As the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit was being held in Madrid, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK or North Korea) state media outlet Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) published a commentary that called NATO a “perpetrator of the US hegemonic strategy” and indicted the Republic of Korea (ROK; South Korea) for shaking NATO’s “dark” hands. The DPRK accused NATO of bringing disaster to Eastern Europe and now “turning its sinister eyes” to the Indo-Pacific.
North Korea’s aggressive rhetoric against the US, its regional allies and NATO has strengthened since the war started in Ukraine in support of China and Russia, echoing especially Beijing’s fear of an “Asian NATO” materializing in the Indo-Pacific. Furthermore, the Ukraine war has provided North Korea a unique opportunity to not just distract attention from its expanding missile and nuclear programs, but also put multidirectional pressure on the US and its European and Asian allies.
Even as the US is coalescing the democratic states via bilateral, minilateral (such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue [“Quad”] and the Australia-United Kingdom-United States [“AUKUS”] security pact), and multilateral partnerships in the Indo-Pacific, concerns among authoritarian states like Russia, China, and the DPRK of an accelerated new cold war have been rekindled. This is especially significant in Northeast Asia as Japan and the ROK move toward greater trilateral cooperation under the US umbrella, giving fresh impetus for NATO cooperation. Should a new socialist axis emerge from these geopolitical trends, Pyongyang will surely benefit from heightened political value within its values-bloc. There are lessons to be learned, though, by the US and its allies in Northeast Asia from the Ukraine situation to avoid escalating tensions to the point of conflict over North Korea.
NATO Tongue-lashing: Effective Provocation or Sign of Desperation?
North Korea officially first came out in support of Russia early in March, defending Moscow’s legitimate security interests, and blaming the West, NATO specifically, for blatantly deploying attack weapons systems while pursuing eastward expansion. Pyongyang claimed the deployment had caused a military imbalance in the region, while the expansion “systematically undermined” European security. It witnessed the US and NATO’s “high-handedness and arbitrariness” as the root cause of the war; and, importantly, implied that the same tools would enable the US and its regional allies to cause instability in Northeast Asia. The response echoed Russian grounds for the invasion and was in line with China’s continued vituperation against NATO’s “confrontational and expansionist agenda.”
The DPRK’s staunch criticism even extended to the inclusion of Finland and Sweden into the NATO fold, complaining that the US was pressuring non-militarily aligned states to ultimately encircle Russia by squeezing out its available “strategic space.” Interestingly, Russia initially expressed strong opposition to Finland and Sweden’s accession into NATO by calling the move a “grave mistake” that would have “far-reaching consequences.” However, soon after, Russia made a U-turn by saying that the two states did not pose a “direct threat” and so Russia had “no problems” with them joining NATO. This contrasted Moscow’s inflexible stance of barring future NATO membership of former Soviet republics like Ukraine.
North Korea’s criticisms of NATO this year have roots in the formalization and restructuring of this collective security arrangement in the aftermath of the Korean War—a war that served as “context and inspiration” for NATO’s development as a military and diplomatic organization amid wider Cold War trends. While NATO’s primary focus was on the North Atlantic region, its reach goes beyond this geographical area.
As such, the uptick in NATO’s relations with South Korea, which has been a NATO partner since 2010, appears to have sparked new criticisms from North Korea. This year, ROK’s state intelligence agency became the first-ever Asian country to join NATO’s cyber defense group, and soon afterward, Seoul participated in the Madrid summit. The summit was highly-anticipated because of the launch of NATO’s Strategic Concept after 12 years, during which the landscape of global geopolitics has changed irrevocably. The summit was expected for the first time to underscore the strategic threat from China and included several Indo-Pacific states as observers—highlighting NATO’s expanded geographical goals.
During the summit, the US, Japan, and South Korea held a trilateral meeting along the sidelines, underscoring the recent resurgence of cooperation among the three allies since ROK President Yoon Suk-yeol took office. Pyongyang called their military cooperation “a dangerous prelude to the creation” of an “Asian NATO.”
Notwithstanding NATO’s largely inconsequential nominal status in Korean affairs today, it is likely that North Korea worries about the role NATO might undertake in the event of a war on the peninsula or that the US and its Asian allies (“Asian NATO”) may be envisioning a Russia-like “encirclement” in Northeast Asia. Further, under an increasingly Cold War-like situation where DPRK’s ballistic missiles have the capability to reach the US overseas territory of Guam, and amid speculation, North Korea will soon conduct a seventh nuclear test, the debate on invoking Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty against North Korea could be renewed.
Reemerging Socialist Axis: North Korea’s Growing Profile
Under the current circumstances, as the US-led democratic leaders are coalescing values-based (“like-minded”) partnerships so as to rise against the “battle” with autocracy, the increasingly isolated socialist states of China, Russia and North Korea are looking at each other as their own support system to further their respective ambitions. China, Russia and North Korea feeling isolated is not unwarranted, as the West, including NATO, is increasingly wary of China as a “systemic challenge” for its magnificent yet belligerent rise; Russia for taking on the Cold War-era enemy mantle, especially with the war with Ukraine; and North Korea for its unstable, unfamiliar, rogue status as a nation state.
In the Indo-Pacific, the US strategy of supplementing its bilateral alliances with complementary minilaterals, such as the AUKUS defense pact and the increasingly relevant Quad, has concretized fears within this socialist bloc of a concerted multidimensional threat. This has not only fueled an arms race in the region, but also a sense of solidarity—however misplaced or delicate owing to historical tensions—among the China-led authoritarian states.
Against such a scenario, a strengthening within the China-Russia-North Korea axis seems natural. Evidence of this includes China and Russia vetoing a draft resolution in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) on May 26 aimed at tightening the sanctions regime against the DPRK after several rounds of ballistic missile tests. It resulted in a UNSC split against the DPRK for the first time since 2006, when the UN imposed its first sanctions against the country for its nuclear ambitions. Instead of agreeing to new sanctions, China blamed the US for the DPRK’s continued WMD buildup, pointing to policy “flip-flops,” the US failure to reciprocate DPRK’s denuclearization measures in 2018, and the US disregard for the “reasonable concerns” of the DPRK. Russia echoed the Chinese sentiments, calling the new sanctions “irresponsible.” The two also called for a partial sanctions relief based on humanitarian needs for the DPRK. Further, it is often contended that China and Russia favor the stability of the North Korean regime over denuclearization, which is especially true in the current tense climate; and neither would tolerate an ROK-led unification.
Moreover, allegations about NATO’s intent to expand into Asia have been solidified further due to the US and its allies’ recent remarks over Taiwan, China’s Achilles’ heel, which Beijing sees as crossing a “red line” over what it calls its “internal affairs.” North Korea links the Taiwan situation with the Korean Peninsula; its recent statements denounced the “reckless interference” of US forces around Taiwan and emphasized that it could lead to “a military operation targeting the DPRK at any time.” Since the controversial Pelosi visit to Taiwan, too, both Russia and North Korea have resolutely supported the “One China Principle,” calling out the trip as “pure provocation” and “imprudent interference.”
In the current geopolitical environment, North Korea serves less as a buffer state and more of an asset for both Russia and China. They have been not only mutually reinforcing each other’s political strategies versus the West but also providing each other moral and economic support. China’s renewal of the Friendship Treaty with the DPRK has furnished another angle: military aid. Although no such treaty exists with Russia, a sudden announcement to that effect would be hardly surprising. Recently, speculations were abound that North Korean “volunteers,” armed with “counter battery experience,” could be deployed to assist the Russian military effort in Ukraine. Although some critics called such reports alarmist, such a possibility is not totally dubious in the wake of the DPRK’s resolute support of Russia, be it in the UNSC or by recognizing the separatist Luhansk and Donetsk regions.
At the same time, what seems to be a confluence of interests between these three belies the delicate balance in their relations, which have been historically fraught and are characterized by deep mistrust. Moreover, China is the strongest of the three states in this axis and the only one with expanding political and economic clout. It is unlikely that Russia or North Korea will be content playing second fiddle to China for very long. However, today only North Korea is in a position to leverage its series of provocations—from verbal attacks against the US and its allies (like NATO) to missile tests and nuclear expansion—to gain mileage with the US, should it choose to do so.
Conversely, President Biden’s ratcheting up of engagement with Japan and ROK may be, in part, to bring the North back to negotiations, but the growing emphasis of China as an adversary and intensifying strategic competition between the US and China will only hinder negotiations with North Korea. Pyongyang has “despite the complicated international situation,” accelerated its bilateral ties with China “toward a brighter future.” In this context, Biden’s focus on shoring up American alliances with Japan and the ROK and bolstering their trilateral cooperation with a view of the China threat, has (even if inadvertently) led to a heightening of tensions. In other words, greater US-Japan-ROK trilateral cooperation, especially in terms of their rhetoric on Taiwan, is further fueling instability in Northeast Asia (and the Indo-Pacific at large).
Against the growing tensions in Asia, it is important to learn and adapt from the events that have unfolded in Europe, namely the ongoing Ukraine war. Undoubtedly, Vladimir Putin launched an unprovoked war on Ukraine to fuel his imperialistic ambitions; but experts had long predicted that NATO’s eastward expansion would inevitably lead to tragic consequences, and some even blame NATO for its “tone‐deaf policy toward Russia over the past quarter‐century.” At the same time, there is a widespread view that a lack of a pushback by the West in the 2014 Crimean crisis was a “fatal mistake.” Many also fear that Moscow’s “excessive” demands, namely legally binding security guarantees from the United States and NATO, were just a “pretext” for invasion.
Taking Europe as a distinct but cautionary tale, the US alliances with Japan and South Korea and their trilateral cooperation, therefore, must not put deterrence measures above dialogue, or allow a scenario where the Kim regime either feels cornered enough to retaliate or finds a pretext to do so. For above all, it is imperative to avoid a Russia-like confrontation in Northeast Asia.
It is, therefore, critical to learn from the European example and recognize that expansionism—or even the perception of expansionism—can enhance tensions and instability and lead to dire actions. East Asia is ruptured with half-frozen and high-stakes conflicts encompassing territorial and maritime disputes. While the focus on US alliances in East Asia under Biden is reassuring for American partners, it is viewed as Washington sharpening its instruments for a new Cold War, indicating that the region is already moving toward greater volatility. Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan and China’s military showmanship thereafter, as well as ROK President Yoon’s explicit support for the Indo-Pacific, are some examples demonstrating this trend. Therefore, keeping in mind NATO’s experience with Russia, the US (and its allies) must reassess its North Korea policy to ensure it balances projecting continued strength and credibility while avoiding further instability.
“Asia-Pacific Is Not North Atlantic: Researcher of Int’l Politics Study Society,” KCNA, June 29, 2022.
Even the NATO 2022 Strategic Concept merely calls attention to the DPRK without laying out a definite agenda.