In a scene reminiscent of the Cold War era, North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, recently disembarked from his opulent, bulletproof train in Russia’s Far East.
As he was welcomed by a military brass band and whisked away to meet Vladimir Putin, the two dictators raised their glasses in a toast to what Kim described as the “sacred fight” against Western imperialism.
These two leaders, Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin, are throwbacks to a different era. Kim is the grandson of a tyrant imposed on North Korea by Stalin, while Putin often indulges in nostalgia for Russia’s imperial past. However, the danger they represent today is very real and immediate. An alliance between these two nations has the potential to reshape the ongoing conflict in Ukraine by providing Russia with a fresh supply of weaponry, and it could also fuel a nuclear arms race in Asia.
North Korea, in many ways, mirrors an extreme version of what Russia is evolving into under Putin’s rule: a militarized society, isolated from the West, and led by a despot who cares little for human life. Despite its economic hardships and isolation, North Korea possesses something that Russia desperately needs: a surplus of artillery shells.
Russia exhausted over 10 million of these shells last year alone and, like Ukraine, is now facing a shortage. North Korea, with its Soviet-style armed forces, possesses millions of these shells in storage and the rudimentary industrial capability to manufacture more. While the failure rate of North Korean shells is high, with 20% failing to detonate in a 2010 barrage aimed at South Korea, for Russia, this is better than having nothing at all. Additionally, North Korea could potentially offer other weapons, such as rockets and howitzers.
A potential deal over munitions comes at a critical juncture in Ukraine’s counter-offensive, which has been progressing painfully slowly and has raised doubts about its tactics and Western commitment. At present, Ukraine has managed to achieve some level of parity with Russia in the artillery conflict, as both sides face dwindling supplies. However, if Russia were to receive a substantial influx of ammunition, it could significantly hamper Ukrainian forces, further impeding their advances and intensifying attrition during the approaching winter months.
North Korea undoubtedly has its own demands in this potential arrangement. During the 2000s, Russia was a signatory to international sanctions against North Korea due to its unlawful nuclear weapons program. The choice of location for this recent meeting, the Vostochny Cosmodrome spaceport, hints at what Kim may seek next. He could request access to Russian missile technology to enhance North Korea’s delivery system for nuclear weapons in terms of range, reliability, and flexibility. Additionally, he might be eager to acquire Russian satellite and submarine secrets.
While the immediate consequence of such a deal could make life even more challenging for Ukraine’s soldiers, it carries the broader potential to alter the nuclear balance in Asia. The North Korean regime is not only malign but also erratic, periodically issuing threats to incinerate South Korea and testing short-range ballistic missiles just before the Kim-Putin summit. Concerns arise that its military capabilities are improving, leading other nations to contemplate bolstering their own arsenals.
A North Korean dynasty capable of launching missiles from submarines at will would send shockwaves throughout the region.
What can be done in the face of this growing threat? One unpredictable factor is China, which holds influence over both dictatorships. While China might not object to a prolonged and devastating 20th-century-style war in Ukraine, it claims to be wary of nuclear proliferation.
A potential deal between Russia and North Korea would test China’s commitment to non-proliferation. For the West, imposing further sanctions on Russia or North Korea may have limited impact. Instead, it should increase its support for Ukraine by providing additional munitions to help it defend itself against Russia. Simultaneously, it should publicize any information it possesses about arms deals between Moscow and Pyongyang and reaffirm that America’s nuclear umbrella extends to protect its allies in Asia.