of Pyongyang reselling missile technologies to third parties, as well as China’s call for a stable North Korea, not a more provocative one.
In addition to energy and food aid, Moscow may allow several thousand North Korean workers left in Russia to stay in the country – which would also be in violation of a UN Security Council resolution – and engage in construction work as Russia suffers from a shortage of labor because of the country’s campaign against Ukraine, according to Yoshioka.
Yoshioka and Brown shared the view that the Putin-Kim meeting was a diplomatic show, arguing that Putin used the event to threaten Tokyo, Washington and Seoul that if they tighten sanctions on Russia and provide more military aid to Ukraine, will Moscow deliberately entertain the idea of supplying Pyongyang with missile technology.
The choice of venue was significant in terms of sending such a message to relevant countries, the experts said.
Putin is also playing a game with Kim, according to Brown.
“I think the Russians are making empty promises to the North Koreans,” he said. “By taking Kim Jong Un around the spaceport, the rocket base, around the military facilities elsewhere, Putin is encouraging the idea that, ‘Maybe a little later, when our relationship is closer, maybe we’ll provide technology.'”
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