The recent meeting between Putin and Kim Jong Un, which was aimed at expanding the supply of North Korean munitions and weapons for the war in Ukraine, seems partly like a parody of the Kremlin's grandly announced plan to 'pivot to the East.' Several analysts have interpreted it as confirmation of Moscow's isolation. In a sense, this meeting points to the Kremlin's dashed hopes for a stronger alliance with China. While Beijing is exercising caution in its cooperation with Russia, trying not to irreparably damage its relations with the United States, Moscow is being forced to seek military and technical support from two rogue nations already under extensive Western sanctions — Iran and North Korea.
If this meeting symbolises Russia's isolation and marginalisation on the international stage, it also represents a clear sign of new opportunities for North Korea. The escalating global rivalry between democracies and autocracies, along with the dissolution of the established world order, presents new opportunities for regimes that have long been considered outsiders in international politics.
2016-2017 marked the peak of North Korea's isolation and international cooperation when it came to curbing its nuclear program. Back then, both Russia and China supported UN Security Council resolutions imposing sectoral bans on exports to North Korea, including petroleum products. However, since then, sanctions against North Korea have weakened, and the divided UN Security Council has been unable to enforce them. Last spring, Moscow and Beijing blocked a UN resolution that would have imposed a new package of sanctions on North Korea. There is no doubt that, in these conditions, Pyongyang's abilities to circumvent sanctions will only grow.
As Korea expert Jonathan Corrado has written on the War on the Rocks website, three key factors are contributing to North Korea's changing position on the international stage: 1) Russia's war in Ukraine, 2) Pyongyang's expanding collaboration with Iran and Syria, and 3) the prospect of a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan. These first two factors are already expanding economic and political opportunities for the once-pariah state. If the third factor becomes a reality, North Korea will undoubtedly align itself with China, which, in turn, would cease to observe nearly all sectoral sanctions imposed by the UN against North Korea. If this happens, the Kim regime could generate billions of dollars annually through exports of coal, fish, textiles, and labour. This also opens the door for the import of oil into North Korea from China and Russia.
While some commentators claim in a report for The Atlantic Council's that an 'authoritarian axis' made up of Russia, North Korea, and China has already been established, comparing it to the 'Axis of Evil' during World War II, it may be premature to speak of this alliance as a reality.
The War on the Rocks expert suggests that, during recent negotiations, Russia requested artillery shells and anti-tank missiles from North Korea in exchange for providing satellite technology and nuclear submarines. The Associated Press has also suggested that Kim is interested in the development of reconnaissance satellites and notes the presence of North Korea's Chairman of the Committee on Space Science and Technology, Pak Tae Song, at the meeting.
Arms supplies from North Korea to Russia may seem like an anomaly at first glance. However, the highly militarised and repressive North Korea has long been a source of arms for belligerent or isolated countries and regimes. North Korean arms deliveries to Iran began in the early 1980s, with North Korea accounting for about 90% of Iran's weapons imports during the Iran-Iraq War (North Korea also maintains military cooperation with the Syrian regime, supplying missiles and materials for chemical weapons production).
During this same period, North Korea also began its cooperation with Iran in missile production. The US intelligence community estimates that 'North Korea's cooperation with Iranian ballistic missile programs has been ongoing and significant.' Experts claim that Iran's Shahab-3 missile is likely modelled after North Korea's Nodong missile, and the characteristics of Iran's space-launch vehicle bear similarities to North Korea's Hwasong-14 missile. This cooperation slowed in 2016 but resumed in 2020, according to a UN report. War on the Rocks notes that cooperation between Pyongyang and Tehran may also extend to nuclear technologies. Iranian officials responsible for the nuclear program have been present at nearly all of North Korea's nuclear tests, and North Korean expert delegations regularly visit Iran for consultations. Moscow appears to support the rapprochement between Tehran and Pyongyang.
While the technological capabilities of each of these three countries have been weakened by sanctions, the emerging arms and technology triangle — Russia, Iran, and North Korea — looks highly threatening. All three countries are capable of contributing their own capabilities, technologies, and resources to this trilateral cooperation, significantly undermining the impact of sanctions on each nation individually (In particular, North Korea is able to assist Russia with a supply of a virtually 'enslaved' workforce, which is in high demand in the Russian economy and military production). Each of the countries has its own networks of illegal and shadow supplies that circumvent sanctions, and the exchange of anti-sanctions logistics resources can also be coordinated.
As a result, there is potential that, in the not-so-distant future, the world may face a military alliance of three nuclear-armed, sanctioned states: Russia, Iran, and North Korea. While it may lag behind China and the Western alliance in terms of resources and technological capabilities, such an alliance would become sufficiently significant and, more importantly, a dangerous and aggressive player. The possibilities for political and sanction-based containment of this alliance would be even slimmer than they appear today.