Editor's Note

What is the impact of the war in Ukraine on North Korea’s unprecedented military provocations? Seung-soo Hyun, a research fellow at Korea Institute for National Unification, points out that Moscow’s defense of Pyongyang at the UN Security Council has emboldened North Korea. However, considering the low economic compatibility between the two countries and tight international sanctions against Russia after it invaded Ukraine, the bilateral economic cooperation would hardly help Pyongyang to develop its economy. Dr. Hyun claims that conflicts between Northeast Asian countries show signs of polarization and highlights the importance of monitoring how the war in Ukraine will reshape global strategic dynamics among Russia, China, and the U.S.

Ten months have passed since Russia launched its large-scale invasion of Ukraine and, contrary to initial projections, Russia has shown military incompetence while the Ukrainian military has performed admirably. While there have been talks of negotiations since Ukrainian troops liberated parts of the Kherson region, an area that Russia had previously annexed during the conflict, it remains unknown when the war will end. Above else, Ukraine is unlikely to back down easily after losing territory equivalent to the size of South Korea. Even if a ceasefire or an armistice is signed through negotiations, the war is likely to develop into a low-intensity form of conflict, like those in Palestine or Nagorno-Karabakh.


While some may view this war as a battle between democracy and authoritarianism, others view it as a Western ploy to topple Russia. Some have assigned blame to the U.S. and the West’s NATO expansionism, while others believe that whatever the cause of the war may be, Putin’s actions of violating his neighbor’s sovereignty and sacrificing innocent civilians are unforgivable. Some speculate that Putin has displayed his underlying ambition to restore the Soviet Union. In an age of fake news and misinformation, it seems unlikely to unearth the truth about the cause of war. However, many can at least sympathize with the prospect that this war could be a watershed moment that fundamentally changes the post-Cold War world order which had lasted for more than 30 years. Energy shortages and food crises that have struck the international community show that the impacts of the war are not confined to a national or regional scope.


North Korean provocations and Closer North Korea-Russia Relations


Despite being far away, the Russo-Ukrainian War has cast a long shadow on the Korean peninsula. North Korea’s provocative behaviors, demonstrated by its launching of more than 30 ballistic missiles this year alone, do not seem irrelevant to the war. While the Biden administration and the Yoon Suk-yeol administration’s tough stance and resumption of the South Korea-U.S. joint drills, exercises which had been suspended for some time and sometimes cited as the main cause of North Korea’s missile provocations, many experts point towards the intensification of the U.S.-Russian conflict since the war in Ukraine. Analysts say that Kim Jong-un, the General Secretary of the Worker’s Party of Korea and Chairman of the State Affairs Commission, is trying to forge close ties with Russia by using common hostilities towards the U.S. as its catalyst. There have even been continuous reports that Russia, suffering from a shortage of weapons and munitions, is receiving ammunition, weapons, and military uniforms from North Korea. While both North Korea and Russia dismiss these allegations as nothing more than a misinformation campaign planned by the U.S., it seems difficult to deny that North Korea and Russia have closely bonded in the wake of the Ukrainian War.


North Korea’s open support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shocked the international media, with few nations having publicly supported Russia’s military campaign. Even countries like China, Iran, and India, which are traditionally regarded as pro-Russian countries, remain neutral towards the war. Moreover, with the exception of Russia, Syria, and North Korea, most countries have denied giving recognition to the Luhansk and Donetsk Republics, a quasi-state created by Russian-backed separatists. North Korea even went so far as to issue a Foreign Ministry statement supporting Putin’s announcement to annex four regions taken from Ukraine: the Luhansk and Donetsk Republics, and the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia oblasts (province). Since the outbreak of the war, the two have been keen on backing each other in the United Nations, such as North Korea voting against a resolution condemning Russia, while Russia has vetoed adding sanctions to North Korea.


It may be that Kim Jong-un plans to elevate ties with Russia to a level comparable to that of an alliance, if not the same as the one it enjoyed in the past. For Kim, it may be desirable to replicate the relationship between China and Russia, who have been bonding closely to a level of a quasi-alliance. Kim is well aware that while the two countries do not entirely share mutual geopolitical and national interests, both have nevertheless strived for mutual solidarity and strategic partnership to achieve a common objective of displacing the U.S. from its global hegemonic status and establishing a multipolar world order. President Putin and Xi Jinping believe that the era in which the U.S. decides everything must end and that it is already coming to a close. The two leaders believe that if Russia, which still holds the world’s second-largest military power, and China, which has risen to the rank of G2 with its economic power, join forces, they could end the U.S. unipolar era, which has been dominant for more than 30 years since the Cold War’s end.


Kim Jong-un seems to hope North Korea can also enter the pact between China and Russia. While North Korea is a small country that lacks both national size and economic power, it has been threatening the U.S. by recently passing its “nuclear policy law.” In January 2018, when North Korea was upping the ante against the Trump administration with nuclear and missile tests, Putin, when speaking to Russian journalists, praised Kim Jong-un as a “shrewd and mature politician.” He stated that “Kim Jong-un has obviously won this round. He has achieved his strategic goal. He has a nuclear warhead, and now he also has a missile with a global range of up to 13,000 kilometers, which can reach almost any part of the globe, at least in the territory of his potential adversary. And now he wants to clear up, smooth over, or calm down the situation. He is a shrewd and mature politician.” Two months later, during his March 2018 Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly, Putin presented a simulation of a nuclear strike against the U.S. He slammed the U.S. and the West, stating in a resolute tone that “Nobody really wanted to talk to us about the core of the problem, and nobody wanted to listen to us. So, listen now.” Judging by the series of events, from Putin’s opprobrium and Russia’s tensions with the U.S. and the West, to the recent war in Ukraine, Kim Jong-un’s brinkmanship strategy could have influenced Putin. Meanwhile, North Korea’s unprecedented frequency of missile provocations may not be aimed just at the United States or South Korea, but may be Kim’s strategy to signal resolve towards Russia and China.


Prospects and Limitations of North Korea-Russia Relations


As a matter of fact, Russia has been committed to improving relations with North Korea ever since President Putin took office. The fact that he visited North Korea in the first year of his presidency speaks volumes. Even during the Cold War, when the two countries were staunch allies, never had leaders of the Soviet Union visited North Korea. Putin believes that, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia has lost critical strategic assets needed to govern the world. For him, North Korea was a geopolitical asset that needed to be covered. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia was preoccupied with developing relations with South Korea more than taking care of North Korea. North Korea, having lost its Soviet benefactor, suffered from severe economic difficulties, and so decided to overcome its unfavorable position by developing nuclear weapons and missiles, to which the UN and the U.S. responded by strengthening their sanctions on North Korea. As a result, the North Korean economy showed no signs of recovery. Since a rapprochement between North Korea and Russia was predicated on the normalization of the North Korean economy, Russia decided to write off North Korea’s debt. In 2014, the Russian State Duma ratified an agreement to write off $10 billion of the $11 billion that North Korea had borrowed from the Soviet Union in the past, while the remaining $1 billion would be redeemed during the next 20 years, effectively removing the largest obstacle for North Korea-Russia relations.


Russia has also been proposing to both Koreas the so-called “Triangular Economic Cooperation” between South-North Korea and Russia since 2001. This was an ambitious initiative that connected the Trans-Siberian Railway, Russian gas pipes, and power grids to South Korea via North Korea. Russia believed that the triangular economic cooperation between the two Koreas would not only bring economic prosperity for all parties but also contribute to improving inter-Korean relations. In August 2011, the previous North Korean leader Kim Jong-il visited Russia for a summit with Russian President Medvedev, with inter-Korean economic cooperation as the main agenda. Around that time, the Lee Myung-bak administration was also interested in Russia’s proposal, and it seemed that the historic economic cooperation project would soon come to fruition. However, the project came to a halt during its incipient stages, as it became stranded by the enforcement of strengthened UN sanctions following North Korea’s recent nuclear and missile provocations. In the process of adopting a UN resolution on North Korea following its fourth nuclear test, Russia, while opposing the North’s nuclear tests and agreeing to impose sanctions against North Korea, demanded a revision of the sanctions to revive inter-Korean economic cooperation. Yet even these efforts fell short of resuming business as planned. At the International Economic Forum in St. Petersburg in June 2021, President Putin argued that providing a security guarantee instead of sanctions was needed to resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis and that the “Triangular Economic Cooperation” could be the key to solving this problem.


Some observers say that Russia’s economic support for North Korea could intensify if the two’s partnership is strengthened following the Ukrainian war. However, economic engagements between North Korea and Russia over the past 30 years have been close-to-none, and overcoming the structural limitations inherent within the two economies would prove to be a grueling task. As the two economies have low economic compatibility, there are few bargaining cards that North Korea could offer to Russia, and the existing size of the bilateral trade is minute. Russia no longer wishes to revert to unilateral economic transfers, as it did during the Soviet-era. Moreover, Russia, which already faces increasing financial pressure from sanctions, is unlikely to make a breakthrough for the North Korean economy.


Nevertheless, it is clear that North Korea has more to gain from a strengthened bilateral relationship than Russia. As mentioned before, North Korea has consistently supported Russia’s position regarding the Ukrainian war. Meanwhile, Russia has repeatedly opposed resolutions to criticize or adopt new sanctions against North Korea, starting with China’s vote against adopting a UN Security Council resolution condemning the North’s ballistic missile launch in January 2022. From North Korea’s perspective, the situation in Ukraine is largely unrelated to their national interest, thereby making its support for Russia mostly symbolic. On the contrary, Russia’s patronage has tangible impacts in preventing external pressures that may cause significant damage to North Korea. A prolonged bloc rivalry within Northeast Asia and on the Korean peninsula, as it was during the Cold War, could benefit North Korea the most.


Future Prospects and Recommendations


It remains unclear the extent to which bilateral ties between North Korea and Russia will flourish in the future. How the Ukrainian war will end will play a part in shaping the two’s relationship. If Russia is defeated in the war and becomes diplomatically and economically isolated, its support for North Korea will be susceptible to change. It should also be noted how the dynamics between the United States, China, and Russia will also transform. Although the U.S.-China conflict has been escalating, and Chinese-Russian relations remain ostensibly solid, how China will deal with Russia in the coming years is a key variable for predicting North Korea-Russia relations. China may well be discontent with Russia’s close relations with North Korea.


As the post-Cold War international order has been breaking down, and conflicts between Northeast Asian countries are showing signs of polarization comparable to a new Cold War, relations between South Korea and Russia -which recently celebrated its 30th anniversary- have been put to the test. South Korea’s diplomatic framework with Russia, which had attempted to draw Russia’s support for the North Korean nuclear issue by using the development of the Far East and inter-Korean economic cooperation as leverage, would need to be fundamentally revised. As long as Russia values North Korea’s strategic value of countering the U.S. in Northeast Asia and would willingly use its veto in the UN Security Council as a permanent member, South Korea will have significant restrictions on cooperating with Russia on deterring North Korea’s nuclear and missile development. Russia calculates that the geopolitical challenge from the U.S. is a larger threat than the crisis from North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Even if Russia does not explicitly carry out its strategy to solidify its trilateral partnership with North Korea and China, North Korea and Russia will eventually be aligned in countering the U.S. when reshaping the world order. Whether this relationship remains implicit or explicit, Seoul’s policy towards North Korea and reunification will face a major obstacle as a result.


While these conditions do pose a challenge for South Korea, it mustn't exclude Russia from talks concerning North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Russia has always maintained the position that the North Korean nuclear problem should be resolved multilaterally, and Russia remains an important cooperative partner for South Korea, as its support is crucial to resolving the situation peacefully. Most importantly, it is necessary to develop a coherent logic to make Russia understand South Korea’s strong commitment to denuclearization and peaceful resolution. This way, Russia can be persuaded even as South Korea’s leaders come and go, as South Korea would retain a firm core policy stance on Korean reunification and North Korean policy. It would be near-impossible to address Russia’s unswerving 20-year-long plans with a series of short-lived strategies whose durations span merely that of their respective presidents’ five-year tenures.■



Seung-soo Hyun is a research fellow at Peace Research Division of Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU). Dr. Hyun obtained his Ph.D degree from University of Tokyo, majoring in political science. His main research area is Russian and Eurasian international politics, Russian security policy, North Korea-Russia Relations. He became a senior researcher at Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade from 1994 to 1999, and he was a HK research professor at Hanyang University from 2009 to 2014. Also, he is currently the vice president at Korean Association for Eurasian Studies. There are a number of publications, such as China-Russia Cooperation and Peace and Prosperity on the Korean Peninsula, Border Security in Neighboring Countries and Unification Environment on the Korean Peninsula, Multilateral Approach for Advancing the Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative and Partnership with Eurasia.



Typeset by Junghoo Park, Research Associate
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International Relations