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Russian visit boosts North Korea's struggling economy

June 18, 2024

Vladimir Putin is traveling to North Korea, a country benefiting from an arms deal with Russia. The agreement includes the transfer of shells and ballistic missiles, enhancing Pyongyang's finances amid wider sanctions.

Russian President Vladimir Putin standing and speaking during a press conference in Tashkent, Uzbekistan
The North Korean government has made numerous arms transfers to Russia since last August, Seoul intelligence officials sayImage: Mikhail Metzel/REUTERS

Amid heightened tension on the Korean peninsula, Russian President Vladimir Putin is set to arrive in North Korea on June 18 for a two-day meeting with its leader Kim Jong Un.

It is Putin's first visit to the country in 24 years and is a demonstration of their deepening dependence on each other.

American and South Korean officials have accused North Korea of secretly providing military equipment to Russia to sustain its invasion of Ukraine; something both Pyongyang and Moscow deny.  

But since August, North Korea has made numerous weapons transfers to Russia, according to South Korea's National Intelligence Service. Other reports suggest Pyongyang has delivered ballistic missiles to Russia's military, citing US satellite images.

Added together, North Korea, the world's most isolated state, is expected to return to economic growth for the first time since before the pandemic this year as weapons deliveries boost state coffers. This would be a big bump to the North's tiny, centrally planned economy, which South Korea's central bank said was worth just $24.5 billion (€22.8 billion) in 2022.

US: Russia firing North Korean missiles at Ukraine

Russia deal could offset COVID, sanctions impact

Not only did COVID-19 lockdowns decimate already-anemic growth, contracting by 4.5% in 2020, but international sanctions levied in 2016 over Pyongyang's nuclear program had earlier hurt its main export of coal to China. The two crises exacerbated severe hardship in a country where 60% of the population lives below the poverty line.

"The economy has been on the decline for the past five years. So the weapons deal with Russia will help a return to positive growth of around 1% in 2024," Anwita Basu, Head of Europe, Country Risk at Fitch Solutions, told DW.

Basu said her forecast was a guesstimate as Pyongyang doesn't report economic data. Instead, most statistics are gleaned from South Korea's central bank and North Korea's trading partners.

Last year, North Korea's trade with China, by far its largest partner, recovered to pre-pandemic levels of $2.3 billion, according to Beijing, having dropped dramatically between 2016 and 2018 after sanctions were imposed.

Describing the ammunition transfer as a "mega deal" for Pyongyang, Basu said it was clearly an "act of desperation" on the part of Russia, which is increasingly isolated globally due to the decision to invade its neighbor.

A report published in October by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), the world's oldest defense and security think tank, said Pyongyang's decision to deliver munitions to Russia "underscores the grave threat that North Korea poses to international security." It warned the deal would have "profound consequences for the war in Ukraine and security dynamics in East Asia."

Korean People's Army (KPA) soldiers march during a mass rally on Kim Il Sung square in Pyongyang on September 9, 2018
As well as its defense sector, North Korea has one of the world's largest militariesImage: Ed Jones/AFP/AFP/Getty Images

Defense sector an engine of growth

North Korea's defense sector is one of the country's largest employers, with an estimated two million workers out of a population of 26 million. The sector makes a significant contribution to the economy, along with agriculture. 

Originally just a supplier to its own military, North Korea has found a few key overseas customers for its weapons and ammunition — mostly former Soviet countries or those in sub-Saharan Africa. Most of the parts are imported from other heavily sanctioned countries, including China and Iran.

"North Korea has wanted two things for a while now: one is legitimacy as a nation, which it doesn't have because the Korean War (1950-53) hasn't ended. The second is a sustainable defense sector and military, which is capable of defending its sovereignty," Basu said, adding that the Russia deal helps to reinforce both.

Despite the importance of the defense sector, Basu is skeptical that ordinary North Koreans will benefit from the Russian weapons deal. The country has, for many years, been heavily reliant on foreign aid to feed its population and many people suffer from malnutrition and other health issues.

"It's likely they [ordinary citizens] won't gain much because North Korea remains an autocratic state with a lot of corruption," she said. "At the same time, the additional income to the defense sector will improve the North's external financing ability — so access to food and technology imports could become easier."

People push a cart carrying cabbage in Hamhung on North Korea's northeast coast, on In November 22, 2017
After decades of isolation, North Korea remains one of Asia's poorest nationsImage: Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

Bloomberg News reported at the start of 2024 that the state is expected to profit from the sale of artillery shells to Russia to the tune of at least $1 billion, while Moscow usually pays several million dollars for ballistic missiles. 

Basu questioned how much of the deal was in cash or part of a barter arrangement for advanced Russian military capabilities and economic aid.

Munitions deal could lead to closer alliance

The Fitch Solutions economist also noted that North Korea, along with Russia, is renowned for its advanced cyberattack capabilities, with the state training thousands of hackers. 

"So that could be another kind of area for the two sides to work together in the future," Basu said.

In a sign that both countries are seeking to further boost ties, Putin "expressed his willingness to visit [North Korea] in the near future, the North's state news agency KCNA reported last week. It would be his first visit to Pyongyang in more than two decades. Putin and Kim held bilateral talks in Russia's Far East in September.

The economic benefits, however, could be shortlived if a diplomatic solution is found this year to the Ukraine war, or if China, which is a major ally to Pyongyang, weakens its support for both North Korea and Russia.

Edited by: Ashutosh Pandey

This article was originally published on February 1, 2024 and has been updated to reflect Vladimir Putin's visit to North Korea on June 18 with reporting by AP.