Possible Quid Pro Quo Emerges Between Russia and North Korea, Both Running Short on Military Equipment

The only snag, South Korea protests, is that trading arms with North Korea is forbidden by UN resolutions.

Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP
The North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, shakes hands with Russia's defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, at Pyongyang, July 26, 2023. Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP

The Russian defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, has a glittering array of North Korean military hardware from which to pick and choose during his visit this week to Pyongyang. Any deal, though, is likely to cut two ways: His hosts have their own shopping list.

The potential for a quid pro quo between the two authoritarian regimes arises as North Korea desperately needs spare parts for its antiquated Soviet-era MiG fighters and tanks, not to mention oil and natural gas.  

South Korea’s foreign ministry protests that Pyongyang is banned by UN Security Council resolutions from exporting and importing military equipment, but North Korea has long been suspected of shipping artillery shells to Russia — a charge the North has denied.

As the countries’ friendship blossoms into a de facto alliance, the technicality of UN prohibitions is not likely to stop both sides from wheeling and dealing across their narrow 11-mile border at the mouth of the Tumen River or within their territorial waters, by sea. 

The Russians, though, have been slow to send new equipment to the North while looking for more weapons for their own forces, bogged down in Ukraine, and have only recently begun shipping refined oil to North Korea, long accustomed to getting almost all of its oil from China.

On the 70th anniversary of the truce that ended the Korean War, Mr. Shoigu got a first-hand look at just about every type of weapon in the North Korean inventory as the guest of North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un.  

Intercontinental ballistic missiles, including the solid-fuel Hwasong-18 that North Korea has twice sent on test flights in recent months, loomed large as North Korea’s leader showed him and other top officials around Weaponry Exhibition 2023. The display provided a preview for Mr. Kim’s VIP guests of the weaponry that would trundle through central Pyongyang in the evening in a parade of military might. 

The parade was intended to show off the North’s success in fabricating missiles,  produced initially with Russian engineering, in response to intensified war games involving American and South Korean troops — and visits by American nuclear-powered submarines to South Korea.

Also shown at the exhibition of weapons, at least in pictures, were two types of drones. One of them, South Korea’s Yonhap News said, looked like America’s Global Hawk. Seoul’s NK News said the other was “similar to a U.S. Reaper drone.” Satellite images, NK News said, showed “what may be the same drone with a wingspan of 65 feet.“ 

Beneath the rhetoric, Mr. Kim left no doubt he expected a return for extending his hospitality along with the promise of North Korean weapons for Russia’s depleted forces.

Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency hinted at the kind of deal Mr. Kim had in mind. Telling the Russian defense minister about the weapons and equipment “invented and produced under the national defense development plan,” the agency said, Mr. Kim “shared with Sergei Shoigu comments on the worldwide trend of weaponry development and its strategy.” 

The North Korean report heralded the prospect of a two-way street between Moscow and Pyongyang, reporting that Mr. Kim had likened Russia’s struggle for Ukraine with North Korea’s undying dream of taking over South Korea.

Just to make sure the Russians got the message, KCNA said, “Mr. Kim repeatedly expressed the belief that the Russian army and people would achieve big successes in the struggle for building a powerful country.”

The Russians may not be buying the fancy stuff, the report indicated, but might well need basic weapons that North Korea is capable of producing for export — artillery, machine guns, even AK-47 rifles. 

The North Korean news agency did not elaborate on all that was on display — or on offer — while providing graphic evidence of the North’s ability to rain nuclear warheads on targets near and far. 

The tour of the weapons display dramatized how closely the North Koreans and Russians have aligned their interests — North Korea endorsing whatever Russia does in Ukraine, Russia supporting North Korea against South Korea as well as the Americans and Japanese.

The relationship with Russia was clearly top priority, but Mr. Kim also made certain to kowtow before a ranking member of the politburo of the Chinese Communist Party, Li Hongzhong, who came bearing a personal message from President Xi.

Before a concert to which all high-ranking officials and guests were invited, Messrs. Kim and Li had what North Korea called “a warm and friendly talk” in which Mr. Kim thanked the Chinese profusely for their contribution to “victory” in the Korean War. 

The question today, though, is whether North Korea will ship arms to Russia, and would the Russians respond in kind? North Korea has previously denied selling any arms to the Russians while in need of repairing and replacing old weaponry.

Hopefully, Yonhap News quoted a South Korean foreign ministry spokeswoman as saying, the Russian delegation’s visit will “contribute to the cessation of provocations” and prompt Pyongyang to “return to dialogue for denuclearization.”

The New York Sun

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