Why Is North Korea Supporting Russia on Ukraine?

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Why Is North Korea Supporting Russia on Ukraine?

In her latest statement, Kim Yo Jong blamed the United States for “escalating the war” by sending tanks to Ukraine.  

Why Is North Korea Supporting Russia on Ukraine?

In this file photo, Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) holds talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Russky Island, Vladivostok, Apr. 25, 2019.

Credit: Russian Presidential Press and Information Office

Kim Yo Jong, the powerful sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and main voice on inter-Korean relations, said the United States is “crossing the red line” while denouncing its decision to send M1 Abrams main battle tanks (MBTs) to Ukraine.

“I express serious concern over the U.S. escalating the war situation by providing Ukraine with military hardware for ground offensive, and strongly denounce it,” Kim said in her statement published by Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on January 27.

In the early stage of the Ukraine war, which broke out with Russia’s invasion in February 2022, the United States hesitated to provide enough military assets to Ukraine due to the possibility of becoming mired in an explicit proxy war with Russia. However, as Russian President Vladimir Putin has failed to achieve his goals in the “special military operation” – a term Moscow uses instead of calling it a war with Ukraine – for almost a year, Washington and its allies in Europe have taken further steps to support Kyiv and to make Moscow succumb.

“The U.S. is the arch criminal which poses serious threat and challenge to the strategic security of Russia and pushed the regional situation to the present grave phase,” Kim said. Accusing the United States of deliberately expanding the war to destroy Russia, she also said that “the world would be brighter, safer and calmer now, if it were not for the U.S.”

Russia is one of the five nuclear-armed states recognized under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). In this context, Putin might have thought that his special military operation in Ukraine would be completed easily in a short time. However, as Ukraine’s military and people have consolidated to defend their country, Russia is believed to have asked like-minded countries to support it. One of those countries is North Korea, which Washington claims is providing ammunition to Russian forces.

John Kirby, the National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications at the White House, reiterated his team’s analysis on January 20 that “North Korea delivered infantry rockets and missiles into Russia for use by Wagner toward the end of last year.” Wagner is a Russian private mercenary organization.

The White House released imagery capturing Russian railcars returning to Russia from North Korea with shipping containers. Kirby stated that Russia will “continue to receive North Korean weapons systems.”

North Korea has strongly denied the accusations made by the United States since they were first brought up months ago.

Kwon Jong Gun, director general of the Department of U.S. Affairs of the North’s Foreign Ministry, called the accusations a “groundless rumor” and said the U.S. fabricated “a non-existent thing” to tarnish the image of North Korea and justify its support to Ukraine.

“The U.S. should be mindful that it will face a really undesirable result if it persists in spreading the self-made rumor against the DPRK,” Kwon said in his statement on Sunday. (DPRK is an acronym of North Korea’s official name: Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.) In addition, Kwon rationalized Putin’s decision to start a war with Ukraine by calling it “the legitimate right to national defense of a sovereign state.”

There are two key motivations behind Pyongyang’s decision to support Moscow in the perilous Ukraine War: questioning the conventional role of the United States in the international community and driving a wedge between the U.S. and its allies in disputed regions.

One of the North’s intentions in standing alongside Russia is to demonize the United States as an imperialist state weakening regional stability across the world. It’s in Pyongyang’s interest to keep questioning the conventional role of the U.S. as a world police since World War II. North Korea is trying to convince the international community – mainly the anti-U.S. states – that its nuclear programs are an unwanted but necessary tool to defend the country from the United States and its allies. Calling its nuclear programs a means for self-defense, North Korea paints the U.S. as the main state actor escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula. In this context, a Russian victory in the Ukraine war may help North Korea to lay the groundwork to pressure the U.S. to lift the devastating economic sanctions.

“No matter how desperately the imperialist allied forces may try, they will never weaken the heroic stamina of the Russian army and people with high patriotism, stubbornness and strong mental power,” Kim Yo Jong said.

On the flip side, Russia fails to achieve its goals before ending the war, the U.S.-led coalition will be strengthened further in various regions. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) alliance will be solidified with more concrete measures to defend each member state from attack by outside adversaries. In the Asia-Pacific, South Korea-U.S.-Japan trilateral cooperation will also be enhanced, as pledged, to deter North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats.

Pyongyang might also interpret Putin’s loss as a prelude to the collapse of totalitarianism and authoritarianism. For North Korea, supporting Russia is meant not only to sustain its leverage in the region but also to secure Kim’s regime.

Pyongyang will thus keep supporting Russia indirectly – or directly, according to U.S. intelligence.

“We will always stand in the same trench with the service personnel and people of Russia who have turned out in the struggle to defend the dignity and honor of the state and the sovereignty and security of the country,” Kim said.

Ostensibly, the new Cold War has appeared in various regions – especially in the Korean Peninsula. As North Korea appears to have decided to tighten ties with Russia and China to better confront the U.S. and its allies’ leverage in the region, Seoul and Washington would need to recalibrate policies on North Korea to effectively deter and respond to the North’s missile threats.