Putin’s Visit Symbolizes North Korea’s Changing Foreign Policy

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Putin’s Visit Symbolizes North Korea’s Changing Foreign Policy

The Russian president’s trip to Pyongyang is a sign of substantial shifts in North Korean ideology and diplomacy. Meanwhile, the U.S. playbook on North Korea has not changed in decades.

Putin’s Visit Symbolizes North Korea’s Changing Foreign Policy

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

Two international crises have profoundly shaped the leadership decisions of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un: COVID-19 and Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine. Both of these crises have led to substantial shifts in North Korean ideology and altered long standing pillars of Pyongyang’s diplomatic decision making. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s current visit to Pyongyang is a manifestation of these changes and is likely to lead to closer ties between Russia and North Korea.

In early January, Kim Jong Un declared South Korea a hostile foreign enemy and essentially renounced the regime’s longstanding policy of seeking “peaceful reunification” with the South. Following this declaration, North Korean organizations dedicated to inter-Korean relations and symbols representing inter-Korean kinship have been systematically dismantled. Most prominently, the Arch of Reunification in Pyongyang was destroyed after Kim Jong Un called it an “eyesore” in state media.

These sweeping changes to Pyongyang’s inter-Korean policy are largely pragmatic. Gone are the days of hoping for a people’s uprising driven by South Koreans yearning to live under the Kim family regime. Kim Jong Un recognizes that South Korea, with its strong economy and robust cultural exports, is not ripe terrain for a socialist revolution.

Nonetheless, in a hereditary dictatorship that emphasizes ideological loyalty above all else, these drastic shifts are revelatory of a changed North Korean grand strategy. They signify a return to foundational principles of maintaining equidistance between Moscow and Beijing, with an eye toward establishing North Korea as a formidable global player and a move away from the hand to mouth diplomacy of the last 30 years.

Kim Jong Un’s new direction on inter-Korean policy, taking advantage of opportunistic developments in global affairs, and continuing to devote his country’s meager resources into strategic weapons development suggest the United States and the West need to give more credit to the North Korean leader, who is often characterized a meme or a laughing stock. Kim has shown that he is capable of growth and is able to shift his strategic thinking. Unfortunately, the U.S. policy on North Korea has not displayed similar flexibility or growth.

Lessons From the International Situation

The pandemic revealed to Kim Jong Un that Pyongyang should not be overly reliant on China and that self-imposed isolation can benefit ideological cohesion within North Korea through the reduction of foreign influence. After the outbreak of COVID-19 in Wuhan, China, the North Korean regime imposed strict border closures. During the global pandemic, Pyongyang reestablished an anachronistic commitment to autarky and anti-globalization. 

These border closures did not collapse the North Korean economy but rather reinforced principles and values from the days of North Korea’s founding leader Kim Il Sung about the importance of being self-sufficient and self-reliant. In April 2020, North Korea’s Workers’ Party leadership “reaffirmed that it is the firm political line of our Party to build a powerful socialist nation under the uplifted banner of self-reliance.”

On one hand, COVID-19 revealed the poor handling of an international crisis by China, North Korea’s main ally. It also posed a major biological threat to the North Korean political elite – including the “Supreme Leader,” who is obese and a heavy smoker, both of which increase the risk of death from COVID-19.

On the other hand, the Kim regime’s self-imposed isolation from the pandemic disclosed the limits of international sanctions on its national economy and the self-serving benefits of cutting its population off from external “ideological pollution.” The pandemic proved to be a good opportunity for North Korean security services to clamp down on foreign influence within the country, namely South Korean dramas and movies. The complete cutting of ties with its southern brethren is a way to protect the ideological legitimacy of the regime and eliminate the potential of an alternative governance structure within North Korea.

While COVID-19 was a double-edged sword, Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine has been a blessing to the North Korean leadership. It revealed that the international community is weak when it comes to confronting nuclear threats and, more importantly, it was a pathway to reducing Pyongyang’s politico-economic dependence on Beijing. The Russian military is desperate for artillery shells and short-range ballistic missiles. North Korea’s Soviet-era artillery stockpiles are a much needed boost to Russia’s war machine.

This rejuvenated North Korea-Russia military partnership provides an outlet for two heavily sanctioned governments. Russia obtains much needed arms and ammunition from North Korea amid a global blacklisting of the Russian defense industry. Russian payment for North Korean armaments likely comes in the form of much needed hard currency and technical cooperation on dual use technology. 

An added bonus is that North Korean military generals can see how their weapons function on a 21st century battlefield, which could lead to changes to the regime’s strategic calculus should a military conflict suddenly erupt on the Korean Peninsula.

American Staleness and the Anti-U.S. Axis

The American playbook on North Korea has not changed in decades. While the United States has offered full-throated support for Ukraine, militarily and politically, Washington still tries its best to put North Korea on the backburner. A North Korean provocation – even when it results in loss of lives – is followed by a U.S. condemnation, vague comments about “all options being on the table,” and a U.S. Navy ship visit or an Air Force flyover.

All options are not on the table; we know it, and the North Koreans know it. These actions do not deter the North. Instead of being further isolated, Pyongyang has now found kindred spirits in a revanchist Russia and a revisionist great power in China.

North Korea’s relationships with Russia and China have had their ups and downs, from the founding of the country as a Soviet-client state to Pyongyang trying to squeeze Moscow and Beijing simultaneously for aid during the Sino-Soviet rivalry of the 1960s and the 1970s. In the 1990s and the 2000s, as Russia and China emphasized economic growth and attracting international investment, North Korea focused on developing nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. During the Six Party Talks and in discussions with U.S. officials, Russian and Chinese officials could barely hide their contempt for the Kim family regime, even as they tried to defend them in front of the United States and its allies.

There is no deep shared love between Kim, Putin, and China’s Xi Jinping; instead, they are united in opposition to the United States and the Western liberal order that has emerged victorious from the ashes of the Cold War. For now, deep animosity toward the United States and a common goal to frustrate U.S. designs has united the three leaders and elevated Kim Jong Un’s status as a member of a global anti-U.S. triumvirate on equal footing with Russia and China. North Korea has not had this level of relevance on the international stage since the 1960s and the 1970s.

The United States is not alone in this competition, but the window of opportunity to exert strategic influence is limited. Washington has a rare opportunity to work with two like minded allies in South Korea and Japan, led by President Yoon Suk-yeol and Prime Minister Kishida Fumio, respectively. This will not last. The South Korean presidential election in 2027 could easily bring the progressive party back in power. Progressive leaders typically suspect US motives, focus on improving relations with the North, and want to remain neutral in a China-U.S. competition. The presidential administration in Seoul could quickly switch from a staunch U.S. ally to North Korea’s defender and advocate in three years time.

Breaking the Chain

The United States historically has focused on “calming the situation” and “de-escalation” in Korea. Instead, the policy debate and focus on Asia needs to shift toward going on the strategic offensive and gaining escalation dominance. 

Unfortunately, there is no shortage of conflict and crisis in the world. Both headlines and Washington’s attention are currently focused on Ukraine and Israel. Faced with a polycrisis world, U.S. policymakers are faced with the unenviable job of prioritizing the threats to the United States. That said, prioritization can no longer be used as an excuse for Washington and its allies to keep reaching into the well-worn bag of carrots and sticks in regards to North Korea.

Even if North Korea cannot be an immediate priority, Asia-focused policymakers from the National Security Council to the Departments of State and Defense, as well as in the military’s Indo-Pacific Command, can still lay out a clear strategic vision for how the U.S. and its allies can counter Kim Jong Un and his rekindled friendship with Putin and communicate this vision to stakeholders. That vision will require using all the tools in the U.S. toolkit.

Given North Korea’s stranglehold on its information ecosystem, disseminating outside information to the North Korean public through whatever means available should be at the forefront of this toolkit. The U.S and its allies should go on an ideological offensive against the North Korean regime.

Former senior U.S. official Michael Vickers in his recent memoir noted that President Ronald Reagan’s national security policy directive to use “all available means” to defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan was a watershed moment in U.S. policy, helping the Mujahideen to tip the scale on the battlefield. The time has come for the current and future U.S. administrations to step up to this “all available means” approach and break the weakest link in the anti-U.S. triumvirate chain, North Korea.