Trade between Russia and N. Korea spikes after Kim Jong Un’s state visit last month

Kim Jong Un meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at a Russian space center on September 13, 2023. (Rodong Sinmun-News1)

Following North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s visit to Russia last month, trade between the two countries has significantly increased while new dispatches of North Korean workers are planned for the end of this month.

Speaking on condition of anonymity for security reasons, a source in North Korea told Daily NK on Wednesday that the amount of freight loaded on trains and ships bound for Russia has increased significantly compared to before Kim’s Russia visit, with as many as four or more freight trains running each day.

Another anonymous source inside the country told Daily NK that “prior to his Russia visit, the General [Kim Jong Un] issued orders to the Ministry of National Defense’s Military Railways Division to no longer conceal their transport of goods and move goods in broad daylight so their visible to Sonbong area residents.”

The Sonbong area is a subset of Rason and serves as North Korea’s key railway link to Russia.

With the expansion of trade between the two countries, the level of security along their borders also appears to have fallen to some degree. 

Increase in weapons sales to Russia

One of the anonymous sources said that North Korean exports of weapons to Russia have increased amid the expansion of trade between the two countries. A wide variety of conventional weapons possessed by the Korean People’s Army are being exported to Russia, including rockets, ammunition, artillery shells, and automatic rifles.

When asked if he was aware that providing arms to Russia was against international law, the source replied: “We are providing a friendly nation with domestically produced ammunition and combat-related technology and receiving payment in return – how’s that a violation of international law?”

Recently, North Korea has been receiving payments for arms sales to Russia in the form of foodstuffs like wheat, cooking oil, and processed snacks, as well as energy products such as oil and gas.

Of these recent imports, one of the more eye-catching items were lumber imports, including large 500mm x 500mm (19.7 in x 19.7 in) pieces of wood. This imported lumber is intended for use in various construction projects, the source said. 

Dispatch of several hundred workers to Russia

Meanwhile, one of the sources said that North Korea plans to dispatch several hundred new laborers to Russia at the end of October. The majority of these laborers are men in the military or military-affiliated trade companies who will work primarily in manual labor industries like construction and logging. 

However, some of these laborers are women and civilians who will be sent to work in Russian factories. Workers will not be sent en masse to a single company; instead, they will be dispersed across multiple companies in groups of around 30 people each, similar to North Korean worker deployments in China. 

The source told Daily NK that the laborers to be deployed to Russia were selected for overseas work last year, so they have already completed their training. Their deployment orders were rushed through soon after Kim’s visit to Russia last month. 

Translated by Rose Adams. Edited by Robert Lauler. 

Daily NK works with a network of sources who live inside North Korea, China and elsewhere. Their identities remain anonymous due to security concerns. More information about Daily NK’s reporting partner network and information gathering activities can be found on our FAQ page here.  

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