Russia-North Korea summit pleases no one else

  • Geopolitical isolation will push Russia and North Korea closer in the coming years. This will augment both countries’ security threat to the rest of the world.
  • North Korea is set to gain more from bilateral defence and economic co‑operation; Russia’s knowledge of long-range missiles, nuclear-powered submarines and satellites is particularly valuable for further development of North Korea’s strategic weapons programme.
  • China will continue to wield significant influence on North Korea and Russia, but it will not establish any trilateral framework in order to avoid the perception of alliance building.

Russian government officials confirmed on September 11th that Kim Jong‑un, North Korea’s leader, would soon visit Russia and meet with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. North Korea’s state media reported on the same day that Kim Jong‑un had boarded his private train heading to Russia and the summit would take place before September 13th. EIU expects North Korea-Russia relations to deepen in the coming years, driven by geopolitical isolation; this will complicate the efforts of both nations to repair their international relations elsewhere.

A threatening duo

Warming ties between Russia and North Korea pose a growing threat to global security, although no immediate conflict will follow this summit. Both countries harbour resentment for the current international security arrangements, which they interpret as unfairly constraining for their own security and geopolitical goals, a grudge that is shared by China. However, unlike China, neither has shown restraints on the use of aggressive military means to further their interest.

We expect shared security anxieties against the West to drive future bilateral engagement. The limited economic gains offered by the North Korea-Russia partnership, however, will preserve the importance of both countries’ relations with China. Diplomatic isolation will preserve—if not elevate—China’s importance as serving as a bridge between North Korea, Russia and the rest of the world, potentially complicating future diplomatic engagement between these countries and the West (as well as Western-aligned governments, like Japan and South Korea).  

North Korea will gain more from the warming ties

Exchanges of weapons and ammunition and military technologies are the main focus of Russia-North Korea relations. North Korea has already been supplying weapons and ammunition to Russian mercenary groups fighting on the Ukraine front, made evident by supplies intercepted by Ukrainian forces. The forthcoming summit will probably expand existing arms deals, likely in return for greater Russian food aid for North Korea, which is desperate to relieve an ongoing domestic food scarcity. Weapons supply from North Korea is unlikely to significantly improve Russia’s position in the conflict. Most weapons and ammunitions from North Korea are of outdated models and were manufactured decades before, which reduces their effectiveness on the battleground and increases fault rate. 

More concerning will be any potential transfer of strategic weapons technologies, including nuclear technologies, from Russia to North Korea. North Korea is actively developing its strategic weapons arsenal, and Russia’s know‑how of long-range missiles, nuclear-powered submarines and satellites are coveted assets. Any agreement on Russian technology transfer or co‑operation in these areas should be watched closely. These dynamics would risk substantively enhancing the global security risks posed by North Korea, by augmenting the range, launching manoeuvrability and invisibility of its nuclear weapons. 

China plays a key role

We expect Russia-North Korea ties to continue strengthening, but our core forecast is that Russia will refrain from its sharing nuclear weapons knowledge with North Korea. That move would violate international non‑proliferation convention, of which Russia is a depositary country, and irk China, which remains opposed to North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme. 

Russia will be keen to avoid undermining Chinese economic and diplomatic support, particularly given signs that China’s leadership is already reassessing these diplomatic ties. China will solidify bilateral relations with both Russia and North Korea, partly to minimise destabilising factors in its own vicinity. However, it will not establish any trilateral framework in order to avoid suspicions of block-building.

The analysis and forecasts featured in this piece can be found in EIU’s Country Analysis service. This integrated solution provides unmatched global insights covering the political and economic outlook for nearly 200 countries, enabling organisations to identify prospective opportunities and potential risks.