Ballet diplomacy in Pyongyang: Russian ties in the spotlight

When the Vladivostok Ballet performed ''Sleeping Beauty'' in Pyongyang during March to mark the 75th anniversary of an agreement on mutual economic and cultural cooperation, it underscored how Russia's ties with North Korea are deepening in an era of conflict and geopolitical confusion.

In the audience was a Russian delegation led by Deputy Culture Minister Andrei Maluishev. North Korea's state media called the event an example of cultural exchange made possible by the leadership of both nations.

Six months ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un met at a spaceport in Russia's Far East.

Since then, Pyongyang has been helping to arm the Russian invasion in Ukraine, providing artillery and shells in a deal that came about when Moscow was facing a shortage of military supplies.

At the time, United States State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller described the September summit as "(Putin) traveling across his own country, hat in hand, to beg Kim Jong Un for military assistance."

President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Russia's Amur region in the Far East on September 13, 2023

A boon for North Korea's weapons trade and development

The military donations have helped Russia maintain the war in Ukraine, but they have been a boon for Pyongyang, too. Kim Bo-mi of South Korea's Institute for National Security Strategy says North Korea was able to confirm the performance of its weapons in combat which, in turn, helps North Korea develop its arsenal.

And that's a point the North Korean leader made explicitly during a recent tour of a munitions factory. A February 15 report in North Korea's state-run newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, quoted him as saying, "In line with the current situation and demands of revolutionary development, we will improve the quality of munitions and dramatically increase production."

Researcher Kim Bo-mi says Moscow is currently buying even low-grade North Korean weapons because so few countries support Russia that it has little choice.

But Iran's decision to export missiles to Russia means there is now competition and a need for North Korea to boost quality.

North Korea's state-run TV aired footage of Kim Jong Un inspecting a munitions factory on February 15.

Observers believe North Korea is keen to maintain its position as a supplier because it receives more than just money for its weapons. They say Russia may be providing advice on satellite launch technology and how to improve conventional armaments.

The two countries are in step with one another in a diplomatic dance that, for now, is hurting people in Ukraine.