North Korea is a special kind of thorn for the United States. The Stalinist dictatorship has a million armed men trained like a “laser” on South Korea, where America has permanently stationed more than 20,000 troops. Massive amounts of North Korean artillery could turn Seoul into a fiery ball in a matter of minutes. Russia knows this and has proceeded to enable the North Korean regime as a way to poke its finger in the eye of the United States for its support of the Poroshenko government in Kiev.
Without access to classified information, it is difficult to assess the depth of Russian involvement in North Korea. However, there are several issues that can be surmised with current public information.
First of all, it does not seem like the people of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea are still starving. This positive outcome for the population is a result in large part to deals with Russia regarding wheat and other commodities. The wheat is being delivered under favorable loan conditions which will most likely not be paid back by the North. Russia knows this but is delivering the grains anyway. These deliveries also take the pressure off the North Korean regime to direct funds away from military spending to feed people.
Second, Russia is delivering fuel, lots of it. Fuel has been arriving to North Korean ports as well as being shipped through pipelines in China to the DPRK. In addition to being used to produce other synthetic products, such as plastics, etc., the fuel is being used to generally lubricate the moribund North Korean economy. Experts expect these financially lopsided transactions to continue.
Another benefit of the fuel transfers is that Soviet made MIG-29 aircraft are now flying frequently. The fighter plane technology was acquired by the USSR in the late 1980s and at one point there were 500 Soviet technicians in Pyongyang working at the aircraft manufacturing facilities. North Korea is keen to show Russia these planes are still flying. The free fuel allows this to happen. It is unknown if Russia is also supplying spare parts and maintenance capability for the aircraft as well.
With photo-shopped images floating around the Internet today of Kim Jong-un watching a North Korean submarine-launched missile test recently and claims of achieving the ability to miniaturize a nuclear warhead, it is worth asking the question if Russian help is also enabling North Korean missile technology development. North Korea is aggressively attempting to build submarine-launched ballistic missile capability (SLBM). Most likely, the submarines used are a hybrid of re-engineered Soviet technology which North Korea acquired in the early 1990s, when they purchased obsolete Golf 2 subs from Moscow, and Chinese technology.
The real question arises with the missiles themselves. It is speculated that the missile design is from a reverse engineering of Russian technology as well. Providing missile technology to North Korea is where the Kremlin could really cause problems for the Americans. It is public knowledge that the North has ties to al Qaeda and other bad actors around the world and is a strong supporter of terrorism globally. Russia is well aware of this fact. Direct arms transfers from Russia to the North Koreans has not begun on a large scale but the missile question remains unanswered.
Russia has made a big splash about improving its relations with the DPRK. The North Korean Defense Minister recently went to Moscow as well as the North Korean central bank president, to meet with their Russian counterparts. Rumors of his death by AAA firing squad notwithstanding, it seems the defense minister’s trip to Moscow will result in more military-to-military interaction with Russia.
Russia has also stepped up economic cooperation with the North and is keen to conduct as much trade as possible denominated in rubles.
In spite of Kim Jong-un’s last-minute cancellation in attending the Victory Day Parade in Moscow recently, Russia is keen to show the world it is not isolated and the North Korean leader is only too eager to help. In fact, Russia actually presented Kim Jong-un with a medal in Moscow recently for his ancestors’ help in defeating Nazi Germany in World War II. Russian support for Pyongyang is only to continue and grow, especially if the conflict in East Ukraine heats up again.