SEOUL – As a denuclearized and now devastated Ukraine strengthens the raison d’etre for North Korea’s nuclear armory, Pyongyang is pushing ahead with a wide range of weapons tests as voices in Russia question sanctions.
While Pyongyang is supporting close partner Russia at the UN, experts say Ukraine’s dire fate is driving a deep nail into the coffin of denuclearization. That concept – which many consider a daydream – dominates US interactions with North Korea.
Kim Jong Un’s regime has been pressing ahead with a high-tempo series of weapons tests this year, ranging from train-launched ballistic missiles to hypersonics. There are worries in Seoul that with Washington distracted by Ukraine, a new South Korean president taking office in May and joint South Korea-US spring military drills upcoming, an intercontinental ballistic missile may be next.
If so, it would be the first since the high-tension year of 2017.
Pyongyang’s active testing regimen of 2022, analysts say, is aimed less at sending political signals to Seoul or Washington and more about upgrading North Korean assets from a deterrent to an offensive armory.
That could, feasibly, allow Pyongyang to advance on Seoul while keeping ally the United States at arm’s length.
As a strategy, that would mirror the way Russia’s nuclear arsenal has halted an overt NATO intervention in Ukraine. North Korea is not only nuclear-armed, its conventional forces are almost twice the size of South Korea’s.
As Moscow reels from Western sanctions, on March 17, a representative of the Duma quoted a senior North Korean official as he suggested that Russia should deepen its relationship with North Korea and cease to be bound by international sanctions against it.
Iraq, Libya and Ukraine
It is unlikely to escape the attention of anyone prowling Pyongyang’s corridors of power that three states – Iraq, Libya and Ukraine – that abandoned weapons of mass destruction programs suffered catastrophic invasions.
North Korean state media commented on the Western assault on Libya, but has remained silent on Ukraine, the latest of the three to suffer a conventional assault by a superior force.
Under the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, Ukraine, together with Belarus and Kazakhstan, agreed to give up nuclear arms in exchange for security guarantees from Russia, the UK and the US.
Pyongyang’s radio silence on a disarmed Ukraine’s dire misfortune is due to its unwillingness to criticize key partner Russia, said Go Myong-hyun, who watches North Korea from Seoul’s Asan Institute.
Indeed, North Korea was, on March 3, one of only five countries to oppose a motion to condemn Russia for its assault on Ukraine, which passed overwhelmingly at an emergency session of the UN General Assembly.
“The North Korea official read is that NATO provoked a nuclear power to invade a non-nuclear state,” Go told Asia Times. “I think they view themselves more as Russia in this case – they call themselves a superpower as they have nukes. So [in that view], Ukraine would be South Korea.”
It will not have escaped Kim’s attention that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s flash of the nuclear card terrified NATO and kept it out of the arena, leaving Russia’s army to conduct its so far conventional storm into Ukraine.
And asked if Kim and his advisers were congratulating themselves, behind closed doors, on their in-house nuclear deterrent, Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert who teaches at Seoul’s Kookmin University, said: “Absolutely. From the North Korean point of view, the majority of countries that negotiated their nukes away ended up being conquered and ruined.”
What precedents do the Iraq-Libya-Ukraine experiences set for possible future talks between Pyongyang and Washington?
“I believe the chances of denuclearization have been close to zero for years,” said Lankov. “But now I would say they are well below zero.”
However, accepting that North Korean denuclearization is an impossibility would be an indigestible pill for US policymakers to swallow, given wider scenarios.
“The reason we insist on denuclearization is that the moment you recognize North Korea as a tacit nuclear state you are on a slippery slope with the global nonproliferation regime,” said Go. “So, it is always it on the table, however unrealistic some people think it has become.”
Kim goes on the offensive
On March 16, North Korea conducted what US and South Korean sources say was an abortive intercontinental ballistic missile test. Pyongyang insists it was a satellite launch vehicle for a reconnaissance satellite.
The launch technologies are dual-use. It was Pyongyang’s 10th missile test of the year. Then, on March 20, it tested a tactical multiple launch rocket system as part of its spring military exercises.
Yet Pyongyang has possessed an effective deterrent – a working ICBM that can reach the US mainland and an armory of nuclear warheads to mount on it – since 2017.
It is widely believed that the reason for North Korea’s massive investment in such expensive WOMD, at such ruinous cost in international sanctions, is the regime’s determination to deter a US attack.
Negotiations with the United States have been largely defunct since 2019. The weapons Kim has added to his shopping list since then include defense-evading hypersonic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, tactical nuclear devices and military satellites.
“It seems there is a desire for a menu of capabilities that gives them options and scenarios where they can use different tools and instruments,” said Daniel Pinkston, an international relations expert at Troy University.
“They want to unify Korea on their terms and have degrees of freedom and autonomy to set relations on their terms.”
More ominously, an expanded portfolio of survivable assets suggests that North Korea is upgrading from a deterrent to an offensive posture which could enable an eventual march on Seoul.
That would reflect Russia’s move on Ukraine – a nuclear state assaulting a non-nuclear state. The nuclear option, feasibly, could keep the non-nuclear state’s protector – respectively, NATO or the United States – out of the conflict.
“There is a blurred line between offensive and defensive capabilities,” said Lankov. “Probably, in due time, they will develop the capabilities to penetrate the US antimissile defensive, and once that happens, North Korea can probably realistically start dreaming about decoupling South Korea from the US.”
Though South Korea and the US share a mutual defense treaty, Lankov asked: “Is the US government willing to risk San Franscisco or New York to save Seoul?”
Brothers in sanctions
Last week Kazbek Taysaev, the secretary of the Central Committee of the Russian Communist Party, read out an appeal from Lee Cheol, chairman of the Parliamentary Friendship Group of the Supreme People’s Assembly of North Korea.
Lee’s statement said both Russia and North Korea “… are subjected to real persecution by the collective West … overseas scoundrels are trying to destroy us with sanctions packages. We are surrounded by a chain of unfriendly states.”
Russia is now pummeled by the kind of sanctions regime that North Korea has labored under since 2016. And with Moscow looking for ways to shove back against Washington and Brussels, Taysaev’s suggestion may gain traction.
For both states, there could be a profitable barter, Go reckons.
“Russia now has plenty of surplus energy which they can’t export and North Korean needs are not that big,” Go said, noting that ship-to-ship fuel transfers on the high seas have, in recent years, sought to evade sanctions.
Though Pyongyang has minimal hard cash, it has one resource that could prove useful for the underpopulated Russian Far East, which lies adjacent to North Korea.
“I think the Russians are eyeing North Koreans as a source of cheap labor,” said Go. “From the Russian point of view, what else can they get?”
Lankov, however, suggested any cooperation would need to take place under the radar, given that Russia is a sitting member of the UN Security Council, which has enforced a range of sanctions on North Korea.
Follow Andrew Salmon on Twitter: @Andrewcsalmon