North Korea remains Russia's key ally in Ukraine invasion

An outcast in the international community, Vladimir Putin has turned to fellow pariah Kim Jong Un to reportedly aid in his invasion of Ukraine.

Photo illustration of Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin.
Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin's relations continue to flourish. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Narvikk/Getty Images, Jung Yeo-Je/Getty Images Getty images [3])

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may travel to Russia to discuss a possible deal that could see the Hermit Kingdom supply weapons to the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine, a U.S. official said.

Speaking to the Associated Press on the condition of anonymity, the official said the meeting is expected to happen later this month in the Russian port city of Vladivostok, 79 miles from the North Korean border. National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson said on Monday that the Kremlin’s defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, had traveled to the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, last month. It was reported that Shoigu was there to discuss possible arms deals. “We have information that Kim Jong Un expects these discussions to continue, to include leader-level diplomatic engagement in Russia,” Watson added.

Kim Jong Un shakes hands with Vladimir Putin, both posing for the camera, in front of North Korean and Russian flags.
Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin in Vladivostok, Russia, in an undated photo released in 2019 by North Korea's Central News Agency. (KCNA)

U.S. says North Korea to ‘pay a price’

On Tuesday, U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan warned that North Korea would “pay a price” for engaging in arms deals with Russia.

“Providing weapons to Russia for use on the battlefield to attack grain silos and the heating infrastructure of major cities as we head into winter, to try to conquer territory that belongs to another sovereign nation, is not going to reflect well on North Korea,” he said at a White House press conference.

When asked how the recent news reflected on Russia, Sullivan said: “I think it says a lot, having to turn to a country like North Korea to seek to bolster its defense capacity in a war it expected would be over in a week.”

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Kim Jong Un and Sergei Shoigu stand on a red carpet among several officials in uniform near posters of rocket launches in a building that appears to house military equipment.
Kim Jong Un and Russia's Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visit an exhibition of armed equipment on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the Korean War armistice on July 27. (KCNA via Reuters)

Kremlin’s response

Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for the Kremlin, said there was “nothing to say” about the reports speculating on possible military cooperation between the two countries.

Has North Korea supplied weapons to Russia before?

Officials in Washington have accused Kim of selling weapons to Russia since the invasion began, in February 2022. Last September, it was reported that Russia had been relying on Pyongyang for “millions of rounds, rockets and artillery shells.” The allegations were subsequently denied by North Korea’s Defense Ministry with a statement proclaiming that the country had “never exported weapons or ammunition to Russia” and that it “will not plan to export them.”

Smoke rises as a half dozen firefighters stand near a fire truck amid the rubble of a damaged building.
Firefighters douse the rubble of a building destroyed by a Russian missile strike in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv on Sept. 6, 2022. (Metin Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Months later, in December, the White House again accused North Korea of selling weapons to Russia for its war in Ukraine but this time through the Wagner mercenary group, headed by the late Yevgeny Prigozhin. “Today we can confirm that North Korea has completed an initial arms delivery to Wagner, which paid for that equipment,” White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said. “Last month, North Korea delivered infantry rockets and missiles into Russia for use by Wagner.” At one stage there were up to 50,000 Wagner soldiers fighting in Ukraine; they were involved in some of the most intense battles in the eastern city of Bakhmut.

Do the two countries have a relationship?

North Korea has been a historic ally of Russia, with a relationship going back to North Korea’s creation in 1948. Since becoming supreme leader in 2011, Kim has developed a seemingly beneficial relationship. In a public display of their closeness, Putin held a two-day summit in Russia over Pyongyang’s nuclear program after talks between Kim and then-President Donald Trump stalled.

A intact missile is half embedded into the middle of a road, in an area taped off, while police stand by, presumably a safe distance away.
A missile lands on a road in Kramatorsk, Ukraine, after a Russian shelling on Sept. 2. (Roman Chop/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images)

When Russia invaded Ukraine, North Korea was one of the only countries to openly support the move, blaming the U.S.’s “hegemonic policy” and saying that the West was guilty of “abuse of power.” North Korea is also one of a handful of countries in the world that recognize the two Russian-backed breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine.

It appeared that Russia’s isolation from the international community brought the two countries closer together. In a letter to Kim on North Korea’s liberation day in 2022, Putin wrote that their nations would “expand the comprehensive and constructive bilateral relations with common efforts.”