The Prospects for North Korea-Russia Nuclear Cooperation

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The Prospects for North Korea-Russia Nuclear Cooperation

Russia’s providing advanced nuclear assistance to North Korea is more likely and more sustainable than often assumed.

The Prospects for North Korea-Russia Nuclear Cooperation

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (left) shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a meeting at the Vostochny Cosmodrome, Sep. 13, 2023.

Credit: Russian Presidential Press and Information Office

On September 13, Russian President Vladimir Putin met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the Vostochny Cosmodrome, Russia’s main spaceport. When asked if Russia would assist North Korea in launching satellites and rockets, Putin answered, “That’s exactly why we came here. … The leader of North Korea shows great interest in space, in rocketry, and they are trying to develop space.” Putin’s remarks indicate Russia’s intention to transfer advanced space technology to North Korea. Given the similarity between civilian satellite technology and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) technology, we should worry that Russia will also provide Pyongyang with breakthrough tech for its nuclear weapons program.

Surprisingly, widespread optimism prevails over the emerging North Korea-Russia nuclear coalition. Many Western and South Korean officials and experts offer a simplistic analysis of Russia’s motivation for stepping up engagement with Pyongyang: to address the ammunition shortage in its ongoing war against Ukraine. They seem complacent about this development, viewing Russia’s desperation as a product of effective sanctions and export controls. An American official even downplayed Russia’s move, deriding Putin for “traveling across his own country hat in hand to beg Kim Jong Un for military assistance.”

Likewise, one pundit based in Seoul dismissed the idea of Russia transferring advanced military technologies – such as ICBM or submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) technology – to Pyongyang, stating, “Even a desperate war machine does not trade its military crown jewels for old, dumb munitions.” Many South Korean experts also express doubts about the sustainability of Russian nuclear assistance, arguing that Russia’s incentive to support Pyongyang’s nuclear sophistication will diminish once the ongoing war in Ukraine concludes.

This widespread optimism is problematic because it overlooks the possibility that Russian nuclear assistance to Pyongyang could be driven by broader political and military benefits rather than immediate material gains. Western and South Korean analysts should be wary of excessive optimism.

Looking Back to History

Looking at how similar historical cases played out in the past can help us understand current events. Russia’s nuclear assistance to North Korea is not the first instance of an “established nuclear state” aiding a “fledgling nuclear state” in upgrading its nuclear weapons program. As shown in my recent article, the United States strategically transferred advanced nuclear technologies to Britain and France, including ballistic missile technology, multiple re-entry vehicle technology, and nuclear submarine propulsion technology. 

Once Britain and France, formerly non-nuclear allies, developed their own nuclear weapons, they no longer had to rely fully on the U.S. nuclear umbrella for their security. Consequently, the new nuclear allies began distancing themselves from Washington, prioritizing their own foreign policies goals in international conflicts, such as in the Suez Crisis, and seeking rapprochement with Moscow as a countermeasure against U.S. leadership. The allies’ growing unilateralism, spurred by their nuclearization, did not align with the United States’ national interests.

The allies’ acquisitions of nuclear weapons and the subsequent growth of independent nuclear deterrent forces caused another problem: the increasing disjuncture between U.S. and allied nuclear forces. The widening chasm between the United States and allied nuclear forces could generate various issues in nuclear-warfighting against the Soviet Union, such as conflicting target priorities, uncoordinated strike plans, and the risk of fratricide. 

In this context, the United States strategically reversed its existing policy of “opposition to and non-cooperation with” the allies’ indigenous nuclear programs. To curb London’s and Paris’ growing independence and promote allied nuclear coordination, Washington strategically decided to provide advanced nuclear assistance to them. The United States aimed to address these growing concerns by forging advanced nuclear partnerships with the young nuclear allies.

In summary, the United States offered atomic assistance to shape the nuclear recipients’ foreign and military policies in line with its national interests. That is, the United States provided nuclear technology assistance for broader strategic benefits rather than immediate material gains.

More Than Procuring Ammunition

From the narrow perspective of material exchanges, it is unthinkable that Moscow would transfer advanced nuclear technology to North Korea in return for outdated conventional missiles and artillery shells. Given that advanced nuclear technology is a collection of sophisticated scientific knowledge and technologies in numerous fields, such as physics, aerospace engineering, and computer science, its material worth is vastly superior to that of antiquated ammunition. However, as demonstrated by the historical example above, Russia also could transfer advanced nuclear technology to North Korea in return for intangible strategic benefits beyond mere artillery shells.

What strategic benefits might Russia seek? In the short run, Moscow can use nuclear assistance to Pyongyang to create a favorable international environment for its ongoing war against Ukraine. By reinforcing North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, Russia can encourage Pyongyang to take its nuclear provocations to an unprecedented level, such as successful test-firings of solid-fueled ICBMs and the launching of SLBMs. Pyongyang’s enhanced nuclear capabilities, which now pose a more serious threat to the continental United States, will heighten the security concerns of South Korea and Japan, raising questions about the credibility of U.S. security commitments. 

Consequently, Russia could divert the attention of the United States and its Asian allies away from Ukraine toward North Korea’s increased nuclear threat, potentially reducing their willingness to offer direct or indirect military assistance to Ukraine.

In the long run, even after the Ukraine war concludes, Russia could use North Korea as an aggressive nuclear pawn in East Asia to advance its strategic interests. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has led to the formation of a global anti-Russian coalition, including an expanded NATO alliance and a Japan-South Korea-United States coalition.

To reshape this unfavorable geopolitical environment, Russia could intentionally strengthen North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, thereby weakening the encirclement directed against it by adding another major concern to the global anti-Russian coalition. Specifically, heightened nuclear saber-rattling by Pyongyang could complicate Washington’s post-war drive to contain Russia in Europe, where Moscow’s vital strategic interests are at stake.

This Russian stratagem is evident in Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s recent speech at the United Nations. He claimed, “The U.S. and its subordinate Western collective are continuing to fuel conflicts which artificially divide humanity into hostile blocs.” 

Additionally, by utilizing nuclear aid as a means, Russia could attempt to restore its historical influence over North Korea. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow’s leverage over Pyongyang waned, allowing China to gain greater influence. As analyzed in a recent New York Times article, closer ties between Moscow and Pyongyang could diminish Beijing’s control over Pyongyang. Through the establishment of a robust nuclear partnership, Russia could reestablish its long-term influence over North Korea while distancing it from China.

Future Tasks

The historical instances of nuclear assistance and the intangible strategic motivations discussed above imply that for Moscow, providing nuclear assistance to Pyongyang is likely, and once initiated, it is likely to be sustained for an extended period. What implications does this emerging nuclear coalition hold for the academic and policy communities?

International relations scholars should pay more attention to nuclear assistance that occurs between nuclear powers. While extensive research has been conducted on the dynamics of nuclear assistance from nuclear states to non-nuclear states, there has been relatively limited scholarly focus on the dynamics of nuclear assistance from established nuclear states to fledgling nuclear states. Exploring these uncharted areas of nuclear assistance will provide policymakers with valuable insights into why, how, and to what extent Russia will offer atomic aid to North Korea.

U.S. and South Korean policymakers should take the emerging Russo-North Korean nuclear coalition more seriously and develop customized plans to address a range of potential scenarios. The possible consequences for East Asia would vary depending on the scope and pace of Russian atomic assistance. For instance, the adverse effects of Russian atomic assistance will vary depending on whether Russia offers rapid or gradual assistance for North Korea’s nuclear sophistication.

Additionally, the harmful impacts of the emerging nuclear coalition on the United States and its Asian allies’ security will also differ depending on whether Russia transfers technologies that enhance Pyongyang’s “secure second-strike capability” (e.g., ICBM solid-fuel propeller boosters, re-entry technology, and SLBM technology) or shares more offensive technologies that could improve its “first-strike capability” (e.g., precision guidance systems and hypersonic glide vehicles). Accordingly, the U.S. and South Korean governments should prepare and implement tailor-made policies for these varying scenarios.

Inaccurate diagnosis leads to ill-advised prescriptions. Western and South Korean officials and analysts should be wary of optimism. The gathering nuclear storms loom on the horizon in East Asia.