The highs and lows of Russia, North Korea relations

Despite their often-aligning interests, ties between Moscow and Pyongyang have not always been rosy. Here’s a timeline of key events.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, center right, and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un shake hands during their meeting in Vladivostok, Russia, Thursday, April 25, 2019.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, centre right, and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un shake hands during their meeting in Vladivostok, Russia, Thursday, April 25, 2019 [Yuri Kadobnov/Pool Photo via AP]

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is in Russia to meet President Vladimir Putin.

The summit on Wednesday will be Kim’s second with Putin, and the North Korean leader is expected to seek economic aid and military technology for his impoverished country.

The United States, which first revealed that the visit was imminent, said Kim and Putin were also likely to discuss North Korea providing Russia with weapons for its gruelling war in Ukraine. Such a move would mark a reversal of roles from the 1950-53 Korean War, when the Soviet Union provided ammunition, warplanes and pilots to support communist North Korea’s invasion of neighbouring South Korea.

Here’s how North Korea-Russia relations began and some of the highs and lows in their ties.

Cold War allies

  • When Japan’s colonial rule of Korea ended with its defeat in World War II in 1945, the peninsula was divided into a Soviet Union-backed north and US-backed south. Moscow installed Kim Il Sung – who had led a Korean contingent in the Soviet army – as leader in Pyongyang and he established the communist North Korean state in 1948.
  • Two years later, with the backing of the Soviet Union and China, Kim Il Sung’s forces invaded South Korea.
  • Troops from South Korea, the US and other countries battled to repel the invasion, with the ensuing conflict claiming millions of lives. An armistice in 1953 brought an end to the fighting but left the Korean Peninsula in a technical state of war.
  • The Soviet Union continued to provide economic and military assistance to North Korea throughout the Cold War, including in fuel and weapons. In 1961, Kim Il Sung and then-Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev signed a treaty in which Moscow committed to defend Pyongyang in the event of an attack.
Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, left, bids farewell to Kim Il Sung, North Korean Communist Party leader, prior to latter’s departure from Moscow on July 7, 1961.
Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, left, bids farewell to Kim Il Sung prior to the latter’s departure from Moscow on July 7, 1961 [AP]

Relations break off

  • The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, however, deprived North Korea of its main economic and security benefactor.
  • The post-communist government in Moscow under President Boris Yeltsin allowed the military alliance with Pyongyang to expire and cut off aid to the country. The loss of Soviet support, along with economic mismanagement, helped spark a deadly famine in North Korea.
  • The number of people who died in the mass starvation has been estimated in the hundreds of thousands.


  • Putin, who was elected Russia’s president in 2000, actively sought to restore Moscow’s ties with North Korea.
  • Months into his presidency, Putin travelled to Pyongyang to meet Kim Jong Il, who had taken over when his father died. The visit made Putin the first Russian leader to visit North Korea. He and Kim Jong Il agreed to put relations back on track and signed a broad military cooperation agreement.
  • Putin hosted Kim Jong Il for subsequent meetings in Russia in 2001 and 2002.
Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures as he talks to North Korean then-leader Kim Jong Il during their meeting in Vladivostok, Russia, on August 23, 2002.
Russian President Vladimir Putin talks to North Korea’s then-leader Kim Jong Il during their meeting in Vladivostok, Russia, on August 23, 2002 [Alexander Zemlianichenko/ AP]

Nuclear programme

  • Despite warmer relations, Russia twice supported United Nations Security Council sanctions against North Korea in the mid to late 2000s, over Pyongyang’s then-nascent nuclear weapons and missiles programme. Russia also participated in talks aimed at persuading Pyongyang to abandon its atomic programme in exchange for security and economic benefits.
  • But the talks, which also involved the US, China, South Korea and Japan, collapsed in December 2008.
  • Kim Jong Il made his third and final trip to Russia in 2011, four months before he died. His son Kim Jong Un then took over.
  • The next year, Russia agreed to write off 90 percent of the $11bn debt owed to it by North Korea.
  • But Moscow, along with China, also went on to support stringent UN Security Council sanctions against North Korea in 2016 and 2017 as the country began accelerating its nuclear and missile tests. The punitive measures included limiting oil supplies and cracking down on North Korean labour exports.
  • In 2017, Kim Jong Un took steps to repair ties with both Russia and China after also initiating diplomacy with South Korea and the US.
  • As talks with Washington collapsed two years later, Kim Jong Un travelled to the eastern Russian city of Vladivostok for his first summit with Putin. The two leaders pledged to expand cooperation but the meeting did not produce substantial results.

Shared isolation, closer ties

  • When Russia launched a full-scale invasion against Ukraine in 2022, North Korea backed Moscow, claiming the West’s “hegemonic policy” gave Putin justification to send troops into the neighbouring country. North Korea was also one of the only nations to recognise the independence of two Moscow-backed separatist regions in eastern Ukraine.
  • Russia has reciprocated by joining China in opposing new sanctions on North Korea, despite Pyongyang carrying out a record number of missile tests. In April of last year, Moscow and Beijing vetoed a US-led sanctions push against North Korea, publicly splitting the Security Council for the first time since it started punishing Pyongyang in 2006.
  • The US has since accused North Korea of providing Russia with arms, including by selling artillery to the Russian Wagner mercenary group. Both Moscow and Pyongyang have denied the claims.
  • But speculation about military cooperation between the two countries has grown since Sergei Shoigu, the Russian defence minister, visited North Korea in July. While in Pyongyang, Shoigu attended a huge military parade where Kim Jong Un showcased long-range missiles designed to target the US mainland. Kim also gave Shoigu a personal tour of a defence exhibition.
  • Following Shoigu’s trip, Kim Jong Un toured North Korea’s weapons factories in visits experts said had the dual goal of encouraging the modernisation of the country’s weaponry and examining artillery and other supplies that could be exported to Russia.
Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies