After a tumultuous few months in Russia in which he became the target of a Wagner coup, defence minister Sergei Shoigu arrived in North Korea on Tuesday night to a red carpet reception in a sign of the growing importance of the relationship to both nations.
The Russian delegation was joined by Chinese counterparts as the first official foreign visitors to Pyongyang since the Covid-19 pandemic struck, to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the conclusion of the Korean civil war, and to build on their strategic partnership.
Warm words were exchanged with the hosts welcoming “Comrade Shoigu” and Russia’s defence ministry hailing a “milestone in the development of co-operation between the two countries”.
Russia and North Korea have historically enjoyed close ties dating back to an alliance during the Korean civil war, which has grown closer as both nations have become pariahs under international sanctions. Russia has used its veto at the UN to protect its ally from sanctions, along with China.
As the relationship assumes greater importance, it is also changing, analysts believe.
“The fundamental structure at play here is that both countries are extremely isolated from the rest of the international community,” says Taehwa Hong, an Indo-Pacific security researcher at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
“But we are looking at a unique phenomenon where Russia is the one who needs help from North Korea.”
While Russia has previously turned down invitations to Pyongyang, it is in no position to do so now, says Mr Hong.
The US government has repeatedly claimed that Pyongyang is supplying military aid to Moscow in violation of an arms embargo, a claim that has yet to be proved but is under investigation by the UN.
North Korea has the means to be a useful supplier, says Mr Hong, having built up large stockpiles of ammunition for artillery and small arms since the conclusion of the Korean civil war.
Russia, like Ukraine, has been scouring the globe to find sources to replenish ammunition stocks that are being depleted by high consumption rates on the battlefield.
“The North Korean military uses Soviet/Russian standard weapons and ammunition, so technically compatible even if the quality may be inferior,” says Pieter Wezeman, an arms trade specialist at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
Pyongyang could also gain more from the partnership. The regime is thought to be desperate for foreign currency, with mystery around the currencies used in trade with Russia. Dictator Kim Jong-un has little use for conventional ammunition, which could offer a lucrative revenue stream as he pursues advanced missile and nuclear programmes.
There have been indications of a slightly healthier economy in recent months, with reports from South Korea of increasing imports of construction equipment, food, and medical supplies, which analysts believe could indicate a cash injection.
Trade between Russia and North Korea has increased over the course of the war, with the reopening of a rail link between the countries, as well as the resumption of oil and grain shipments from Russia to its partner. Pyongyang has also increased the volume of trade with its primary benefactor, China.
Beijing has its own interests in strengthening the Moscow-Pyongyang axis, suggests Mr Hong, marshalling the anti-Western powers in the Asia-Pacific region against US allies such as Japan and South Korea.
China could encourage Russia to play a “spoiler” role raising tensions between North and South Korea to advance its ambitions in Taiwan.
“The concern here in South Korea is that a contingency in Taiwan will be coupled with a separate contingency in the Korean peninsula…because they want American assets in the region to be spread out,” says Mr Hong.
“The China-Russia-North Korea triangle is dangerous not only because they can provide direct assistance to each other, but also because they could each open up a new front,” he added.
Beyond pragmatic exchanges of weaponry, oil, and diplomatic support, there is also a growing cultural connection between the outcast nations, says Dr Sergey Radchenko, a Cold War historian at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
The Kim dynasty was installed by Stalin in 1945, he notes, and the Soviet influence remains.
“The North Koreans pivot back to their shared history with Russia… [and] they are in no way disturbed by the fact that Putin’s regime, far from being a Communist ally, is basically a far right fascist autocracy,” he said.
The meeting in Pyongyang may indicate a reversal of roles as Russia leans further into totalitarianism and isolation.
“Russia will look more and more like North Korea,” predicts Dr Radchenko.