In isolated Russia, signs of a change of course on North Korea

In isolated Russia, signs of a change of course on North Korea

SEOUL — As the U.S. and much of the developed world shun Russia amid the ongoing carnage in Ukraine, Moscow is shifting its focus toward developing nations — including a newly cooperative stance toward nuclear-armed North Korea.

Last week, North Korean-built rockets reportedly began appearing on the battlefield in Ukraine, according to the Financial Times, while the Biden administration accused Moscow of seeking munitions from Pyongyang to fuel its faltering invasion.

The government of Russian President Vladimir Putin recently honored Pyongyang by dispatching a top-level delegation to North Korea for the lavish official ceremonies marking the 70th anniversary of the end of the Korean War. The Russian delegation, led by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, visited an arms expo and was given a place of honor on the reviewing stand beside North Korean leader Kim Jong Un for a Pyongyang military parade.

In the wake of the visit, Vladimir Solovyov, a longtime TV presenter and one of Russia’s most vocal media figures, urged a policy shift toward North Korea given the warmth of the reception for Mr. Shoigu. Street interviews suggest the public are also being forced to reconsider formerly negative attitudes toward Mr. Kim’s secretive and mercurial state.

“The recent pro-North Korean hysteria in Russia is orchestrated by Putin himself, whose maiden foreign visit was to Pyongyang in 2000,” said Leonid Petrov, a Russia-born Korea watcher at the International College of Management in Sydney, Australia. “Both dictatorships desperately need each other to hide their economic impotence and to boost their killing capacities.”

Boris Bondarev, a former Russian diplomat who resigned in protest following the Ukraine invasion, said North Korea‘s nuclear ambitions, weak economy and its role as a “junior partner” to China traditionally left it on the “periphery” of Russian foreign policy.

But “Moscow’s increased attention to Pyongyang became increasingly more noticeable with the onset of Russia’s full-scale aggression against Ukraine,” Mr. Bondarev wrote recently for the Eurasia Daily Monitor. “As such, [North Korea] remains one of the few ‘allies’ of Russia that consistently supports President Vladimir Putin’s confrontational course.”

Mr. Putin hinted at rapidly warming ties in his official statement last month congratulating the Kim regime on the 70th anniversary of the end of the war.

“The historical experience of [Russian-North Korean] camaraderie,” Mr. Putin said, “serves as a solid foundation for efforts to further develop political, economic and security ties between Russia and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Preserving and building on the glorious traditions of friendship, neighborly relations and mutual assistance has paramount importance in the face of today’s threats and challenges.”

The shift comes at a time when the key global body designed to rein in Mr. Kim’s regime is hobbled.  diplomat who formerly sat on the U.N. Panel of Experts, which researches breaches and loopholes in Security Council sanctions, recently revealed his frustration at how Russia and Chinese are undermining the measures targeting North Korea.

Interests aligned

Mr. Solovyov, a hardliner on the Ukraine war, is one of Russia’s leading media personalities and his TV talk show often includes prominent members of the Russian government. Last week, he aired video footage from a Pyongyang concert attended by Mr. Shoigu and Mr. Kim, arguing the two regime’s interests are increasingly aligned.

“There is Korea and there is South Korea – which is temporarily occupied by the American dirtbags,” Mr. Solovyov stormed. “We have to support the great Korea – these are the people, who, despite the fact that we have supported sanctions against them, demonstrated their love and affection to us.”

The footage featured female vocalists singing in Russian, backed by a military band playing in front of a giant screen showcasing apocalyptic war footage and Russian military parades.

Mr. Solovyov demanded the dispatch of “food, military, technological aid of any kind.” He urged Moscow to “lift all the sanctions we can lift” and offer “military cooperation to the max.”

“I can’t remember anything like this, at a time when everyone is cursing us,” he said, noting Russia’s isolation on the world stage. He also referenced Russian viewpoints of North Korea: “This is the country which we mentioned with a smirk.”

It’s a viewpoint that remains controversial inside Russia.

The 1420 YouTube channel, which canvases opinion in street interviews across Russia, filmed an episode asking ordinary citizens whether North Korea should be considered Russia‘s “friend.” 

Respondents appeared uncomfortable when asked whether Russia was becoming a North Korea-style state.

The North Koreans have “that old USSR-ish political regime, where they are afraid to say something against their government,” Andrey, 21, told interviewers. “One Korea adopted the USSR mindset, the other decided to move toward the West. … I think moving toward the West equals progress and development.”

“Bro, if I’m not mistaken, North Korea has very ugly conditions,” added Kirill, identified as a 34-year-old chef.

But asked whether Russia should lean closer to North Korea, Ararat, a 23-year-old entrepreneur, said, “I don’t think it’s a problem — we need some strategic partners. … Politics is not about friendship, it’s about strategy.”

Widening rift

Eric Penton-Voak, a British diplomat who served on the U.N.‘s Panel of Experts for two years before his recent retirement, told reporters in Seoul last week that rifts between the world’s major powers over North Korea have widened since Russia invaded Ukraine. Though Pyongyang accelerated missile tests in 2022, Beijing and Moscow came together to block U.S.-led attempts in the Security Council for tougher U.N. sanctions.

On the eight-member Panel of Experts, he said, “Two colleagues act consistently in the interests of their own countries and misuse the principle of consensus to prevent the panel reaching the conclusions they should.” Asked if those members were from China and Russia, he answered affirmatively.

“There is no way to improve this situation,” he said.  “The whole system is deadlocked.

He criticized the decisions by Beijing and Moscow to send official delegations to last month’s “Victory Day” celebrations in Pyongyang, noting the climactic military parade featured ballistic missiles that are banned by U.N. Security Council resolutions.

“It speaks volumes about the future of the sanctions regime,” he said. “To have representatives of two [Security Council] permanent members applauding a Hwasong-17 [ICBM], a weapon created entirely in breach of sanctions says it all, really.”

He said he feared that the smuggling of materials for weapons of mass destruction — such as missile components and fuel – has risen. “The increase in pace [of testing] suggests that the trajectories have been upward,” he said.

Even so, Mr. Penton-Voak said that there is one potential North Korean act even China and Russia might balk at.

“If there were a nuclear test, it is up to member states to decide what the Security Council can do and the Security Council can do nothing without agreement,” he said. “I don’t know how Russia and China would respond to a nuclear test.”