North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un concluded his six-day trip to Russia on Sunday, beginning his journey home via his personal armored train. Much like a tourist, he reportedly returned home with a number of souvenirs, including five explosive “kamikaze” drones, a reconnaissance drone, and a “bulletproof vest” – gifts from a regional Russian governor.
The visit to the Russian Far East was Kim’s first official trip abroad since the COVID-19 pandemic, and the North Korean leader met directly with Russian President Vladimir Putin last week as the pair toured a space launch facility. Kim also visited a number of military sites, shipyards, and aircraft factories.
Closer Ties between North Korea and Russia
The trip marked the closer ties between Moscow and Pyongyang, and the potential technology sharing has worried many in the West. Putin has offered to provide assistance that could allow North Korea to launch a spy satellite into space – as its technology is decades behind Russia’s.
As the BBC reported, helping put a satellite in space so North Korea can watch its enemies is vastly different from the Kremlin aiding a nuclear and missiles program banned by the UN Security Council. Pyongyang has nuclear warhead-topped intercontinental ballistic missiles which in theory could reach the U.S. – yet they can’t fly through space successfully. Moscow could provide the technology to Pyongyang, which could put the U.S. within striking distance.
North Korea could perhaps pay back the debt – as well as an even older debt to Moscow – by supporting the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine. Already North Korea has provided ordnance to Moscow, but it could next provide something else in seemingly short supply – namely troops!
While Kim wouldn’t likely officially support the war, it is possible “volunteers” from North Korea could bolster the Kremlin’s forces.
North Korea wouldn’t be the only Russian ally to send such volunteers, as there have been reports of Syrians fighting for Russia.
Another Russian partner has been less eager to aid Moscow however.
Earlier this month, Cuba arrested 17 over the alleged recruitment of its citizens to fight for Russia in Ukraine, claiming some of the recruits were misled into believing they’d be working in Russia, not fighting in its war.
The two nations are political allies and Cubans do not require a visa to travel to Russia – and many go there to study or to work. It now appears that some have been recruited to fight in Ukraine, as Russian law allows foreign nationals to enlist in its military. However, Cuban law generally doesn’t allow its citizens to serve as mercenaries, even as its military advisors had provided aid to a number of nations and insurgent forces during the Cold War.
A North Korean Legion?
The Korean People’s Army, which was founded as an anti-Japanese guerilla force in 1932, took its current form 75 years ago with the establishment of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). It is the armed wing of the Workers’ Party of Korea and considers its primary adversaries to be the Republic of Korea Armed Forces and the United States Forces Korea, across the Korean Demilitarized Zone.
It is now the second largest military organization in the world, with 29.9 percent of the North Korean population actively serving, in reserve or in a paramilitary capacity. This includes some 200,000 Special Forces troops.
North Korea is technically still at war with its neighbor to the South, but it hasn’t officially been involved in a conflict abroad – yet Pyongyang has sent its forces to support its allies in a number of conflicts, including the Vlora Incident in Albania in the 1960s, the Simba Rebellion in the Congo in 1964, the Communist insurgency in Thailand, and most notably the Vietnam War.
The role in that latter conflict was downplayed, and in fact, it was only in 2011 after Romania released a classified document from that Cold War that it was noted that North Korea dispatched personnel to Vietnam to carry out psychological warfare against the nearly 313,000 South Korean troops sent to fight against the North Vietnamese between 1965 and 1973. A North Korean Air Force regiment was also sent to help defend the skies of North Vietnam from U.S. air attacks.
More recently, North Korea has provided support in the civil wars in Ethiopia, Angola, Sri Lanka, and Yemen. Though the number of troops was small, North Korea’s military has likely gained much experience in guerilla warfare tactics that could be useful to the Kremlin.
Though it is unclear if Kim and Putin actually discussed the sending of any “volunteers,” it should be noted that Moscow played a significant role in the Korean War aiding the North.
Though it denied it at the time, it is now a known fact that the Soviet Union provided diplomatic support, as well as strategic and grand tactical planning – while more importantly, it supplied and trained the air forces of both China and North Korea. In addition, Soviet “volunteer” pilots flew aircraft with Chinese or North Korean markings, and after the war even claimed to have shot down more than 400 aircraft.
Perhaps Kim will repay that debt with some ground forces.
Author Experience and Expertise
A Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer. He has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,200 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, politics, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes and Clearance Jobs. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.