‘A Year of Friendship’ for Russia and North Korea

Will Russia and North Korea become partners through military cooperation and foreign investments?

In a move to further increase rapprochement between Russia and North Korea, both countries have declared 2015 a “year of friendship.” The close relationship between both countries is most likely due to United Nations sanctions.

These sanctions are based on Russia’s possible proxy war—including the annexation of Crimea with the help of pro-Russian militants—against Ukraine in the Eastern Oblast of Donetsk and Luhansk. The fact that Russia is also currently militarizing their Arctic region as well as stationing more troops on the Baltic States and Norway’s borders is a clear sign of Russia’s strong foreign policies. In fact, Russia is trying to regain the influence it had in the Soviet Union-era.

Russian tanks in Donetsk
Russian tanks in Donetsk

Russia is also turning eastward to set up new economic ties due to the sanctions imposed by the West. Last year, Russia has signed a $400 billion deal with China to supply them with gas for the next 30 years. The deal will send more than 30 billion cubic meters of gas annually from West Siberia to China.

As for North Korea, sanctions are mostly imposed due to underground nuclear testing in 2013 and subsequent missile launches. North Korea has also vowed to retaliate against the United States’ pressure on the United Nations for more severe sanctions. North Korea’s allies list is really thin and Russia seems to be in the same situation—a clear sign of a future friendship.

The year 2015 marks the 70th anniversary of the Allied victory—where the Red Army played a very important role, thanks to the T-34s—against Nazi Germany. North Korea was also liberated from Japanese colonial rule a few months later. President Putin sent an invitation to Kim Jong-II to attend May 9th ceremony, marking of the end of World War II in Europe.

North Korea’s last visit to Russia was in 2011 when Kim Jong-il visited in his armoured train. Both he and then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev met on this rare trip outside North Korea. North Korea is also putting a lot of hope in this “year of friendship” mostly due to the slow deterioration of its relations with China—giving them no choice but to keep a good relationship with Moscow.

Russia has also confirmed that it will erase $10 billion of North Korea’s $11 billion debt. The other $1 billion will be reinvested in the country. Moscow—through investors—will also inject $25 billion in North Korea’s railway while additional funds will go to basic infrastructure. North Korea’s power grid will also be rebuilt by Russian companies while both countries will invest in the North Korean ice-free port of Rason for future Russian coal importation.

Having said that, Russia’s intentions to spend this $25 billion to restore the country’s railways with a condition: North Korea will give access to its mineral resources to Russian investors.

Military Cooperation

The military alliance between both countries is really concerning. A series of military exercises have been planned for 2015. The army, navy and airforce joint exercises will most likely be conducted in Russia. There is a good chance that Arctic training will also be conducted while the North Korean ships will execute naval drills with the Russian Pacific Fleet in the Sea of Okhotsk.

Udaloy-class Destroyer used by the Russian Pacific Fleet
Udaloy-class Destroyer used by the Russian Pacific Fleet

The series of joint military exercises could also give Russia the chance of showcasing new equipment that could see service in North Korea. In 2002, Kim Jong-il tried to buy Russian Sukhoi Su-35 but the project was cancelled. However, Kim Jong-II has sent an envoy to Russia in November 2014 to revive the project. In fact, North Korea is interested in buying at least 36 Su-35 Flanker-E.

Russian Su-35 Flanker
Russian Su-35 Flanker

The Sukhoi Su-35 multirole fighter is the most advanced fighter aircraft in the Russian Air Force. The 4++ generation can reach speed of Mach 2.25 and has a service ceiling of 59,100 ft. Its payload is impressive and it can also drop a 1,100 lb unguided bombs.

There is also a possibility that nuclear weapons will be discussed. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Russia’s intentions are to provide North Korea with more means to produce Intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM).

Nortk Korea testing ICBMs targeting the USA
Nortk Korea testing ICBMs targeting the USA

It is in Russia’s favor to supply the North Korean military with advanced weaponry—it keeps the Americans busy in South Korea and Japan. With North Korea as an ally, Russian influence is the region is also possible.

Eastern Flank Security

With China slowing joining the equation, Russia could both protect its Eastern flank and keep filling their treasure with the $400 billion gas deal. With the Eastern flank “secured”, Russia will have the ability to focus on its probable next target; the Baltic States.

As a proof of Russia’s aggressive stance towards the Baltic States, Lithuania is currently reintroducing a 9 months draft for the young man aged 19 to 26. However, the 3 Baltic States countries are part of NATO thus giving them the power to call in an Article 5.

Lithuanian soldiers training
Lithuanian soldiers training

Lithuania is an obstacle between the Russian mainland and the Kalinigrad Oblast where vital military installations have been built. The Voronezh Radar installation is crucial for the Russian land-based early warning system.

Nevertheless, there is a very low chance that the Baltic States will be invaded by Russian forces. For example, Lithuania has only about 6% of its population that are Russians, making it hard for Russia to justify an intervention.

The year 2015 could be a turning point for Russia-North Korea relationship. It will most likely bring them closer and it will doubtlessly benefit the Russian defense industry.

Nonetheless, Russia desperately need allies that could very well end up depending on them—the Port of Rason and the future Russian coal exportation is a prime example. On the other side, North Korea is hungry for advanced military equipment and Russia is ready to supply them—especially since the West is imposing heavy sanctions on them.

(Featured image courtesy of International Business Times)

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Jonathan Wade, CD

Jonathan Wade is the director of the ‘The Sentinel Analytical Group’ and a decorated veteran of the Canadian Forces. Specialized in tactical, strategic, intelligence and geopolitics analysis, Jonathan has a fondness for technical details. His military experience brought him valuable insight on the realities of conflicts and war. A combat veteran of Afghanistan, Jonathan brings in in-theatre experience. Jonathan writes about Russia, Canada and Arctic.