Washington, DC – For weeks, the United States has been warning North Korea against providing weapons to Russia for its war in Ukraine.
But experts say there is little Washington can do to halt cooperation between Moscow and Pyongyang, particularly as their leaders take steps to strengthen the countries’ relationship.
“The US right now doesn’t have any leverage over North Korea,” said Jenny Town, a senior fellow at the Stimson Center, a Washington, DC-based think-tank.
“We can impose more sanctions. We can step up interdictions. We can make life more difficult, but we can’t stop it from having equal relations with other countries — especially when we don’t have a relationship with it ourselves.”
In a rare meeting on Wednesday, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un pledged to help Russian President Vladimir Putin fight against the “hegemonic forces” that threaten Moscow’s security and interests.
Kim seldom leaves his country. But he travelled to Vostochny Cosmodrome, a spaceport in Russia’s Far East, this week to visit with Putin for several hours.
The two leaders did not make public any arms deals, which would be in violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions against North Korea and US sanctions against Russia. But Kim signalled strong backing for the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine without explicitly mentioning the conflict.
“The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has always expressed its full and unconditional support for all measures taken by the Russian government,” he said. “And I take this opportunity to reaffirm that we will always stand with Russia on the anti-imperialist front and the front of independence.”
US officials have said Russia is seeking munitions from North Korea, which possesses large stockpiles of Soviet-era ammunition and produces arms domestically.
Last week, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said there will be a “price” to pay if the two countries agree to an arms deal. And on Monday, the US Department of State threatened sanctions if North Korea provides weapons to Russia.
But North Korea and Russia are already two of the most sanctioned countries in the world.
Mark Barry, an independent Asian affairs analyst, said the US can impose more “toothless” sanctions on North Korea, but they would not stop Pyongyang from working with Moscow.
He said Russia, North Korea and China are likely to deepen their ties going forward, as Moscow looks to “project an image of solidarity” with its two Asian neighbours.
But Washington has repeatedly warned both Beijing and Pyongyang against coming to Russia’s aid in Ukraine.
Last year, the US accused North Korea of covertly shipping artillery shells to Russia, an allegation that was denied by both Moscow and Pyongyang.
Experts say that, while North Korean weapons could add to Russia’s dwindling firepower in Ukraine, they would not have a decisive impact on the war.
“Can North Korean small arms, artillery munitions help prolong Russia’s efforts? Probably. But it’s not going to be a game changer by any means,” Town said.
For his part, Barry said an increasingly isolated Putin is mainly pushing to show some geopolitical reach by bolstering ties with North Korea.
“Russia is in need of some things from North Korea — although I would argue that the real need is not so much 1950s-era ammunition and artillery shells, but it’s to project the power and influence that they really don’t have,” he said.
Barry also noted the logistic difficulty of transferring ammunition across thousands of miles, from North Korea to the Ukrainian front. The transportation alone could take months.
Beyond the Ukraine war, Wednesday’s meeting between Kim and Putin points to a broader, growing alliance between North Korea and Russia that also includes China, according to experts.
As the US helps Ukraine against the Russian invasion with billions of dollars in military aid, it is also working to counter North Korea by strengthening security ties with Japan and South Korea. Separately, Washington is locked in a strategic competition with Beijing.
Town said Moscow, Pyongyang and Beijing may have different agendas, but they are strengthening their partnerships in opposition to what they see as the “reciprocal bloc” of Washington, Seoul and Tokyo in northeast Asia.
Meanwhile, tensions have been escalating around the Korean Peninsula as the US continues to hold joint military drills with South Korea and Japan, and North Korea steps up its ballistic missile testing.
Earlier this year, North Korea warned of a nuclear confrontation after the US sent a submarine with nuclear-armed ballistic missiles to South Korea.
Diplomacy between the US and North Korea has been on ice for years. Former US President Donald Trump held two summits with Kim in 2018 and 2019, but the meetings did not produce longterm, tangible results.
The failure of the 2019 meeting in Hanoi — which was cut short by Trump — was particularly jarring to Kim, who had built up expectations among North Koreans that economic relief was imminent, analysts say.
North Korea remains under heavy UN and US sanctions over its nuclear and missile programmes.
Barry said Kim had travelled 65 hours by train to meet with Trump in 2019, but he ultimately left Hanoi with nothing to show.
“He was incredibly embarrassed. He lost a lot of face,” Barry explained, adding that the North Korean leader has since given up on the US.
While the administration of US President Joe Biden says Washington is open to dialogue with Pyongyang, any negotiations would focus on North Korea’s nuclear programme, not broader relations.
“There’s an arms race going on in Northeast Asia,” Town said. “The idea that North Korea would agree unilaterally in the middle of this arms race … to put controls and limits on its own weapons development is really unrealistic to begin with.”
With the “disillusionment” that followed the Hanoi summit, North Korea has entrenched itself more deeply with Russia and China, she added, especially as Moscow deals with its own sanctions.
That bloc formation — absent comprehensive diplomacy — could lead to escalation and prolong conflicts, experts say.
“It makes everything more difficult. It makes it harder to reach across ideological lines, first of all,” Town said. “It may lead to more emboldened actions if there is more a sense of collective security amongst those three countries.”