Enjoying the show: North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at the launch of a military spy satellite on 21 November 2023. Image: Associated Press / Alamy
In return for providing ammunition to bolster Russia’s war effort in Ukraine, Pyongyang has sought something in return: assistance with developing its own space programme.
The recent satellite launch by North Korea caught the world’s attention for two reasons: firstly, it was the first satellite launch this year that succeeded after two failed attempts, and secondly, the apparent success follows Russian President Putin and North Korean leader Kim-Jong Un rubbing shoulders at Vostochny Cosmodrome a few months ago.
North Korea has been attempting to build a satellite programme for quite some time. While it has previously launched satellites in 2012 and 2016, doubts have been expressed as to whether either has been functional – the satellite launched in 2016 was reported to be tumbling, for example. While earlier attempts at spacefaring had been dismissed as a smokescreen for its ballistic missile programme, it now seems that North Korea is serious about developing a space programme. The US responded to the most recent launch with a fresh set of sanctions, aimed at foreign-based agents ‘that facilitate sanctions evasion, including revenue generation and missile-related technology procurement that support the DPRK’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs’.
Sanctions against North Korea
Given existing sanctions and constraints placed on North Korea, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has urged Russia to exercise caution, as one of the resolutions adopted by the UN Security Council – of which Russia is a permanent member – prohibits the ‘“direct or indirect supply, sale, or transfer” to North Korea, of […] [materials] and technologies that could contribute to North Korea’s WMD programs and ballistic missile related activities’. Further, a resolution from 2016 calls on states to prevent specialised teaching and training in a number of sectors, including aerospace engineering. Putin declared to the Russian media during Kim’s visit that helping North Korea build satellites was why the latter was there. In addition to opposing new sanctions against North Korea within the UN Security Council (together with China), this marks a shift.
While Russia does not have much to offer, a struggling North Korea is unlikely to turn down cooperation with anyone, especially if they can deliver food and fuel
Russia has become more brazen about its anti-Western stance and alliances. Openly expressing the wish to amplify their defence cooperation further shows that Russia is not afraid to signal that it is willing to cross red lines and to break sanctions. Russia has less to lose – it has already been isolated diplomatically from the West – but it is also clear it has to search for new allies to survive its extended three-day war in Ukraine. North Korea, as a country with even fewer allies and choices, seems to be a match. While Russia does not have much to offer, a struggling North Korea is unlikely to turn down cooperation with anyone, especially if they can deliver food and fuel. Furthermore, Russia can lend a helping hand to North Korea’s fledgling (if barely existing) space programme.
Russian Strife in Space
While Russia has a long-established reputation as a space power, this reputation exists more in history books than it does in reality. Russian space programmes have long suffered from endemic problems. These include sanctions, first established in 2014 and further extended in 2022; endemic corruption; a persistent brain-drain affecting not just the aerospace sector, but the country as a whole; and fluctuations in investment which, together with the aforementioned corruption, do not lend themselves to long-term timelines and consistent budgets. In fact, Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency – which also takes care of the country’s Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles – has not been able to invest in new developments for quite some time and even cut the wages of its senior staff when the renewed sanctions hit as a result of the extended invasion of Ukraine. Something that Russia can offer North Korea in any case is the legacy and expertise that experienced Russian aerospace engineers harbour.
While Russia is still a partner aboard the International Space Station, future collaboration projects have been frozen. Given Russia’s problems in the sector, it seems unlikely that Russia would be able to leverage significant developments by itself. Furthermore, Russia is reliant on Western components for its space systems, meaning that alternatives have to be found, which may delay programmes even further – for example, if the substitute components make the end product bulkier – thus changing timelines and plans down the line.
Simply put, an already struggling space programme in Russia has now been left isolated, both in orbit and on Earth. Geopolitical developments may have made the collaboration with North Korea possible in the first place, but they have also made it necessary for Russia itself.
What’s in it for Russia?
Moscow needs ammunition. South Korean Intelligence has claimed that in return for its space expertise, Russia is receiving shells from its new North Korean partners. CSIS analysis of satellite imagery has further revealed ‘an unprecedented number of arms transfers and other trade activities’ at the Russian-North Korean border. And unprecedent numbers are what Russia needs.
In the end, it is North Korea that is set to benefit the most from this partnership
Public estimates put the Russian daily usage rate at up to 10,000 shells, with a remaining stockpile of 4 million. Given that annual production is estimated at around 2 million and the fact that Russia has already expended more than 10 million shells over the first year of the conflict, it is likely that unless Russia is planning to scale down its level of activity in Ukraine, outside supplies are needed to at the very least maintain rates of fire.
It is estimated that North Korea has nearly 5,000 medium-range and just under 1,000 long-range artillery pieces along the demilitarised zone with South Korea but to what extent and for how long North Korea can supply ammunition to Russia is unclear, as both the size of existing stockpiles and production rates are unknown.
Beggars Can’t be Choosers
Whether it’s on space or other potential areas of convergence, neither Russia nor North Korea see each other as the dream collaborator in their respective endeavours – but ultimately, neither is left with much choice. In the end, it is North Korea that is set to benefit the most from this partnership: it will gain food, fuel, a potential military collaboration and assistance with its space programme in return for ammunition. To what extent North Korea will benefit from Russian expertise in space, how much it can build up its space programmes, and whether the dual-use nature of space assets will allow North Korea to bolster its ballistic missile programme are all questions remaining to be answered.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Research Analyst and Policy Lead