In many of the most widely read newspapers in the world, coverage of the recent North Korea-Russia summit was framed in terms of its significance for Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine. However, it is evident that this event holds implications for the future of the Korean Peninsula that are just as – if not more – significant as its impact on the war in Ukraine.
Sanctions Aren’t Working
First, the summit sends an explicit message that the United States lacks valid coercive means to leverage North Korea’s denuclearization. A series of U.N. and U.S. sanctions, the last remaining tools against North Korea, have proven to be completely ineffective. It’s time to acknowledge this. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s overt statement expressing willingness to assist North Korea’s military capability is further frustrating, suggesting that there may be no Security Council resolution passed condemning another North Korean nuclear test if it happens. While the United States and its allies have warned of an “unparalleled” response, the credibility of this threat is diminishing.
Even though Russia and China, as permanent members of the Security Council, have hindered further sanctions on North Korea in response to Pyongyang’s intercontinental ballistic missile launches, there has been a bleak expectation that they would act differently should North Korea conduct a seventh nuclear test. Thanks to the deal at this summit, however, Kim Jong Un now has highly effective leverage over Putin. In addition to his unwavering support for Russia’s Ukraine war, Pyongyang’s massive arsenal will become a reason for Putin to overlook North Korea’s proliferation pursuits. The extent of Putin’s desperation mirrors the strength of this leverage.
As coercive measures become far less effective, the possibility of talks, let alone negotiations, between North Korea and the South Korea-U.S. alliance diminishes. In 2018, Kim sought to alleviate sanctions against North Korea and receive extensive economic compensation in exchange for engaging in talks with his South Korean and U.S. counterparts. However, Kim now has little incentive to come to the table, given that North Korea has weathered severe sanctions thus far and can prevent further sanctions from being imposed. Even worse, North Korea and Russia will collaborate and explore ways to avoid and survive existing sanctions from the Western world.
Second, China may not feel comfortable with North Korea’s growing alignment with Russia. While it is uncertain how China views this development, based on its reserved comments, it is evident that China has refrained from signaling a clear position, whether in opposition or support of this cooperation between two neighboring countries. If China had expressed a positive stance, it could have posed a threat to the Western world, but it chose not to do so, or it had no foundation to do so.
Contrary to some arguments, Beijing is likely to perceive more risks than benefits for itself in this situation. It is important to note that China’s foreign policy has not shifted toward forming an alliance with Russia to counter its rival, the United States, since the war in Ukraine. While North Korea remains China’s sole ally, there has always been the potential for differences between the two nations that have prevented them from becoming too closely aligned. Furthermore, both North Korea and Russia have not advocated for a “China-led” world; instead, they seek a multipolar world where they can assert their respective voices and ambitions.
Kim is likely to leverage China’s fear of missing out to strengthen the relationship between North Korea and China. Kim’s approach toward Putin signifies a diversification of North Korea’s economic reliance, potentially reducing Chinese influence over North Korea. As China is concerned about losing control over its only ally and the possibility of secret collaboration between North Korea and Russia, Beijing is likely to be strongly motivated to maintain a closer alignment with Pyongyang. It also requires close cooperation with North Korea to safeguard its vital interests, particularly in the context of unification with Taiwan.
North Korea’s Arm Export Opportunity
Third, North Korea has seized a significant opportunity to establish a substantial testing ground for its conventional arsenal, while also taking the chance to deplete existing artillery and rocket systems and replace them with new products. North Korea has long maintained massive stockpiles of munitions, estimated to number in the millions, to both deter and prepare for another all-out conventional war with South Korea. However, these weapons were primarily developed between the 1950s and 1970s. North Korea has had few opportunities to test their accuracy and condition, which is questionable given that these weapons have received poor maintenance.
Furthermore, North Korea’s conventional capabilities lag far behind those of its perceived threat, South Korea, which ranks sixth out of 145 countries in terms of conventional military power. Additionally, the South Korea-U.S. alliance has conducted joint exercises based on scenarios where North Korea initiates an all-out conventional war for decades. This is why Pyongyang has threatened to initiate a nuclear attack even in response to a non-nuclear attack that is judged to be on the horizon. North Korea would have no option but to escalate the situation by threatening to use nuclear weapons, as its conventional arsenal is significantly weaker compared to South Korea.
The contribution of munitions to Putin’s Ukraine War aligns perfectly with Kim Jong Un’s domestic policies, aimed at rejuvenating North Korea’s conventional force and enhancing its conventional-nuclear integration by slightly reducing its heavy reliance on its nuclear arsenal. Since early 2022 – coincidentally the year when Putin initiated the war – North Korea has shifted its focus toward elevating the status of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) and enhancing their operational capabilities. Throughout 2023, Kim has been visiting munitions factories to encourage increased production. During these visits, he has emphasized concepts such as “modernization,” “expanding production capacity,” and “ensuring precision and quality.”
Pursuing Advanced Weaponry
Fourth, North Korea has not abandoned its pursuit of nuclear submarines (SSBNs) and spy satellites. North Korea has demonstrated an unwavering perseverance by developing nuclear weapons over the course of more than five decades, showing that they will never give up if they set their minds to it.
Knowledgeable experts have argued that it is highly unlikely that North Korea will develop an SSBN as planned in 2021 since it requires sophisticated technology and an enormous financial investment. However, Pyongyang now has more opportunities to successfully develop these capabilities. While in Russia Kim visited the Pacific Fleet, where the 24,000-ton Borey-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine Generalissimus Suvorov has been based since September. It is not a coincidence that right before his visit to Russia, Kim encouraged the continued efforts of scientists and technicians at the Pongdae Submarine Factory, mentioning “nuclear-powered submarines” several times in his speech on September 8.
The National Aerospace Development Administration (NADA), the space agency in Pyongyang, confirmed its second failure in launching a spy satellite into orbit last August and vowed to try again. A spy satellite is among the high-tech weapons systems that Kim ordered North Korea to develop in 2021. Success has become more crucial for the scientists, especially after acknowledging their two previous failures. Fortunately, Kim received assistance by touring Russia’s most modern space launch center, where Putin promised to help Pyongyang build satellites. It is uncertain whether this help can immediately contribute to the scheduled third attempt in October, but it will likely serve as further motivation for the scientists to achieve a final success.
To the best of our knowledge, North Korea has a limited capacity to build high-tech conventional and nuclear weapons. Yet, we must acknowledge that our knowledge of North Korea is highly limited, and it may be collaborating with Russia to become stronger. We would face greater risks if we delay once again in rewriting our denuclearization policy on the peninsula, recasting North Korea’s diplomatic blueprint, and reevaluating its conventional power projection.