Russia-North Korea Arms Deal: A Meeting Of Neighbours With Global Impact

On Monday 11th September, North Korea (DPRK) and Russia confirmed plans for a visit of supreme leader Kim Jong Un to President Vladimir Putin on Russian soil. The meeting has given cause for suspicions about an upcoming arms deal between the nations, with DPRK supplying weapons to Russia. Despite no formal declaration by either country that such a deal will take place, the presence of the North Korean munitions industry department director, Jo Chun-ryong, and other prominent figures in the defence and military industries has been ringing alarm bells in Washington. Provision of arms to Russia would be a massive violation of UN sanctions, and would have an escalating impact on the conflict in Ukraine and on DPRK nuclear capabilities.

US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan warned in a statement to the press that “providing weapons to Russia… is not going to reflect well on North Korea, and they will pay a price for this in the international community.” Moscow’s Press Secretary, Dmitry Peskov, remained vague about the reason for the leaders’ meeting, saying only that “[t]here will be negotiations between two delegations, and after that, if necessary, the leaders will continue their communication in a one-on-one format.” However, it seems unlikely that any heed will be paid to US warnings, as Peskov also was quoted in on Tuesday by Russian news agencies as saying: “…while implementing our relations with our neighbours, including North Korea, the interests of our two countries are important to us, and not warnings from Washington.”

Arms purchased by Russia would likely be used in the continuing war in Ukraine, which could only mean renewed bloodshed in a conflict that has already claimed over 14,000 lives, among them over 3000 civilians. The conflict has also disrupted grain supplies from Ukraine, leading to soaring food prices, and a western scramble to move away from Russian oil and gas has also led to a steep increase in energy prices – consequences that have hit poor communities hardest. But what Russia stands to gain from the deal is not the only concern. Russian payment for arms would likely come in the form of advanced satellite and nuclear-powered submarine technology, increasing the threat posed by the DPRK’s nuclear weapons programme. It is difficult to predict the human impact of nuclear missiles, but estimates predict that 1-3 missiles could result in 9.7 million fatalities and 16.8 million injuries. What is clear, though, is that multilateral agreements not to increase weapons capabilities gives the best chance for a peaceful solution on both the Russia-Ukraine front and regarding the threat of DPRK’s nuclear capabilities.

Russia’s war in Ukraine, which began in February 2020, is a continuation of a conflict beginning in 2014 which sought to prevent the increased influence of the western-led European Union in Ukraine. The DPRK is allied with Russia in this conflict, and is another pariah in the West. Despite the UN Security Council passing nearly a dozen resolutions sanctioning the DPRK for developing nuclear weapons and related activities since 2006, the country has paid no heed. Sullivan’s warning that the DPRK would “pay the price” for an arms deal are, therefore, questionable given that long-held western sanctions have had minimal impact on decision-making in Pyongyang, with critics suggesting that these sanctions are harming the general population rather than the decision-making elite.

The implications of an arms deal between Russian and DPRK include continuing loss of life, injury and displacement in Ukraine and increased risk of nuclear weapons use. The knock-on impacts of the deal would be felt most in the DPRK by the general population, as western sanctions would inevitably escalate. Continued food and energy price hikes caused by disruption to Ukrainian grain exports and a move away from Russian oil and gas would also impact the most vulnerable in the global community. It is in the interests of all nations to work towards a non-violent solution and a de-escalation of tensions in order to reduce loss of life in potential nuclear weapons use and in the Russia-Ukraine armed conflict, and to address the disastrous consequences for communities relying on exports from both sides.