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N. Korea looks to cement Russia ties amid tension

By Choi Si-young

Published : July 30, 2023 - 15:50

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The North Korean flag (left) and Russian flag. (123rf) The North Korean flag (left) and Russian flag. (123rf)

North Korea is stepping up efforts to forge stronger ties with Russia, as the North pursues a bigger presence in a Russia-led coalition against the US. This comes amid an anniversary meant to celebrate what the North refers to as its victory against the US-led United Nations forces in the 1950-53 Korean War.

The North’s state media said Saturday, two days after the celebrations, that the regime will bolster exchanges with Russia and China, its two biggest allies, to deal with the changing global political landscape. Pyongyang highlighted the message in particular for Moscow rather than Beijing -- its traditional ally -- amid rising tension between Russia and the US.

“The talk also sincerely discussed some issues arising in further developing the strategic and tactical collaboration and cooperation between the two countries in the field of defence and security,” the Korean Central News Agency reported, referring to a meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.

The meeting, which took place a day before Thursday’s celebrations, was the first high-level dialogue for the isolated country since the COVID-19 pandemic started in early 2020. The North is starting to ease border controls. A Chinese delegation led by Li Hongzhong, who sits on the Communist Party of China’s 24-member Politburo, also arrived in Pyongyang that day for the event. Li briefly talked with Kim.

South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs, said that Pyongyang had clearly indicated it took Russia more seriously than China, citing the North’s coverage of Thursday's event, which included ceremonies and a nighttime military parade showcasing weapons.

North Korean leader Kim met with Shoigu four times during the event, while meeting with Li only once, according to the ministry. It was the first time for Kim to meet with a Russian defense minister.

Shin Jong-woo, a senior analyst at the Korea Defense and Security Forum, said the latest event to rally North Koreans against the US and its allies signals a clear gap in the way Pyongyang wants to build on ties with Moscow and Beijing.

“And it’s give and take. Russia wants arms and North Korea wants fuel, which it can’t get easily,” Shin said, referring to Russia’s war in Ukraine and North Korea’s international sanctions prompted by its nuclear weapons programs.

Shin cited a weapons exhibition tour North Korea leader Kim Jong-un led for Defense Minister Shoigu as a clear reference of what Shin says is the pressing priority for the two allies.

Hong Min, director of the North Korean division at the Korea Institute for National Unification, said Pyongyang and Moscow could follow up on their meeting with joint military exercises, though they would be limited in scope. “Whether Moscow would help Pyongyang with weapons technology is key,” Hong said.

And North Korea’s growing provocations, including repeated missile tests, are evidence that the regime is “feeling heat” from the stronger coalition of South Korea, the US and Japan, Hong added, referring to the group that has been working on North Korea's disarmament. Pyongyang refuses to engage with them, demanding that Washington first ease sanctions or its anti-North Korea policy.

At a briefing Friday, US National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said that the US and its allies currently see little room for diplomacy on North Korea’s denuclearization, and that the three countries, including South Korea and Japan, are seeking to advance military capabilities.

According to the White House the same day, Biden will host a trilateral summit with his South Korean and Japanese counterparts at Camp David on Aug. 18 to expand cooperation over issues including the “continued threat posed by the DPRK.” The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is the North’s official name.