As U.S. intelligence officials accuse North Korea of sending weapons to aid Russia's war effort in Ukraine, Moscow's economic, political and potential military support for Pyongyang may help the otherwise isolated nuclear-armed state shift the balance of power in East Asia.
For decades, North Korea has counted China as its sole ally on the world stage. But this could change, as growing ties between North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un and Russian President Vladimir Putin signal a level of warmth between the two nations not seen since the Sino-Soviet split six decades ago.
While Kim and Putin may have a history of seeing eye-to-eye on certain international issues, the enthusiastic backing expressed by North Korea for Russia's war in Ukraine—a topic in which even China has opted for neutrality—has marked a potential turning point in their relationship. In fact, North Korea became the first country in the world to recognize the self-proclaimed independence of pro-Moscow separatist republics in Ukraine, as well as Russia's eventual annexation of them.
And in what would be an unprecedented development, the White House has alleged that Pyongyang has sent artillery shells to Moscow, as well as rockets and missiles to the Russian private military outfit Wagner Group, which is reportedly leading a successful push against Ukrainian troops near the city of Bakhmut. Both North Korea and Russia have denied the claims, but nonetheless continue to openly tout their growing partnership.
Jong Eun Lee, a former intelligence officer for the South Korean Air Force who serves now as an adjunct professor at American University in Washington, D.C., outlined three potential scenarios in which Moscow could match this rhetoric with action.
"Despite Russia's military constraints," Lee told Newsweek, "Russia might be able to take several military actions near the Korean Peninsula to A) signal a warning to South Korea, B) offer a small quid pro quo to North Korea for providing support in the Ukraine War, and C) bolster North Korea's confrontation with the U.S. and [South] Korea that could at the least provide additional geostrategic distractions for the U.S., which would make it unable to fully focus on Ukraine alone."
He outlined three scenarios Moscow may pursue to realize this strategy.
In the first scenario, Lee said that "Russian combat aircrafts could fly over the Korean Peninsula more frequently." Russian bombers have already been increasingly active in the region, with one flyover last August prompting South Korea to scramble its aircraft to in response to the Russian warplanes passing through the country's Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ).
"Increased flight of Russian airplanes could signal to North Korea Russia's tacit support for North Korea's increased military activities/provocations since 2022," Lee explained, "and send subtle warnings to South Korean military."
The second scenario would involve actions taken in direct coordination with North Korea, officially the People's Democratic Republic of Korea (DPRK), and China.
"If Russia proposes either Russia-DPRK or Russia-China-DPRK military exercises in the Far East," Lee said, "this would significantly advance North Korea's military cooperation with Russia."
He cited Newsweek reporting going back as early as 2015 that indicated Moscow's potential desire to conduct joint drills with Pyongyang. While such plans have not yet been realized, Putin has gone on record in support of closer military interaction with Kim's forces. He issued a warning in November that reports of South Korean ammunition ending up in Ukrainian hands "might lead to actual military-technical cooperation between Russia and North Korea, which, obviously, will change the dynamics in a very serious manner, both regionally and globally."
Russia has already intensified cooperation with China in the Asia-Pacific, including joint naval exercises and air patrols that again forced South Korea, officially the Republic of Korea (ROK), to scramble its jets in November, just the most recent in a growing list of incidents involving Beijing and Moscow.
A third scenario envisioned by Lee "would be to send the Russian Pacific fleet to 'visit' North Korea's harbor," something he argued would be a clear "signal of military support for North Korea." He noted that this was the least likely of the three scenarios, given Moscow's lingering caution toward taking such a historic step, and Pyongyang's own zealous commitment to self-reliance, a position embodied by the state-sponsored "Juche" ideology, which emerged out of North Korea's interpretation of Marxism-Leninism, and hails national sovereignty as its central tenet.
At the same time, Lee pointed to a 2014 agreement in which North Korea permitted Russia's fleet to dock at North Korea's Rason port, located in a free-trade zone just miles from the Russian border. He argued that further tensions driving two geopolitical blocs apart in the region could see such a step come to fruition.
"If, as result of the Russia-Ukraine War and China-Taiwan tensions, the geopolitical divide widens between the U.S./ROK/Japan and Russia/DPRK/China," Lee said, "then in the future Russian naval presence in North Korea could become a reality."
And though the threat of Moscow's presence in the Asia-Pacific may be mitigated by the Eastern European campaign in which it is mired, Lee noted that increased backing for North Korea could still prove a form of "psychological restraint" against the U.S. and its allies in the region.
"Currently, the South Korean government seeks to strengthen extended deterrence against North Korea's provocations, and has warned of retaliation against North Korea's provocations," Lee said. "Even a limited Russian military presence/involvement in the Korean Peninsula could have a 'tripwire' effect on South Korea and the U.S., [making them] averse to risk of military conflict escalation."
"Though in fairness," he added, "North Korea's nukes already pose significant deterrence against ROK/US inclination for retaliation."
Kim's nuclear advances have already raised North Korea to the elite level of the few countries in the world capable of delivering weapons of mass destructions across the globe with little or no outside assistance. But as he strives to shore up other shorter-range tactical assets that present an immediate threat to U.S. and allied forces in the region, Putin is in a position to help.
"In terms of building up that conventional capability, I think that's where Russia is going to come into play," Michael Madden, a North Korea analyst who founded the DPRK Leadership Watch blog, told Newsweek.
Specifically, Madden discussed the potential for Moscow to play a role in aiding Pyongyang's development of platforms that support a "second strike capability," which includes multiple launch rocket systems and short-range ballistic missiles. Such a capability would allow North Korea to rain destruction upon foes in the neighborhood even after it suffered an attack or invasion.
"If North Korea hits a certain problem in developing a certain missile system, they could definitely consult [the Russians]," Madden said. "That's something that they could benefit from."
He also highlighted a possible role for Russia in assisting North Korea's development of unmanned aerial systems. Pyongyang has already demonstrated an interest in this area, as evidenced by South Korean accusations that North Korea flew five drones across their disputed border toward Seoul last month and managed to maneuver them back, evading fire from enemy aircraft.
North Korea's capabilities outside of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) have often gone overlooked due to prevailing analysis depicting Korean People's Army equipment—much of it based on Soviet-era assets—as outdated and inadequate. But as Washington and Seoul await a seventh nuclear test, Madden pointed out that it appears Kim has been focusing his defense industry's "bandwidth" toward shorter-range projects as North Korean officials may be "satisfied in terms of their internal benchmark for the long-range missile option."
A boost from the Kremlin may prove crucial for Kim in this area. Madden said that although it is still outlawed by United Nations Security Council sanctions, conventional support from Russia to North Korea may also prove "more defensible" to the West than that of nuclear weapons assistance in the long run, even after a potential negotiation to end the war in Ukraine.
As of last March, Moscow has joined Beijing in vetoing further U.N. sanctions against Pyongyang. And since then, Russian officials have continued to express their appreciation for North Korea's position on Ukraine, as well as a desire to expand neighborly relations.
In an interview published last week by the state-run TASS Russian News Agency, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrey Rudenko took note of the steps North Korea has taken on the international stage to back Moscow's steps in the conflict, which will approach the one-year mark next month.
"We appreciate this support and, undoubtedly, take it into account in promoting the course towards comprehensively developing traditional relations of friendship and cooperation that were laid down at a meeting of the Russian and North Korean leaders in Vladivostok in April 2019," Rudenko said.
That meeting marked the first and only known in-person interaction between Kim and Putin, and it came just a year after Kim made his overseas debut in China, and less than a month after the last U.S.-North Korea summit held in the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi. The Vladivostok summit also marked the last reported instance of Kim leaving the peninsula.
Putin, for his part, made his debut in North Korea nearly two decades earlier, having met with Kim's father and predecessor, Kim Jong Il, months after the Russian leader first assumed the presidency in 2000. The late North Korean ruler would go on to visit Russia four more times—in 2001, 2002, 2004 and his final international trip in 2011—the last of which took place just months before his death, which led to his son's succession.
Just over a decade later, Kim Jong Un finds himself on the sidelines of international tensions between great-power competition between the U.S. and its allies on one side and China and Russia on the other. For Kim, the choice is easy.
And it's prompted concern not only from South Korea, where President Yoon Suk-yeol has set shoring up national defense as a priority, but also from Japan, which is in the throes of its own historic series of reforms set to increase military funding and capabilities under Prime Minister Kishida Fumio.
And while much of Japan's focus has been on the rising power of China, the intensification of North Korea's missile activity in the seas near and skies above Japan and growing Russian military activity along a disputed island chain to Japan's north have also influenced Tokyo's turn away from its traditional self-defense-only doctrine. This drift has evolved over the course of years of Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) rule and was further institutionalized in a major overhaul announced last month.
Kimie Hara, director of East Asian Studies at the University of Waterloo in Canada, told Newsweek that the alignment of North Korea and Russia "serves to justify the strengthening of Japan's defense policies, including the significant increase in the defense budget of the current Kishida administration, or the move toward becoming a 'normal country' inherited from the previous LDP administrations."
"It is also a dangerous move that will further escalate the regional arms race and political-military tensions, though," she added.
But Fyodor Tertitskiy, a senior research fellow at Kookmin University in Seoul, argued that there may be less than meets the eye when it comes to the burgeoning partnership between Pyongyang and Moscow. He told Newsweek that as of yet, "there has not been any major shift in Russian-North Korean relations," as trade remains low and Russia remained wary of intruding upon China's traditional sphere of influence.
Where he saw Russia coming to North Korea's aid was in the economic realm, at a time when even Kim has acknowledged major hardships.
"Given what I've heard about Moscow's diplomats managing the North Korean direction," Tertitskiy said, "I would suppose the first thing they would offer would be some humanitarian assistance which North Korea desperately needs, and also tacitly allowing some North Korean workers to work in Russia, where they could receive significantly higher salaries than in the North."
But here too he expressed skepticism that Moscow would take any steps that risk drawing the ire of its far more important partner, Beijing. And South Korea, for its opposition to the Russia's actions, has retained an openness to dealing with Russia not seen by many other U.S. allies, leaving Tertitskiy "quite unsure that Russia would be particularly aggressive towards Seoul, especially given that there are so many nations that help Ukraine, and many of them are much more proactive than South Korea."
Tertitskiy also argued that there was reason not to put too much stock in the warm statements being issued by both Pyongyang and Moscow.
"Both Putin's Russia and Kim's North Korea are very talented in making themselves appear more influential than they actually are," he added, "so one should be cautious here."
However, Markus Schiller, an expert on foreign missile programs who serves as CEO of the Germany-based ST Analytics, contended that it was plausible that Russia has already played a role in supporting North Korea's missile development in recent years.
His research has argued that North Korea "received massive support in Soviet missile hardware and technologies since the 1980s." And while he said "it had seemed unclear if the current Russian government had been involved, too," he noted that "with their recent actions, it actually does not seem far-fetched."
"It had seemed that those obvious links were toned down since Kim Jong Un came to power, who obviously had access to other technology and hardware sources than his father and grandfather," Schiller said. "There still were familiar tech handwritings to be seen, but less obvious in their origin. Still, it seems clear to me that there was a lot of proliferation going on."
And he cast doubt on North Korea's claims of absolute adherence to "Juche" in all matters of military development.
Recent standout examples include the short-range ballistic missile system termed KN-23 by outside observers. The system, which made its debut appearance at a military parade in February 2018 and was first tested a year later, bears a strong resemblance to Russia's Iskander-M system, a connection Schiller pointed out at the time.
Schiller said that, in his view, Russia and North Korea "have always been much closer than generally assumed, and Russia was supporting North Korea over all those years with know-how, manpower, and hardware."
"No surprise that North Korea now returns the favor," he added.