Increasingly isolated on the world stage, Russia has turned to another pariah, North Korea, to help it keep up with the vast amount of ammunition and weapons it is expending during the invasion of Ukraine – with Kyiv stuanchly defending its territory. Western nations – and neighbours of both Moscow and Pyongyang – are expressing their alarm that a closer Russia-North Korea alliance could bolster Vladimir Putin’s war machine in Ukraine and embolden Kim Jong-un.
On Sunday, Kim’s regime launched its new intermediate-range solid-fuel hypersonic missile, its first launch of 2024 according to state media, in a move that was condemned by the United States, South Korea and Japan. Pyongyang said the test fire was aimed to verify the “reliability” of new multi-stage, high-thrust solid-fuel engines and an intermediate-range missile loaded with a hypersonic maneuverable controlled warhead, state media KCNA said.
For North Korea's part, relations with Russia have not always been as warm as they were at the height of the Soviet Union, but the country is reaping benefits from Moscow's need for friends. If confirmed, the launch of the hypersonic missile technology, which Russia is using in Ukraine, will raise eyebrows in the West.
Moscow and Pyongyang have denied arms deals but have said they would deepen cooperation across the board and Kim made a rare visit outside Russia to meet Vladimir Putin in September last year and the pictures of their lingering handshake and opulent lunches were telling of what is now beginning to emerge.
With the war just one month short of entering into its second year, Putin’s fighting machine has been chewing through its stocks and the Kremlin is seeking to replenish the dwindling supplies with support from Iran and North Korea.
South Korean and US officials have said that Pyongyang has shipped its ballistic missiles more than a million rounds of artillery - that weapons experts say it has in millions of rounds.
North Korea, in return, could be seeking assistance for its struggling economy and potentially technology to enhance its nuclear arsenal.
Soon after the Kim visit, Pyongyang claimed success in putting its spy satellite into orbit in November after at least two failed attempts in the previous years in what South Korean and US officials were with the technology provided by Moscow.
On Monday, the Kremlin claimed Russia is developing partnership with North Korea “in all areas” and described it as “our closet neighbour”
It came as North Korean foreign minister Choe Son Hui arrived in Moscow to work on agreements reached between Putin and Kim during their meeting at Russia’s Vostochny satellite launch centre.
The rekindling of the partnership that has roots going back to the Soviet era may tip the scales, altering the dynamics in two volatile regions, both in Ukraine and the Korean Peninsula, experts say.
It becomes even more critical as it comes at a time of apparent US fatigue in investing in Ukraine and swelling distractions in the Middle East with Israel Hamas war and Houthis in the Red Sea.
“The two pariah states, facing robust Western economic and technical sanctions, are drawing closer due to the war in Ukraine and Russia’s urgent need for ammunition after nearly two years of continuous war,” Swaran Singh, a professor of international relations at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, India tells The Independent.
“This alliance marks a role reversal,” Singh says, adding that it was the Soviet Union that supported the formation of North Korea and under Kim’s grandfather Kim Il-sung’s leadership it was funded, supplied and supported with defence equipment by the Soviets.
“Western nations should view this growing collaboration with apprehension, as it strengthens both North Korea and Russia in their prolonged confrontation with the West."
The concerns that immediately cropped up after Kim’s visit to Russia appeared to have taken shape in frontlines on Ukraine when the White House said last week that Russia had fired North Korean-supplied short-range ballistic missiles in Ukraine.
It was the first time the US intelligence shared details about North Korean ballistic missiles which are self-guided rockets that can hit targets 900km (500 miles) away
Hours after the White House made the accusations, Kim defiantly for more missile launch vehicle production in the country and emphasised their strategic importance as he toured a facility of weapon production.
Leif-Eric Easley, professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, says there is more to these diplomating meetings and missile tests that meets the eye.
“Pyongyang’s show of force should be of concern beyond Seoul, as its military cooperation with Moscow adds to the violence in Ukraine, and because it may be more willing to challenge the US and its allies while global attention is fixed on the Middle East,” Easley says.
Jagannath Panda, the Head of the Stockholm Center for South Asian and Indo-Pacific Affairs, says there is a “growing confidence between Russia and North Korea” and Pyongyang is taking advantage of the Ukraine war.
“This is a post-Ukraine development and North Korea aims to take a lot of strategic advantage from a divided world politics between the West and Russia-China chemistry,” Panda tells The Independent.
Panda underscores that what is concerning is that North Korea has got clear support for arms deals by two UNSC permanent powers-Russia and China- despite the sanctions.
“That comes as a clear danger for the West, particularly for the United States,” he says.
He adds that North Korea is engaging with China and Russia on critical technology transfer and that illegal arms transfer “must worry” the West.
The cooperation is set to spell an even tougher new year for Ukraine which is weary from two years of conflict, with the ground offensive unsuccessful in reclaiming substantial portions of occupied territory amid a deadlock over US funding, thanks to an impasse in Congress.
Military and financial aid packages, valued at more than $100 billion (£79bn), are currently stalled in the US and the European Union
“The assistance that we provided has now ground to a halt,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said as lawmakers have two weeks to negotiate a fresh spending agreement and prevent a partial government shutdown.
“The sidelining of Ukraine in the face of other geopolitical concerns has provided a breeding space for Russia and North Korea to strengthen their partnership”, Singh says.