North Korean Students in Russia

By Alexandra V. Dzero, Associate Sanctions and Illicit Trade (

Concerns over scientific knowledge transfer to North Korea in aid of their nuclear and ballistic missile programmes is ongoing; in the 1950s, the Soviet Union, as well as China, provided North Korean scientists and engineers with basic knowledge for nuclear weapons technology. Identified cases involve North Korean students studying technical subjects, in direct breach of UN requirements.  North Korean students have been found studying remote sensing technology in Indiai, at the Centre for Space Science and Technology Education in Asia and the Pacific (CSSTEAP). One of the students was affiliated with the DPRK National Aerospace Development Administration, an institution reported to be involved in the North Korean nuclear programme.

North Korean engagement remains primarily and overwhelmingly focused on China. However,

North Korean presence in Russia has also been an ongoing source of concern, in particular as the majority of DPRK military equipment is based on former Soviet technology. Engagement with Russia is secondary to that of Pyongyang’s contact with China. North Korean nationals come to work mostly as labourers, with stringent DPRK state supervision.  According to the Russian embassy to the DPRK, around 40,000 North Koreans were working in Russia over the 2015/2016 period. Their presence is concentrated in Russia’s Far East. In 2016, approximately 36 North Korean students were studying in Russia.

Russia officially refuses to support North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and supports international sanctions against the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea (DPRK).  Strategically, it has little to gain from a foreign policy supportive of the DPRK regime. Unlike the Indian case, Russia is almost certainly not abetting DPRK students in studying subjects which contravene UN sanctions. However, Russia’s extensive scientific research and knowledge, and its advanced nuclear and ballistic missile capability are risk factors in this relationship. Although rumours of North Korean students acquiring technical knowledge in Russia continue[1], evidence of collusion remains scarce and unverifiable.

Three main points of engagement exist between the DPRK and Russia: economic cooperation, cultural/knowledge exchanges (including DPRK students studying in Russia) and DPRK labour working in Russia. This brief aims to situate these forms of cooperation in the wider Russia-DPRK relationship, and gives an insight into the current engagement between tertiary institutions, and students, between the two states.


Russia’s Strategic Approach to the DPRK

The Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea and the Russian Federation first established diplomatic ties in 1948, when Russia was part of the Soviet Union. Since the breakup of the USSR, relations between the two states have continued but at a more reserved pace.  Along with China, Russia is one of the only world states that continues to engage and have regular contact with Pyongyang.  Relations cooled in the 1990s under President Yeltsin, but were re-established post-2000. Geographically, Russia and the DPRK share a small, 17km long border along the Tumen River in Russia’s Far East.  A rail crossing connects both sides.

The Kremlin is under no illusions about North Korea; the proximity to its landmass as well as the high risk of escalation with the DPRK means that Russia takes a practical and cautious approach to its neighbour.  Moscow’s policy towards Pyongyang can be characterised as highly pragmatic and lacking in ideological overtones. It follows a policy of ‘mutually beneficial cooperation’ and aims to reduce the possibility of military conflict. Engagement and cooperation on behalf of Moscow is pragmatic, and should not be interpreted as support for the DPRK regime.

In the past decade, Russia has increased its focus on economically developing its Far East region, which has required cooperation with regional states, including North Korea. In 2012, the Far East Development Ministry was created and has become the main body driving relations with the DPRK. Far East Development Minister, Alexander Galushka, also heads the Russian part of the Intergovernmental Commission on Trade, Economic, Scientific and Technical Cooperation between Russia and North Korea. His North Korean counterpart in the commission is the Minister of External Economic Relations Ri Ryong Nam.


Engagement Points:

  1. Political and Economic Cooperation

North Korea and Russia’s Far East province have established bilateral inter-governmental commissions and working-level bodies for cooperation in science-technology, forestry, light industry, and transport fields. North Korea’s main imports from Russia are mineral fuels, oils, and distillation products, vehicles (other than rail cars), cereals and machinery1.  The Intergovernmental Commission (IGC) is the main body responsible for promoting bilateral economic relations.  From 2011-2014, the IGC had a break in meetings. However, in 2014 and 2015 meetings resumed. In general, this time also resulted in significantly increased engagement – 2015 was announced as the ‘Year of Friendship’ between the two sides, and a spate of economic cooperative policies were introduced, including loosening of visa restrictions for Russian businesspeople.

In 2014, Russia ratified a law writing off 90 per cent of DPRK’s $11 billion debt. The remaining 10 percent (over $1 billion) is credited to the Russian Vnesheconombank’s account opened with a North Korean bank. Under the terms of the agreement, this amount can be used to fund joint Russian-North Korean humanitarian (in particular, education and health care) and energy projects.

Economic ties between Russia and the DPRK are not as significant as the latter’s ties with China, although economic cooperation is still prevalent. Trade between RUS-DPRK is dwarfed by DPRK trade with China. In 2014, RUS-DPRK trade amounted to USD 93million. Between China and DPRK trade sat at USD 6.9billion. Despite increased RUS-DPRK engagement over the 2014/2015 year, and a flurry of economic collaborative projects, trade volume has actually decreased over the 2013-2016 period by almost 40 per cent, from USD 113 million to USD 69 million.

The current Russian policy is to provide administrative and political assistance to mutually beneficial and profitable projects.  Current areas of cooperation in the Far East include trade in consumer goods, metallurgy, transport infrastructure, the energy sphere, and mineral resources, as well as education, science, and technology. North Korean work in Russia’s Far East under formal sponsorship by the North Korean government. Russia has a policy of deporting any North Korean defectors, having granted only two applications of asylum out of the hundreds it receives. This policy was formally ratified in 2015.


  1. Cultural Engagement

Russia is becoming the country most frequently visited by North Korean senior officials.  Since February 2014, the DPRK Supreme People’s Assembly President Chairman Kim Yong-nam, Minister of Foreign Trade Lee Ren-Nam, Foreign Minister Lee Soo-Young, Kim Jong-un’s special envoy Choe Ryong Hae, Supreme People`s Assembly Chairman Choi Thae Baek and other senior leaders travelled Russia.  Conversely, high-profile Russian visitors, including  the Minister for Development of the Russian Far East Alexander Galushka, Presidential Plenipotentiary to the Far East Federal District Yuri Trutnev, President of the Republic of Tatarstan Rustam Minnikhanov, and the governors of the Primorsky and Khabarovsk regions have visited Pyongyang.

Cultural exchanges and other engagements appear to be common, including through cultural programs, language-study exchanges, artistic performances etc.  At the end of 2016, as a celebration for the 70th anniversary of Kim Il Sung University, Russian students studying Korean language and history travelled to the DPRK. The universities they represented included Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), Far Eastern Federal University, Sahalinsk and Novosibirsk.


  1. University Linkages with North Korea

North Korean student numbers in Russia fluctuate, and are generally anywhere between 10-40 students. In 2016, there were probably 36 North Korean students in Russia, while in 2012 the figure had been 25.  Subjects which are available to North Korean students are almost certainly limited to humanities and languages.

There are four main DPRK universities which have been linked with North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.

  1. Kim Il Sung University
  2. Kim Chaek University of Technology
  3. Pyongsong College of Science
  4. National Defence University

These universities have been found to have connections or agreements with several Russian universities, in particular with the Far Eastern Federal University (FEFU; sometimes referred to as Vladivostok), the Pacific National University and Novosibirsk University, which in particular has an agreement on cooperation on topics of education and science. Pacific National University has held several conferences over the past ten years on nuclear scientific topics, which have almost certainly been frequented by North Korean representatives.

The Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Dubna, Moscow is also an institute of interest. Established in 1956, it continues to work in the study of fundamental principles of matter. The JINR work as an intergovernmental scientific research organisation, with countries that include These countries include Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bulgaria, North Korea, Cuba, Czech Republic, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Mongolia, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Uzbekistan, Ukraine, and Vietnam. Egypt, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Serbia and South Africa also have working agreements with the Institute[2].

Exchanges in the form of student visits (from both sides), cultural programs and so forth include the Moscow State University, Far-Eastern Studies Institute, and the Siberian branch of the Russian Academy of Science with the Kim Il Sung/Pyongyang University. These events have included scientific conferences. All of these universities have high-grade scientific and engineering programs.

The Far Eastern Federal University holds cultural and educational exchanges in the areas of language and culture and does not appear to allow entrance to North Korean students into its scientific programmes; the FEFU does offer a nuclear programme which is available to international students.

The FEFU’s location is important – in Vladivostok – given the somewhat regular DPRK representative visits to Nakhodka and other areas of Primorsky Krai. In April 2016, coinciding with the birthday of Supreme Leader Kim Il-sung, and at the request of the North Korean consul, Russia approved the relocation of the Consulate General of the DPRK from Nakhodka to Vladivostok. A DPRK representative commented, after visiting the FEFU that he would want his son to attend.



Russia and North Korea clearly have dedicated bilateral relationships between institutes and universities. Russia is also one of very few countries that accept North Korean students and equally, sends Russian students to North Korea for cultural exchanges and other engagements.

Broadly speaking however, while there is a potential for North Korean students to be studying in programmes that could contribute to the DPRK’s scientific knowledge, this is highly unlikely. Russia is not supportive of North Korea’s missile program, and is compliant with international sanctions which limit the DPRK’s ability for knowledge transfer. North Korean students appear to be restricted to learning humanitarian/language subjects. There is no clear evidence that scientists from either country work on sabbatical/exchange basis.

Going forward however, if Russia decides to play a more active role in international engagement with North Korea, monitoring how universities decide to cooperate will be of significant interest as a barometer of the relationship on a tactical level. While there is no national-level approval, local engagement between individual institutes may occur. Equally, conferences and cooperative events dealing with sensitive subjects should be monitored.

Annex 1:

Russian Universities Offering Nuclear Programmes (inc. for international students)

The following table is not inclusive – most Russian universities which have a science faculty will offer nuclear, engineering and mathematical courses appropriate for application in nuclear programmes. The following are considered as some of the best providers. 

University Location
National Research Nuclear University/ MEPhI/

Moscow Engineering Physics Institute**

Tomskiy Polytech University Tomsk
Ural Federal University (URFU) Ekaterinburg
ITMO St. Petersburg
Far East Federal University (FEFU)* Vladivostok
St. Petersburg Politech University of Peter the Great St. Petersburg

*Has active engagement with DPRK universities

** Military/Civilian institute

The Pacific National University, also offers scientific course work and conferences in a wide variety of scientific topics, including theoretical nuclear physics and nuclear theory.

Other sources:>

[1] Yanhap News “N. Korea moves to send students to study in Russia, China: Watcher” 30 May 2017

Improving the implementation of non-proliferation controls