CRANK Call | June 2024


CRANK Call is a monthly review of developments involving cooperation, and at times contention, among China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea (the CRANKs).

June 2024 Highlights

Russia and North Korea sign mutual defense treaty

Russian President Vladimir Putin made a state visit to North Korea in mid-June. The visit highlighted the forces pulling North Korea and Russia closer together, in particular Russia’s need for large volumes of munitions for the war in Ukraine and North Korea’s desire to obtain advanced technologies with military applications and to break free from international sanctions. The visit culminated with the signing of a mutual defense treaty between Moscow and Pyongyang; the deal renewed a long-lapsed Cold War era commitment to mutual aid if either was attacked.

The crux of the bargain appears to revolve around a swap of North Korean munitions for Russian technology. How much of the latter Russia will be willing to supply seems to be an open question, with Putin suggesting in later remarks made in Vietnam that he would be inclined to supply more to Pyongyang in retaliation if the U.S. and Europe step up support for Ukraine. Each government also agreed to provide “military and other assistance with all means in its possession without delay” if the other is subject to “an armed invasion,” though the deal conditions this on Russian and North Korean law as well as article 51 of the United Nations Charter, which describes the right to individual and/or collective self-defense. 

China may not be entirely pleased with the surge in Russian-North Korean ties. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Kurt Campbell said at a recent Council on Foreign Relations event that China was “anxious” about Russia’s heightened sway in Pyongyang. Indeed, notwithstanding their shared anti-American statements and policies, Moscow and Pyongyang also appear to be seeking ways to reduce their mutual dependence on China.

North Korean state TV moves to Russian satellite from Chinese platform

North Korea has switched the transmission of state TV broadcasts from a Chinese satellite to a Russian one, according to South Korea’s unification ministry. The move has disrupted the normal feed through which the South Korean government closely monitors North Korean broadcasts. North Korea’s motivation for the switch is unclear, though China has resisted North Korean proposals for trilateral agreements including both China and Russia, likely in part to avoid generating complications in relation to U.S. and other international sanctions, since Russia is engaging in several activities including oil trade and importing North Korean labor which are clearly sanctionable.

Russia and North Korea agree to build road bridge over the Tumen River

North Korean state media reported that a ‘Tumen River Border Automobile Bridge Construction Agreement’ was also concluded during President Putin’s recent visit to Pyongyang. At present, a railway bridge is the sole crossing over the Tumen River estuary, where Russia’s and North Korea’s borders meet. This area is close to China’s border too, so the agreement might eventually facilitate greater trilateral transportation improvements. The move appears to be primarily aimed at easing the movement of additional North Korean guest workers to Russia. Such movements violate UN Security Council sanctions, but have helped Russia to fill labor shortages in its wartime economy.

China, Russia, and Iran press the West to restore Iran nuclear deal as IAEA censures Tehran

China, Russia, and Iran issued a joint statement on 4 June calling on the United States and European powers to take action to restore the 2015 JCPOA nuclear deal with Iran and blaming the United States for its breakdown. This came in advance of the June 5 vote by the IAEA Board of Governors to censure Iran over its nuclear safeguards violations. Twenty members voted for the censure, with only Iran, China, and Russia voting against.  Twelve governments abstained. Prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, both Russia and China had at times been somewhat cooperative with U.S. and European efforts to bring Iran back into compliance with IAEA safeguards agreements.

Russia and Iran are nearing a new ‘comprehensive agreement’

Russian officials have indicated that they are very close to signing a new 20-year comprehensive agreement on cooperation with Iran. It would replace a 2001 pact that Moscow and Tehran extended for five years in 2020. The previous agreement covered cooperation in energy, industry, and technology, including Russia’s assistance in completing  Iran’s Bushehr nuclear power plant. The new deal would presumably add cooperation on military technologies and armaments, now that the UN Security Council sanctions on conventional arms sales to Iran have lapsed, and as Russia and Iran have been drawn together by their need to counter U.S. and European sanctions. Space and missile technology is certainly a subfield where Iran would be keen to receive technology transfer from Russia. Iran’s sales of armed drones to Russia for use in Ukraine, and participation in joint production, have garnered wide attention.


—A cargo ship has docked at a Russia-operated coal terminal in the North Korean port of Rason for the first known time since before the pandemic, appearing to mark the resumption of coal transshipment through the port. (NK News)

—South Korean Minister of Defense Shin Won-sik suggested that Russia had given North Korea the missile engine technology used in its failed satellite launch on 27 May, but that problems with system integration caused the mission to fail. (Yonhap News Agency)

—South Korea’s National Intelligence Service is monitoring North Korea for signs that it might deploy North Korean military personnel in support roles related to Russia’s war in Ukraine. (Yonhap News Agency)

—Russia received a total of 1.8 million rounds of 122mm and 152mm shells from North Korea, and 80,000 rounds of 122mm shells and 90,000 rounds of 152mm shells from Iran. (Yonhap News Agency)

—According to South Korea’s Ministry of Unification, there have been a total of 18 high-level exchanges at or above the vice-minister level between North Korea and Russia this year, with 15 of these involving visits to Russia by high-level North Korean officials. According to the Ministry of Unification’s data, from 2012, when Kim Jong-un came to power, until 2018, there were only one to eight high-level exchanges between the two countries each year. (Yonhap News Agency

—A Russian cargo ship which is under U.S. sanctions has been shuttling between Russia’s Vostochny port and North Korea’s Rajin port, apparently engaged in sanctioned trade of weapons and oil. (Yomiuri Shimbun)

—Russian Minister of Natural Resources Alexander Kozlov said Russia and North Korea were looking to restore scheduled airline service between them. (TASS)

—Wounded Russian soldiers transferred to Wonsan, North Korea, are staying in some facilities of Kim Jong-un’s villa and are expected to leave by the end of this month. A South Korean government official stated, “Most are receiving psychiatric treatment rather than treatment for physical injuries,” and analyzed that “this situation is more influenced by diplomatic factors than by Russia’s medical conditions.” (TV Chosun)

—Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on 13 June that he had received assurances from President Xi Jinping that China would not sell weapons to Russia, speaking at a joint press conference at the G7 Summit with President Joe Biden. (Reuters)

—Russia will resume direct passenger rail service to North Korea in July, after a four-year hiatus stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. (Reuters)

—Iran, North Korea and China are supplying the people and know-how to tool up Russia’s factories and churn out arms for the war in Ukraine. (Wall Street Journal)

—China and Russia are keen to develop shipping routes and influence in the Arctic, driving suspicions from smaller neighbors like Norway. (The Economist)

—China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran are using ChatGPT for both disinformation and to create social engineering content related to hacking efforts. (CTECH)

Recent Analysis

Iran/Russia Military Technology Axis: Russia Showcases to Iran New and Advanced Military Technology (David Albright and Spencer Faragasso, Institute for Science and International Security)

Collaboration for a Price: Russian Military-Technical Cooperation with China, Iran, and North Korea (Max Bergmann, Maria Snegovaya, Tina Dolbaia, and Nick Fenton, Center for Strategic and International Studies)

CRANK Perspectives

Chinese official media assert indifference to Russia-DPRK ties, blame Washington (GT staff reporters, Global Times)


Editor-in-Chief, Paul Saunders
Editor, Greg Priddy (

Image credit: Shutterstock

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