For many decades, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has been regarded as a time capsule with an outdated totalitarian regime, carrying on the Stalinist legacy even after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

From a Western perspective, North Korea seems untouchable and too peculiar to be scrutinized through the lens of liberal democracy. Due to its almost hermetic existence, this Eastern communist oasis has raised multiple questions in the diplomatic world, especially after 1994, when a traumatizing famine caught Pyongyang off-guard, killing over one million people in less than five years.

Despite the government’s attempts to propagandistically minimize the fatalities of starvation through fake reports, it was clear that Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Il was determined to reinvigorate the regime in order to maintain the credibility of socialism in front of a starved and overworked crowd. In fact, one of the factors that worsened the crisis was North Korean-Russian relations suddenly crumbling once Boris Yeltsin came to power in 1991. For the first time in history, Pyongyang found itself alone with no ally to rely on economically and diplomatically.

Fully committed to the democratization of Russia, Yeltsin decided to cut off any aid to Pyongyang and establish diplomatic relations with Seoul instead. This polarized regional geopolitical landscape slowly pushed North Korea into a dark age of isolation.
Much to the disbelief of the international community, Vladimir Putin’s emergence as the Russian President redefined North Korean relations with Russia.. The unforeseen meeting with Kim Jong-Il in September 2023 raised doubts in regard to President Putin’s intentions, as it paved the path for what the Western democratic world fears the most today: a totalitarian axis in the Far East.

With several ongoing conflicts in the world, is this Eastern bilateral pact yet another concern for the international community? Will North Korea’s growing friendship with Russia impact the current world order and weaken the monolithic democracy of the West?
Even though the North Korean-Russian relationship was often regarded as ‘rocky,’ especially during the United Nations’ sanctions against Pyongyang’s developing nuclear program in the mid-2000s, Russia’s attempts to mediate the growing rivalry between a rebellious North Korea and its irritated neighbors would exemplify the Kremlin’s determination to maintain this old ‘friendship’ for the time to come.

In 2024, North Korea is more active than ever. Kim Jong-Un, the unpredictable son of Kim Jong-Il, seems to be even more intent on pursuing his country’s mission than his father was. By aiming to reframe North Korea’s role on the international scene as a totalitarian country with nuclear ambitions and its own political clique, he boldly antagonizes the liberal democratic order. There are currently no definite answers to these troubling questions. After Kim Jong-Il’s death, it was expected that North Korea would take on a more self-assured route in geopolitics in order to boost its national prestige and nuclear capabilities, continuing to dismiss the United Nations’ warnings and sanctions. Even more alarming is the Russian Federation’s decision to block the formation of a new UN monitoring panel that could keep an eye on the Korean peninsula and make sure that international sanctions are still in order.

With the ongoing war in Eastern Ukraine, Vladimir Putin seems unstoppable and his power politics know no limits when it comes to building controversial alliances with rebel countries like North Korea, potentially discouraging the West in its quest of global democratization. Though territorially small and economically underdeveloped, the North Korean state should not be underestimated because of its quiet diplomacy with Russia, China, and, surprisingly, Iran. This was unambiguously illustrated by Pyongyang sending a delegation to Tehran on April 24 with the not-so-peaceful purpose of selling arms. This appears to be the work of a nonconforming Russia that wants to gather its closest allies, united by a common anti-democratic and anti-Western vision. Iran and North Korea allegedly cooperated in the nuclear field approximately four decades ago; unconfirmed sources claim that Iran has always been a friend in the shadows to North Korea, and Pyongyang most likely launched its nuclear program with Tehran’s help and Russia’s taciturn confirmation.

Did the global community suspect such geopolitical shifts? Not really. Things have become clearer after the 2022 invasion of Ukraine which offered the chance for Iran and North Korea to support Russia, in spite of the international condemnation. While Teheran provided Shahed drones for the Russian army, Kim Jong-Un approved the delivery of missiles and containers of munitions that could aid the Kremlin in sustaining its military endeavors.
The North Korean revival seemed truly unlikely twenty years ago, especially after the famine and economic downfall of the late 1990s. But contemporary geopolitics finds a way to prove otherwise. With each Supreme Leader’s rise to power, the political dimensions of North Korea have always taken a radical turn, primarily because of its fierce totalitarianism that prevents the population from revolting against the abusive regime.

As North Korean “founding father” Kim Il-Sung aligned the country with Soviet expectations and plans, his grandson Kim Jong-Un is now fully determined to advance the friendship with Russia and revive its fragile economy, so as to consolidate its regional status by provoking South Korea and its Western allies. Last year’s production of North Korean arms for Russia has been reported to surpass “millions of artillery rounds”, according to the US Pentagon which is greatly concerned about what Kim Jong-Un might receive in return for his political and military contributions to the Russian-Ukrainian conflict.

Pyongyang is aware of the impact of its war efforts on the regime. Since its attempts to bounce back from the recent economic downfall were unsuccessful, the Supreme Leader’s credibility as the central figure of the regime has been eroding. It would be safe to assume that Kim Jong-Un is currently trying to maintain his power and equilibrium within an overburdened society that is progressively losing faith in socialism. The alignment with Russia seems like the only way for North Korea to open itself up and improve its geopolitical position in the Far East, in spite of international sanctions.

Whether or not this governmental move proves to be successful is only a matter of time, and it’s crucial for Western liberal countries to stay alert and keep an eye on Eastern affairs. Right now, North Korea might not have the ability to directly challenge democratic nations, as it offers limited support to Russia in its war against Ukraine. However, its unpredictable friendship with the Kremlin still remains a legitimate concern for the international community.

Written by Xenia Oana Cojocaru, Edited by Marlene Palan
Photo credit: Pixabay