North Korea's uses many outdated tanks, mostly T-62s, or based on T-62s, many of which would be expected to be ineffective against the more modern Abrams tank. The S-400 missile system is the best anti-air system and Russia said it would sell Iran the equipment if Iran asked, yet Russia has never proposed selling the missile system to North Korea. The S-400 missile system has an operating range of 400 km and North Korea already has missiles that have a range of 13,000 km, so I don't think it would be against any nuclear proliferation agreement if they were to sell, but it seems both are unwilling to sell North Korea anything. Why?

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    Does North Korea have the money to pay for the equipment?
    – Allure
    Commented Jul 20, 2021 at 1:48
  • 44
    Also, China probably doesn't think all that much good of military adventurism by NK. Giving them too many toys to play with may make them reckless. Having them as a buffer between SK + US and itself is good, having a shooting war take them out, not so good. Commented Jul 20, 2021 at 3:20
  • 54
    You might explain why you think either China or Russia would want a more powerful North Korea. It would seem more likely that they would want it just powerful enough to prevent South Korea (whether backed by the US or not) from taking over, but not powerful enough to start a war that might draw them in. If they're selling weapons simply for the money, how would North Korea pay?
    – jamesqf
    Commented Jul 20, 2021 at 5:43
  • 18
    Sweden sold 1000 Volvo cars to N.K, but never got paid for it: wikiwand.com/en/North_Korea%E2%80%93Sweden_relations So, they do not have a good record... Commented Jul 20, 2021 at 9:49
  • 4
    According to Wikipedia, the T-34 is not the most modern tank they have... Commented Jul 20, 2021 at 17:56

5 Answers 5


Maybe this is a bit of circular reasoning, but UN sanctions prohibit countries from supplying North Korea with such weapons (and much more). You might say this reasoning is circular because China or Russia could have prevented these UN resolutions by vetoing them, but they didn't.

As for weapons, there is Resolution 1718 passed in 2006, which according to Wikipedia has the following effect (this just one of the provisions, the resolution covers much more):

A ban is placed on imports and exports of "battle tanks, armoured combat vehicles, large calibre artillery systems, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, missiles or missile systems", "related materiel including spare parts" and any other items identified by the sanctions committee.

The above seems to cover both tanks and antiaircraft artillery mentioned in your question.

For a more comprehensive overview of sanctions by different countries, see the Wikipedia page on sanctions against North Korea.

  • 20
    Both Russia and China are perfectly capable of ignoring UN sanctions with very little in the way of consequences.
    – Yakk
    Commented Jul 20, 2021 at 13:46
  • 3
    Also, UN is not actively patrolling North Korea and the UN isn't about to go snooping around anyone's ports to enforce it.
    – Nelson
    Commented Jul 20, 2021 at 14:33
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    @Yakk and that may open the door to them being hit by sanctions. Back in 2017, according to Reuters: "U.S. President Donald Trump ordered new sanctions on Thursday that open the door wider to blacklisting people and entities doing business with North Korea, including its shipping and trade networks, further tightening the screws on Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile program."
    – JJJ
    Commented Jul 20, 2021 at 15:27
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    @JJJ Russia and China has done and does do many thing that "may open the door to them being hit by sanctions". The door (to sanctions) is open and swinging in the wind. My point is, is there a credible threat of serious sanctions here? Then that should be in the answer. As you have noted, they are exporting other things which are banned by the UN to be exported to NK.
    – Yakk
    Commented Jul 20, 2021 at 15:32
  • 2
    @Yakk, a part of this game (also a bit circular) is that both China and Russia are reluctant to dismantle this sacntion regime. Exactly because now, unlike in 2006, there is no chance of signing a new one. Yet some sanctions are good for them, for both (being neighbours) are not really interested in a military strong DPRK (this is covered in fraxinus's answer). So apart from some low-key/undercover violations (primarily around migrant workers), they both play the game "we earnestly abide by the rules [unlike you, the West]".
    – Zeus
    Commented Jul 21, 2021 at 1:18

Why would both China and Russia want to modernize North Korean army in the first place?

They both (mainly China) derive some benefits from the NK behavior, but they don't completely control NK (that's the point of being a sovereign, after all).

On one hand, any improvement in the NK military potential will force both China and Russia, as well as other countries having stakes in the region (including, but not limited to, South Korea, Japan and even USA) invest in their own defense in regard to NK.

On the other hand, the status quo serves well anyone involved in the decision-making, including comrade Kim himself. NK having much more troublemaking potential may make someone around willing to pay the price of changing something in NK (like, e.g. leadership).

And finally, all these things cost money that comrade Kim doesn't really have much of. There is no point in "debt diplomacy" against NK either.

  • How would Russia be forced to invest in defence against NK? What assets do they have in the region?
    – Yakk
    Commented Jul 20, 2021 at 13:48
  • 9
    @Yakk Russia and North Korea share a common border, don't they?
    – fraxinus
    Commented Jul 20, 2021 at 15:31
  • Good point. Still, you'd think whatever defences they have against China in Vladivostok area would have to be an order of magnitude more than sufficient to deal with NK.
    – Yakk
    Commented Jul 20, 2021 at 15:40
  • 5
    @Yakk to an extent. Both China and Russia are much less militarized, much more politically moderate and much more inclined to the internationally accepted diplomacy/military ballance than NK. That's why their main military risk-management activity in the region is NK instead of each other's presence. In the big picture, of course, NK is negligible in regard to the potential Russia/China frictions. But around NK, it is different.
    – fraxinus
    Commented Jul 20, 2021 at 15:55
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    @Yakk, North Korea has the fourth-largest army in the world (Russia is #5). Quality is presumably not very high, but it's still enough to cause major problems if NK decides to cross the Tumen River.
    – Mark
    Commented Jul 20, 2021 at 22:20
  • Your premise is incorrect as to the state of the DPRK army. The Chonma-ho may not be up to the standards of an Abrams, but it is much more modern than the T-34.
  • It is unclear if the DPRK really has operational ICBMs. They certainly haven't done as many (successful or unsuccessful) tests as the USA and the Soviet Union did during the cold war. Are their simulation capabilities that much better?
  • Western analysts are assuming that the KPA plans on asymmetric operations, both commando raids and large-scale chemical artillery bombardment of Seoul. The S-400 might not be a good investment in that doctrine, more dumb rockets are the way to go.
  • The Missile Technology Control Regime has been signed by Russia, but not China. China seems to abide by it, however. It has a cutoff at 300 km and 500 kg.
  • As JJJ pointed out in their answer, there are sanctions in place.
  • The most important point: The interest of both China and Russia is twofold, making money by selling weapons and checking US dominance and a reunification under ROK control.
    • For China, my assessment is that the money angle is certainly secondary to preventing US troops on their border. But they don't want to give the DPRK too much freedom of action, either. They don't trust the DPRK and they see them as disruptive.
    • For the Russians, the strategic calculations may differ. But the DPRK cannot pay much.
  • 2
    "Are their simulation capabilities that much better?" => probably even better, because it is 2021 now and not 1960s and 1970s when the main progress around nukes and ICBMs happened in USA and USSR
    – fraxinus
    Commented Jul 20, 2021 at 17:23
  • 1
    @fraxinus, certainly true when it comes to CPUs and RAM. But where do they get the data to calibrate their models?
    – o.m.
    Commented Jul 20, 2021 at 17:27
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    a lot of data that was secret in 1960s and 1970s is on Wikipedia now. I am not saying it is trivial, I just say that it is a lot easier and cheaper now. Well, how much cheap is cheap enough for comrade Kim is an open question.
    – fraxinus
    Commented Jul 20, 2021 at 17:34
  • 2
    @fraxinus It's actually even more extreme than you say. A lot of the U.S. and Soviet nuclear and ICBM development was done, not in the 60s and 70s, but the 40s and 50s! Obviously, the U.S. had an operational fission device by 1945, months before ENIAC was even first used. And the first ICBM project was started the next year. It's not just a difference of having (much, much, much) more powerful computers, it's a difference of meaningfully having electronic computers at all!
    – reirab
    Commented Jul 20, 2021 at 22:51
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    +1 for the "interest of China and Russia" angle. China does not want a strong NK. China wants NK to exist and be functionally autonomous, so that it serves as a buffer state, but otherwise China wants NK to be as weak as possible so that it does not become yet another rival in an already crowded geopolitical arena.
    – Kevin
    Commented Jul 21, 2021 at 7:45

The premise of the question is that Russia/China would want to arm the North Korea and other rogue regimes just to spite the US and NATO or simply for financial gain. I think their actual calculation is more subtle. Moreover, one argurably draws more benefit from the possibility of selling that from the actual sale. Let me give just a few considerations:

  • The other answers and comments have already mentioned that NK may be simply unable to pay for such armaments
  • Russia and China would rather keep the military edge over their immediate neighbors. This is particularly the case when this neighbor is politically unstable and may turn against them. While NK cannot be an existential threat to either Russia or China, such a border can generate quite a few problems, as, e.g., Afghanistan does to Russia.
  • Similarly, Russia and China would not want to be dragged into a larger military conflict on behalf of the North Korea, the probability thereof could only increase, if the NK is better armed.
  • Promising to sell better weapons can be a useful tool to influence the NK.
  • Threatening to sell weapons to NK (or not to sell them) can be a useful bargaining chip in negotiations vis-à-vis more serious partners (like the US), in completely unrelated areas of negotiation.

Even during Soviet era... Russia was so smart to not sell "good" weapons to their nearby countries, that as you know were willing to do rebellions.

Bonus answers = in fact the idea of soviet technologies during cold war was not real, analysts analyse weapons of the countries outside russia but as Surokov tells in is book "inside the soviet army", those "monkey version tanks" does not have the features and the quality of the russian ones.

  • 1
    So your answer is that Russia won't arm North Korea (or at least, won't supply it with modern weapons) in case North Korea "rebels" and attacks it?
    – F1Krazy
    Commented Jul 20, 2021 at 15:55
  • 1
    not this exact case.. but let's talk cold war a little bit... it's not safe to give more technology to dangerous people.. who give the stingers to afghans during the soviet invasion of the '80 ? well those nasty toys are a problem today. I tell this just as example I'm not expressing opinion on actual wars.
    – gino
    Commented Jul 20, 2021 at 15:58
  • 2
    Stingers actually had a huge buy-back program launched after the outsting of Najibullah and I believe the specialized batteries may have also had built-in obsolescence. That said, Iraqi T72s were under-specced compared to Russian ones. Rather than rebellion however, it may have been to safeguard Russian military secrets, in the same way that F35s (and full-spec F15/16 earlier) were only available for few countries. F22s are banned from export as well. So, while the phrasing and "rebellion aspect" are a bit iffy, this answer isn't factually wrong. Watch that "New contributor" flag, folks. Commented Jul 20, 2021 at 21:08
  • sure I agree, for the "new contributor" part I make a citation to the book were i read those informations, the chapter "secrets secrets secrets" talks gives credit to your affirmation about tanks. Thank you.
    – gino
    Commented Jul 21, 2021 at 15:51

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