Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has raised many new security concerns not only for Europe, but also for the rest of the world. In Northeast Asia, Russia’s proximity and strategic impact have all of the regional actors keeping a close eye on Moscow’s political decisions. Under this new geopolitical situation, North Korea seems to be recalibrating its foreign policy agenda to situate itself among the global powers of Russia, China and the US.
Since the beginning of the war, North Korea has been one of only five countries to support Putin by opposing a United Nations (UN) General Assembly Resolution condemning Russia’s invasion, while it blamed the US for being the “root cause of the Ukraine crisis.” In exchange for its political support, North Korea is most likely interested in receiving economic aid from Russia as well as military weapons technologies. Russia may also be more inclined to make use of its veto power at the UN Security Council (UNSC) to support North Korea’s conduct of further intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) or potential nuclear tests.
Lessons for North Korea
Although Ukraine and North Korea’s historical and political backgrounds differ, certain similarities can be found. When looking at different scenarios, the Ukraine war offers several lessons for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). While some of the scenarios are hypothetical, it is important to consider the North’s perspective and how it may act in the future.
North Korea’s paranoia about military threats from potential enemies may have increased even further after watching Ukraine—a non-nuclear-armed country invaded by Russia, a large nuclear-armed military power. Many argue that Russia would not have invaded Ukraine if it had nuclear weapons or had successfully joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Although Ukraine has sought full-scale military support, such as receiving troops from the US or NATO, the West has focused on imposing harsh economic sanctions against Russia while sending only weapons to Ukraine. This response has been largely engineered to avoid a direct military conflict, which could lead to World War III between nuclear-weapons states.
When looking at China’s reluctance to actively provide political and military support to Russia during the war in Ukraine, North Korea may realize that it cannot rely on Beijing’s military support in the event of an attack by the US and South Korea. Despite China being Russia’s political and ideological ally, Beijing has opted against direct military assistance to avoid a direct military confrontation with the West.
Pyongyang may fear that Beijing would also be ambivalent in the event of war on the Korean Peninsula, even though the 1961 Sino-North Korean Friendship Treaty, which includes a collective defense commitment to support one another if either country is under armed attack by a state or alliance of states, was renewed in 2021. North Korea likely does not fully trust China’s commitment as the treaty can be terminated in the future. Moreover, it is unclear what Beijing’s reaction would be if Pyongyang attacked others first, like Moscow’s invasion of Kyiv. As such, the war in Ukraine has likely reinforced North Korea’s perception that it needs to further develop its nuclear weapons program to protect the country from any contingency since it cannot always trust and rely on China for support.
Pyongyang’s dependence on China’s economic and political support has significantly increased after the no-deal summit in Hanoi between US President Donald Trump and Chairman Kim Jong Un. With few prospects for resuming peace talks between the US and North Korea in the near future, Pyongyang may see strengthening relations with Russia as a way to reduce China’s overwhelming influence on its affairs.
Furthermore, North Korea might worry about changing future relations with China, which will impact Pyongyang’s foreign policy directions. Despite improved relations between North Korea and China, their strategic priorities and interests may be different in the future. From Pyongyang’s perspective, China could decide to cooperate with the US on its nuclear issue if Beijing needs to use it as leverage against Washington to gain reciprocation on one of China’s priority issues, such as Taiwan. This type of development would present a major challenge to Pyongyang, as it would no longer be able to rely on Beijing as an ally. In fact, China was an active participant in imposing a series of UN sanctions with the US against North Korea’s nuclear program after it conducted nuclear tests in 2013, 2016 and 2017. Such concerns may drive North Korea to use this period of war to enhance its military and nuclear capabilities, strengthen ties with Russia and lessen its dependence on China. Although this strategy may be short-lived, depending on how the war in Ukraine ends.
Russia has also threatened the possible use of nuclear weapons during its war against Ukraine. Despite its military power and capabilities, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine seems to be progressing slower than Putin expected due to Ukraine’s strong resistance with support from the international community. He appears to be frustrated by this, especially amid the harsh new economic sanctions and political burden at home and abroad. Russia has already used hypersonic missiles against Ukraine, which could be nuclear armed if Russia so chooses. This marks an apparent shift in strategy in response to Russia’s losses on the battlefield.
Although the purpose of Russia’s nuclear weapons is focused primarily on deterrence and safeguarding national sovereignty, according to the country’s nuclear doctrine, the role of nuclear weapons seems to be changing based on Moscow’s recent rhetoric and nuclear threats. Russia’s threat to use tactical and strategic nuclear weapons during its invasion of Ukraine is a stark reminder of the options nuclear-weapons states have in warfare, especially against non-nuclear armed adversaries. For Pyongyang, this likely is seen as justification for continuing advancement of its nuclear weapons program and doctrine. On April 25, during the military parade celebrating the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Korean People’s Army, Kim Jong Un pledged to strengthen North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and stated that its use is not limited to the prevention of war, hinting at the possibility of tactical use when provoked. This and other recent statements emphasizing a willingness to use nuclear weapons at the outset of war indicate North Korea’s doctrine is evolving and becoming more aggressive—a change from the primary mission to deter war—and, thus, potentially posing a more significant threat to regional and international security.
In response to the war in Ukraine and the wake of North Korean weapons testing, the prospects for greater proliferation in Northeast Asia have increased. In February, former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe proposed a sharing arrangement of US tactical nuclear weapons similar to the current deployment of US nuclear weapons in five NATO member states. Furthermore, Japan’s Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi recently announced that the Defense Ministry would consider increasing the country’s defense budget and strengthening its defense capabilities, including the controversial plan to acquire enemy base strike capabilities.
South Korea is also likely to push for the redeployment of tactical US nuclear weapons to the Korean Peninsula under the new conservative Yoon Suk-yeol administration. Moreover, a recent poll by the Chicago Council revealed that a majority of South Koreans support the country developing its own nuclear weapons, preferably independently from the US, to retain command and control over their use.
Given these conditions, Northeast Asia could be involved in a significant nuclear arms race between nuclear powers and potential nuclear powers that will eliminate a window of opportunity for future denuclearization in North Korea.
Needless to say, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine reinforces the North’s belief that nuclear arms are the only way to secure the country’s survival. While North Korea is leaning into Russia now, it may not be able to rely on Moscow in the future due to uncertainties about how this war will end and how Russia will be able to weather the aftermath of the war. If the war continues to weaken Russia and Putin’s internal leadership due to international pressure and sanctions, North Korea is unlikely to stand by Moscow’s side through its hardships.
All in all, North Korea’s strategic agenda will change depending on its future relations with Russia. If Putin steps down due to failing in Ukraine, North Korea will likely further strengthen ties with China or alternative partners to enhance its security. In these scenarios, if North Korea feels a risk of Chinese interventions, the future possibility of resuming nuclear talks with the US and improving its relations with the South cannot be entirely ruled out.