Wednesday, 17 Jul 2024

North Korea Finds New Leverage in the Ukraine War

For Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea, a rare trip to Russia this month to discuss military aid for President Vladimir V. Putin’s Ukraine war effort could provide two things the North has wanted for a long time: technical help with its weapons programs, and to finally be needed by an important neighbor.

North Korea has not been used to getting a lot of attention other than global condemnation for its nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests. But Russia’s urgency to make new gains in the war is offering Mr. Kim a bit of the geopolitical spotlight — and a new way to both irk the United States and draw closer to Moscow and Beijing.

Though Russia has long been a crucial ally for the isolated North, relations between the two countries have at times grown tense since the disintegration of the Soviet Union. And Russia accounts for very little of the economic trade that North Korea needs; China alone provides nearly all of that.

Now, common interests and worldview are bringing the neighbors closer.

The White House has repeatedly warned that North Korea was starting to ship artillery shells and rockets to Russia and negotiating for more arms deals. And Western officials’ claims this week that Mr. Kim will travel to Russia soon indicate that they fear the process is moving forward with more intent.

For its part, North Korea faces critical technological hurdles in its nuclear and missile programs, as well as dire economic need, and Russia could help more on those fronts.

“It’s a win-win situation for both sides,” said Lee Byong-chul, a North Korea expert at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies at Kyungnam University in Seoul.

One question hanging over such a deal is just how much North Korean aid could move Russia’s war effort forward, especially given the North’s economic difficulties and chronic food shortages. In recent weeks, Mr. Kim has visited a series of munitions factories, exhorting the officials there to step up production, according to state media.

But Mr. Lee said the North may have a large surplus of ammunition already available, as it has not fought a war since the Korean War armistice in 1953. And with armaments largely based on Soviet weapons systems, North Korean munitions are widely compatible with Russia’s arsenal.

“It’s shocking news for the U.S. and countries in Europe hoping for an early end to the war in Ukraine,” Mr. Lee said. “North Korean munitions can add fuel to the fire.”

A deal with Russia could also further raise tensions around the Korean Peninsula, helping North Korea advance its nuclear weapons program and pushing both South Korea and Japan to strengthen their own military cooperation with the United States, analysts say.

“Kim is looking for technological shortcuts for his military satellite and missile programs that have been frustrated by economic sanctions,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul. He added that increased military exchanges between Russia and North Korea “would undermine peace and security in Europe and Asia, and demonstrate Moscow and Pyongyang’s willingness to blatantly enable each other’s violations of international law.”

Mr. Kim’s potential trip to Russia would be the first since he made an initial official visit there by armored train in 2019.

Since taking power in 2011, the North Korean leader has sought parallel goals: building a nuclear arsenal and reviving his country’s decrepit economy. He first focused on his weapons programs, conducting four underground nuclear tests and launching ICBMs. He tried to use his country’s growing military threat as leverage to force Washington to ease sanctions so he could improve its economy.

That hope evaporated with the collapse of his diplomacy with Mr. Trump in 2019. And Mr. Kim has since struggled to chart a new course. Soon, he bet his luck on a changing world order he termed a “neo-Cold War,” seeking to align his country more closely with Beijing and Moscow against the “unipolar” world order dominated by the United States.

His strategy has already reaped benefits, allowing his country to conduct a series of ICBM and other missile tests with impunity despite resolutions by the United Nations Security Council. Though the North has traditionally offered Russia and China at least as much trouble as comradeship, both countries wielded their veto power at the Council when the United States and its allies tried to adopt new penalties against the North in recent months.

Both Russia and China sent high-ranking officials — Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu came from Russia, and the Communist Party Politburo member Li Hongzhong from China — to Pyongyang in July. In a scene symbolic of deepening ties among the countries, the two officials joined Mr. Kim on a balcony as North Korea held a military parade.

The parade was to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of the Korean War, celebrated in North Korea as “Victory Day.” The Korea conflict was the last war in which the three nations fought together against the United States and its allies. And by bringing them together again, Mr. Kim sought to evoke an intensifying trilateral alliance to counter the three-way partnership among Washington, Tokyo and Seoul, analysts said.

“Kim Jong-un is jumping on the ‘new Cold War’ bandwagon,” said Sung Ki-young, an analyst at the Institute for National Security Strategy, a think tank affiliated with South Korea’s National Intelligence Service. “There is no better time for him to elevate his relevance by aligning closely with Russia.”

During his trip, Mr. Shoigu suggested joint military drills with North Korea and China to counter trilateral military cooperation in the region by the United States, South Korea and Japan, according to South Korean lawmakers who were briefed by the South’s National Intelligence Service on Monday.

And in August, Mr. Kim and Mr. Putin exchanged letters pleading to expand “bilateral cooperation in all fields” and build “a longstanding strategic relationship in conformity with the demand of the new era,” according to state media.

Moscow currently offers little in economic aid or trade to the North: North Korea only imported 5,380 tons of corn and flour from Russia in the first five months of this year, compared with 102,000 tons of rice imported from China, according to South Korean government economists.

But Russia has crucial technologies that could help advance North Korea’s weapons programs. Although North Korea has launched multiple ICBMs since 2017, Western experts still doubt that the country has all the technology needed to make its nuclear warheads small and light enough to traverse an intercontinental range.

North Korea has also twice attempted to launch its first military spy satellite into orbit since March, but both attempts failed. The country is also trying to build its first ballistic missile submarine and is believed to face technical hurdles there as well.

“I don’t think that any economic assistance from Russia could be more than symbolic,” Mr. Sung said. “But North Korea needs technological help from Russia. North Korea’s five major weapons projects are all based on original Russian technology.”

Choe Sang-Hun is the Seoul bureau chief for The Times, focusing on news in North and South Korea. More about Choe Sang-Hun

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