Six months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – what are the consequences for North Korea?
Published August 31, 2022
August 24 of this year marks six months since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In February, Moscow amassed 100,000 troops along the Ukrainian border while hypocritically claiming it had no intention of invading.
Moscow expected Russia to quickly overthrow the government led by President Volodymyr Zelensky and occupy Ukraine, much as it illegally occupied Crimea eight years earlier. On February 27, 2014 (the same week in February that Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine this year), Russian troops captured strategic points in Crimea, a pro-Russian government was installed on the peninsula, and a “referendum on the status” of Crimea was held. took place on March 16, and two days later the “independent” territory of Crimea was annexed to Russia.
Massed Russian troops crossed the international border into Ukraine on February 24, 2022. It was clear that Russia expected a similarly rapid conquest, including the overthrow of the pro-Western Zelensky government. Ukraine “asks” for some fabricated form of “alliance” with Russia, and young women in national costumes with flowers and ribbons in their hair will present bread and salt to the “liberating” Russian troops.
It’s been six months since Moscow launched its invasion of Ukraine, and hope for a quick Russian victory has vanished. The Russian military is waging a grueling war of attrition that has led to horrific scenes of death and destruction in Ukraine, and millions of Ukrainian citizens have been forced to flee their homes as a result of the ongoing fighting. Russian artillery and rockets indiscriminately hit homes, schools and churches.
However, the Ukrainians continue to fight. Economic and political sanctions are beginning to have some impact on the Russian economy, and this impact is likely to increase as the conflict continues. The North Atlantic Alliance has become more cohesive thanks to an urgent sense of purpose, and has also become larger with the addition of Sweden and Finland to its ranks.
The Kremlin’s expectations that Kyiv would quickly surrender turned out to be nowhere near the same as Russia’s illegal takeover of Crimea in 2014. The Russian military is much less capable than expected, its economy is more fragile, and informed Russians are more skeptical.
In capitals around the world, diplomats and military leaders are closely examining the impact of events in Ukraine on their own security and international politics. It is likely that events in Ukraine are under particular scrutiny in North Korea.
Events in Ukraine will reinforce Pyongyang’s reluctance to curtail its own nuclear weapons program
In particular, Kim Jong Un and his generals are likely focused on their nuclear strategy. Ukraine is one of the very few countries in the world that once had nuclear weapons and voluntarily gave them up. Ukraine, as well as Belarus and Kazakhstan, were republics within the Soviet Union, which collapsed in 1991 into 13 fully independent states. All three had nuclear missiles located on their territory during the Soviet era. In fact, in the early 1990s, Ukraine ranked third in the world in terms of the number of nuclear missiles.
The nuclear missiles located in Ukraine were under the control of the Soviet and later Russian military authorities, so these missiles were not designed and operated by Ukraine. But the issue was so complex that Russia, Britain and the United States signed joint agreements with Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus, recognizing that these now independent countries voluntarily give up nuclear weapons on their territory. Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States have pledged to recognize and respect the sovereignty, security and independence of these former Soviet republics, which in turn have signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The countries have signed the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, which consolidates these commitments.
Russia’s military actions against Ukraine over the past six months are a violation of the assurances given by the Russian leadership in official agreements. The United States and many other countries, including NATO members, have sent military assistance to Ukraine but have not directly committed their armed forces to the conflict.
As a result of the unfolding events in Ukraine, Pyongyang is likely to be even more cautious and reluctant to make any restrictions on its own nuclear weapons programs. The situation with Ukraine only highlights the problem of dependence on other countries to protect their own interests.
The irony, of course, is that North Korea supported Russia in its military actions in Ukraine. After initially remaining silent for the first few days after Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine, a foreign ministry spokesman said through the KCNA: “The root cause of the Ukrainian crisis is entirely due to the hegemonic power of the US and the West, which is self-will and abuse of power against other countries.” These statements and actions by Pyongyang never really explain why the United States is to blame for Russia unilaterally launching an attack against Ukraine.
Ukraine’s experience of being attacked by Russia after it renounced its possession of nuclear weapons is also a scenario that North Korean officials fear could befall Pyongyang. In my conversations with senior North Korean officials in Pyongyang, the example of Libya was cited. Libyan leader Muammer Gaddafi reached an agreement with the United States to abandon its nuclear program. A few years later he was deposed and killed during a local uprising. “We will not follow the example of Libya,” then-North Korean First Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan told me during a visit to Pyongyang a few years ago.
Pyongyang is taking care to strengthen its national ties with Moscow. North Korea has recognized the “independence” of two territories in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions in eastern Ukraine that have declared their independence and seceded from Ukraine. The government of Ukraine severed diplomatic relations with North Korea due to Pyongyang’s actions, and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmitry Kuleba said: “Russia no longer has allies in the world, except for countries that depend on it financially and politically, and the level of isolation of the Russian Federation will soon reach DPRK isolation level [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea]. Ukraine will continue to respond as harshly as possible to encroachments on its sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
North Korean Labor Party for Restoration of Ukrainian Territories Controlled by Russia
Russian Ambassador to Pyongyang Oleksandr Matsegora suggested that North Korean labor could help rebuild Ukrainian territories now under Russian control. He reportedly said that North Korean workers could help rebuild the self-proclaimed people’s republics in Donetsk and Luhansk regions, areas in eastern Ukraine that are under Russian control and where local authorities have declared their independence from Ukraine. Other reports suggest that North Korean officials are already lining up North Korean workers to help in these war-ravaged areas.
At the moment, there is no indication that North Korean workers have already been sent to eastern Ukraine, and the military effort is currently the priority. Sending North Korean workers to Donetsk and Lugansk may become possible once the military situation is more controlled and will likely take more time to resolve.
North Korean workers are already deployed in the Russian Far East port city of Vladivostok, which is close to North Korea.
North Korean workers are unlikely to go to the contested Ukrainian territories now under Russian control. free of charge goodwill gesture from Pyongyang. Foreign workers are an important source of income for the regime and its officials. It is unlikely that North Korea will send workers without compensation.
UN sanctions against North Korea’s nuclear program will become increasingly difficult to enforce
In the past, Russia and China have played a positive role in imposing UN economic sanctions on North Korea for its nuclear weapons programs. The sanctions have banned trade with North Korea in certain types of military equipment, frozen the foreign assets of leading North Korean officials involved in the nuclear program, and limited technical and scientific cooperation in some important areas.
Such bans require the approval of the UN Security Council in order for the UN to tighten or impose sanctions. However, any of the permanent members of the Security Council – China, France, Russia, Great Britain and the United States – can veto the Council’s resolutions. Since 2006, the Security Council has approved about a dozen separate resolutions imposing sanctions on North Korea, which have been instrumental in limiting and slowing down Pyongyang’s nuclear program.
In addition, China and Russia play an important role in enforcing UN sanctions. About 90 percent of North Korea’s foreign trade is either from China or north through China. Although trade with Russia is much smaller, it shares a border with North Korea that it can use to slow down or facilitate smuggling out of Pyongyang. Any successful effort to enforce UN nuclear weapons sanctions against North Korea requires cooperation and enforcement by China and Russia.
Criticism of Russia’s military actions against Ukraine also makes it harder for the UN Security Council to impose sanctions on North Korea. This spring, after Russia launched a war against Ukraine, North Korea test-fired three missiles, including an ICBM, in defiance of previous UN Security Council resolutions and actions. UN Security Council by both Russia and China.
The vast majority of United Nations members have been critical of Russia. For example, Russia was a member of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC), which is a body of 46 UN member countries elected for a certain period of time to deal with human rights issues. In April of this year, when Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continued for two months, the UN General Assembly considered a resolution to suspend Russia’s membership in the HRC. As a result, 93 countries were in favor of suspending Russia’s membership, 24 countries opposed and 58 abstained. Suspension of HRC membership for any country is a very rare and unusual action, and this action was a serious diplomatic slap in the face of Russia. In a scathing speech immediately after the vote, the Russian ambassador told the General Assembly that Russia had decided to withdraw from the HRC before the end of its term, earlier in the day, on the eve of the decisive UN vote.
Kim Jong Un and his regime are likely to see the benefit of Russia’s miscalculation in Ukraine. Moscow has distanced relations and heightened tensions around the world. It is beginning to feel the economic costs of a costly war, coupled with sanctions from the United States, the European Union and a number of other leading countries. It faces large internal costs in terms of the lives of its soldiers, the cost to its economy, and the cost to supporting its citizens. Many of Russia’s international relations are weakening, and its influence in the United Nations is also weakening. Loyal friends like Kim Jong Un will be rewarded with Russians, especially since the number of such friends of Russia has dwindled. Loyalty in difficult times leads to stronger bonds. Russian concerns about North Korea’s nuclear ambitions are likely to be a lower priority for Moscow as it struggles with the mismanagement of its Ukrainian adventure.
Robert R. King is Distinguished Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America (KEI). He is the former US Special Envoy for Human Rights to North Korea (2009-2017). The opinions expressed here are his own.