On February 24, 2022, Russia launched a military invasion of Ukraine. The world is only starting to understand the resulting geoeconomic and geopolitical consequences, but it is safe to say that they are and will be substantial and that North Korea is likely to benefit in economic, political and military ways.
The most significant and tangible gains for North Korea will be economic. It is worth remembering that the severe economic crisis of the mid-1990s resulted from a sudden drop in the import of Russian oil when a transition from socialist friendship prices to capitalist market prices in US dollars occurred. This dramatically reduced the production and availability of chemical fertilizer, fuel and other petrochemical industry products in North Korea and contributed to the deadly famine known as the “Arduous March.”
The current situation could lead to a reversal of that development. While Russia is still a major oil and gas producer, it now faces massive difficulties in exporting these crucial contributors for its national income. It remains to be seen whether a growth-dependent China can resist the temptation of heavily discounted Russian oil and gas prices, even more so if, at the same time, prices for oil and gas from other sources on the world market explode. But while there is the possibility that China will decide to act strategically, give in to international pressure and join the anti-Russian sanctions one way or another, it seems very unlikely that North Korea will do so. Being a pariah state has its advantages, and one of them is not having much to lose.
The relatively small quantities of oil and gas that North Korea can absorb will not save Vladimir Putin’s economy, but, at the end of the day, every little bit helps. Furthermore, in keeping with the same pariah state argument made above for North Korea, Russia’s leadership could also decide to no longer abide by international rules that it believes have been created in the interest of the US. This would, for example, apply to United Nations Security Council (UNSC) sanctions against North Korea. These sanctions include an oil import cap of only 500,000 barrels per year. To put this in perspective, South Korea consumed more than 2,500,000 barrels per day (!) in December 2020.
Figure 1. The so far mostly idle oil refinery in Rason (Rasŏn), North Korea, in 2014.
Before the Yeltsin administration introduced a more market-oriented approach, North Korea’s economy had for many years relied on Soviet oil imports. The resulting structures for delivery and processing are outdated but still in place, including the huge Sungri (Sŭngni) Oil Refinery in North Korea’s Rason Special Economic Zone, with an estimated annual capacity to process 2.5 million tons of oil. If North Korea can resume oil imports at a pre-sanctions level, and maybe even at preferential prices, it might experience a small economic boom. More fertilizer, more fuel and more refined products will mean higher agriculture and industry output. Thinking beyond the relatively small domestic market, it is also possible that North Korea could become a semi-official transit country for trade between Russia and China, and in the wake of international pressure would thereby provide a formal cover for the latter not to deal with Moscow directly.
On the financial side, North Korea can hope for a new version of low, so-called “friendship prices” from Russia, perhaps again in the form of barter trade instead of hard currency as it was customary in the socialist camp during Soviet times. In this context, it is possible that Russia would ignore UNSC sanctions and resume and intensify activities such as the import of North Korean labor for logging in Siberia. Moreover, North Korea will—as it did so skillfully during the Cold War—be able to offer political support in addition to economic favors, which is another version of payment-in-kind. In early March 2022, the DPRK, being one of five countries to vote against a resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, suggests this is already happening.
In terms of foreign policy, the Kim Jong Un regime will most likely feel much more comfortable being part of a global political grouping again. Many of North Korea’s difficulties since the collapse of the Eastern bloc in the late 1980s resulted from being more or less alone without reliable external supporters, economic partners and military allies. However, this period seems to be over now, and a strengthened North Korea will be able to pursue its interests even more resolutely and successfully in an impending Cold War 2.0.
In regards to domestic politics and the defense sector, the invasion of Ukraine is instructive. The argument that Ukraine would not have been attacked if it had nuclear weapons can help the regime justify the substantial economic and political price paid for developing North Korea’s nuclear program and silence any lingering critics. Just as Juche (Chuch’e) was celebrated as the reason for North Korea surviving the meltdown of global socialism more than two decades ago, songun (Sŏn’gun, military first) and byungjin (Pyŏngjin, dual development of economy and a nuclear deterrent)—both policies stressing the need to devote substantial resources to the military, even at the expense of economic development if necessary—will be praised more intensely in North Korean propaganda as proof of the wise foresight of the leaders and the Workers’ Party of Korea.
In case countries like South Korea and Japan follow the argument above—that Ukraine would not have been attacked if it had possessed nuclear weapons—they might at some point decide to develop nuclear weapons programs as well. In both countries, there has been substantial domestic skepticism against such a step so far, but it remains to be seen whether the recent events in Ukraine have been able to shift public opinion. If that is the case, it will be close to unthinkable to even raise the question of denuclearization in discussions with North Korea again. In fact, if South Korea and Japan really did pursue nuclear weapons, as opposed to just discussing the possibilities, this could help North Korea in its efforts at becoming formally accepted as a nuclear weapons state.
The expectation of Russian oil imports, weak—if any—UNSC sanctions enforcement by Russia, the return of a world divided into opposing political camps and confirmation that pursuing a nuclear weapons program against all odds was the right strategic decision will make Kim Jong Un and his regime more optimistic and self-confident. Sanctions will become even less effective. This matters for all those who had hoped to achieve denuclearization or regime change by putting economic, military and political pressure on North Korea.
The latter applies to the incoming administration in South Korea. President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol has declared that to achieve his goals vis-à-vis North Korea, he will not work with ex ante incentives like his predecessor, but rather with ex post rewards. This would be a significant policy change, but it might not matter much. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has made Kim Jong Un less likely to be receptive to any such offers. Furthermore, while a strengthened tripartite alliance between Seoul, Tokyo and Washington is still not in North Korea’s interest, it will become far less threatening if the conflict between Russia and the West results in the reemergence of opposing blocs. If North Korea takes Russia’s (and China’s?) side, it can again expect to be defended against further international punitive actions on principle.
See Hazel Smith, Hungry for Peace: International Security, Humanitarian Assistance, and Social Change in North Korea (Washington, DC: United States Institute for Peace Press, 2005).