Russian and North Korea, both beset by punishing economic sanctions, appear to be looking for ways to help one another while thumbing their noses at the rules-based order espoused by the wider international community, experts say.
Five months after invading Ukraine, Russia is being hit by successive rounds of sanctions by the U.S. and its partners.
The latest came Tuesday when the U.K. announced new sanctions on Russian officials. Weeks earlier, on June 28, the U.S. targeted 70 entities, many of them in Russia's defense industry.
The European Union issued a sixth rounds of sanctions that included Russia's central bank, top officials and oil exports, and on July 17 proposed a seventh sanctions package that will impact Russian gold and an expanded list of dual-use goods and technology.
Short of allies, Moscow has begun casting about for new economic relationships.
Russian Ambassador to North Korea Alexander Matsegora said in an interview with the Russian daily newspaper Izvestia on July 19 that Moscow could hire North Korean workers to rebuild Ukraine's war-ruined Donbas region, now largely under Russian control. Pyongyang showed interest in importing goods manufactured in the region, according to The Moscow Times.
"It just shows the degree to which [Russian President Vladimir] Putin remains isolated. Now he's got to turn to North Korea," remarked John Kirby, The White House's National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications, that same day.
VOA's Korean Service contacted the Russian Embassy in Washington and Foreign Ministry in Moscow requesting comment on Matsegora's remarks but did not receive a reply. The service also contacted the North Korean Mission to the U.N. requesting confirmation of Matsegora's remarks but did not receive a reply.
The U.N. Security Council, of which Russia is a permanent member, passed a resolution in December 2017 banning member states from hiring North Korean workers in response to Pyongyang's launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile the month before.
Eager for foreign currency, Pyongyang had long dispatched North Korean workers to Russia to make money to send home. The U.S. estimated 30,000 North Korean workers were in Russia before the U.N. issued sanctions. Many remained in Russia and worked using student or travel visas. In a report submitted to the U.N. March 2020, Russia acknowledged that 511 North Koreans remained in the country.
"Moscow has violated the North Korea sanctions ever since the moment that Russia voted for them," said Anthony Ruggiero, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. But Matsegora's remarks indicate an outright willingness to "blatantly advocate for such a violation," according to Bruce Klingner, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation.
Sergey Radchenko, a Cold War historian at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, said, "Now that Russia itself is under sanctions, it obviously has no reason to abide by any restrictions."
Experts see mutual benefits in the growing cooperation between Russia and North Korea, both of which are willing to break rules and flout norms established by the U.S. and like-minded countries.
Patricia Kim, a fellow focusing on East Asia at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, said, "The two states see clear parallels in their respective situations and share a common cause in opposing sanctions and the U.S.-led 'Western order.'"
She continued, "It is quite likely we'll see the deepening of diplomatic, economic and perhaps even military ties between North Korea and Russia in the coming months as both states face global isolation."
Harry Kazianis, president of the Rogue States Project which bills itself as a bipartisan national security think tank, said cooperation "would not be surprising as both Moscow and Pyongyang are so isolated that they would try and work together in any way possible."
Once friendly relations between Moscow and Pyongyang deteriorated after the collapse of the Soviet Union but the Ukraine war is bringing them together again, analysts say.
Shortly after the outbreak of war in February, North Korea defended Russia's invasion of Ukraine. In March, along with Belarus, Eritrea, and Syria, Pyongyang voted against a U.N. resolution demanding that Russia end the invasion.
On July 14, ahead of Matsegora's remarks, Pyongyang recognized the independence of two Russian-backed breakaway regions – the self-styled Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics in Ukraine's Donbas region.
Five days later, North Korea's Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying its relations with Moscow "are reaching a new strategic height."
'Weakening the liberal democratic order'
Ken Gause, director of the Adversary Analytics Program at the nonprofit research and analysis organization CNA, said Matsegora's remarks show "the Russians are focused on weakening the liberal democratic order, the way the international community is structured to support U.S. national interest, from the Russian point of view."
He added that Russia and China "are going to carve off pieces of the international community" such as North Korea "that really don't want to have to deal with the U.S. and all of its rules and regulations" and bring them under its shadow.
Russia has also turned to Iran for weapons to use in the Ukraine war, said White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan on July 12.
Patrick Cronin, the Asia-Pacific security chair at the California-based Hudson Institute, said, "Russia is keen to show that it retains the initiative in its war with Ukraine, and to do that it needs any willing partner to resist being shunned by the international community."
He continued, "Pariah state helping another pariah state sums up the transactional relationship."
Going forward, Cronin said, Pyongyang could provide "cheap labor" while Moscow supplies energy and food. He added, "There is potential for a stronger military technology partnership that can help North Korea with its growing nuclear weapons arsenal."
North Korea is suspected of having completed the preparations for its seventh nuclear weapons test.
Samuel Wells, Cold War fellow at the Wilson Center, said, "The expression of this interest in economic cooperation may be a trial balloon," but it "certainly points to a limitation to [the use of] sanctions for policy."