The Real Significance of North Korea’s Recent Military Activities
As expected, much of the media commentary on North Korea’s new nuclear law and a barrage of missile launches and artillery firing in recent weeks, including its latest firing across the inter-Korean maritime border, has ultimately boiled down to one single question: What does Kim Jong Un want? While there is a long list of possible domestic and external factors driving North Korea’s ongoing moves, these activities need to be viewed in tandem with what appears to be Pyongyang’s shifting foreign policy. Only then can we understand the North’s current calculus and the broader policy implications.
By now, North Korea’s gravitation toward China and Russia and Kim Jong Un’s “no negotiation” speech has been chronicled extensively. The real significance of these developments goes beyond North Korea simply joining the anti-West bloc led by China and Russia in what some have termed “Cold War 2.0”: It signals a fundamental shift away from the North’s 30+ year policy of nonalignment with China or Russia and efforts to normalize relations with the United States. North Korea’s view of the global political order and how the United States fits into its foreign policy will have implications for the security situation on the Korean Peninsula and the region, including the prospects for nuclear talks.
Tracking the Signs
No country’s actions occur in a vacuum, and the same goes for North Korea. For that reason, rather than reacting to or parsing Pyongyang’s actions piecemeal, it is important to examine the context of these actions—the backdrop against which its perceptions are formed and decisions are made and implemented.
Signs of Pyongyang’s pivot to China have been building up steadily and consistently in recent years, as evidenced by the North’s official support for the thorny issues of Hong Kong and Taiwan as early as August 2019 and June 2020, respectively.
The February 4 China-Russia joint statement, where the two countries laid down their vision of a new global order and promised “no limits” in friendship, appears to have been an inflection point for the North Korean leadership that would change its worldview and fundamentally transform its foreign policy of more than 30 years.
In this document, Kim Jong Un likely saw an increasingly fragmented world where US power and leadership are waning on the world stage. His thinking was reflected in his speech to the Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) in September, where he declared, “the change from a unipolar world advocated by the US into a multipolar world is being accelerated significantly.” This appears to have emboldened North Korea to fundamentally recalibrate its policy of nonalignment with either China or Russia and the use of the US as a buffer against these two giant neighbors.
Within a month of adopting this joint statement, North Korea moved rapidly to align itself with Russia, issuing a Foreign Ministry statement blaming the US for the Ukrainian situation. The following month, Kim Jong Un’s inspections of the National Aerospace Development Administration (NADA) and the Sohae Satellite Launching Station were followed by the North’s first successful intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launch since November 2017, marking an official end to its own moratorium on long-range ballistic missile and nuclear weapon testing.
Over the summer, North Korea’s moves to strengthen relations with China and Russia reached new heights. The North Korean defense minister pledged “strategic and tactic[al] coordinated operations’“ with the Chinese army, while Kim Jong Un praised a new level of “strategic and tactical cooperation” with Russia, both highly unusual terms to be used in reference to those respective countries. The North’s alignment with Russia became more pronounced, as seen by its diplomatic recognition of the two breakaway Ukrainian provinces and support for Russia’s annexation. The North Korean party daily’s publication of the Russian ambassador to the DPRK’s interview with the Russian government newspaper was another significant nod to the bilateral ties. Pyongyang’s bolder strides toward China and Russia since the summer possibly reflect the new directives given at a Party plenum in June, where Choe Son Hui was named foreign minister, most likely to implement North Korea’s new foreign policy.
The true import of this policy shift extends beyond just North Korea’s pivot to China and Russia—it signals a more fundamental transformation in Pyongyang’s position on relations with Washington.
First, it seems to spell the end of a strategic decision made 30 years ago by Kim Il Sung to normalize relations with Washington as a buffer against Beijing and Moscow.
If the earlier signals were not clear enough, Kim Jong Un drove the nail home in his 8,500-word speech to the SPA in early September, released in tandem with the North’s new nuclear law. In this authoritative speech, Kim made a rare direct reference to denuclearization, proclaiming that “there will never be… denuclearization first, nor will there be any negotiations to this end.” As if to underscore his point, he added: “We have drawn the line of no retreat regarding our nuclear weapons so that there will be no longer any bargaining over them.”
This was a hardened line compared to Kim Jong Un’s speech at a party plenum in December 2019, when he said, “if the US persists in its policy hostile towards the DPRK, there will never be the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” without any references to negotiations, bargaining, or a “line of no retreat.” In his latest speech, Kim did offer one condition on which he might change his nuclear policy—“should the political and military environment on the Korean peninsula [change].” However, that condition seems extremely difficult, if not impossible, to meet, assuming that Kim means something along the lines of the five conditions for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula the DPRK government announced in 2016, including the withdrawal of US forces from the Korean Peninsula.
This appears to suggest North Korea is walking back the line about the United States that was first established by Kim Il Sung (resulting in the 1994 Agreed Framework)—eventually normalizing bilateral diplomatic ties with the United States by working toward denuclearization. This line continued into Kim Jong Il’s and Kim Jong Un’s time, as exemplified by the Six-Party Talks in the 2000s and the 2018 Singapore Joint Statement.
Second, it seems to reflect a change in the long-held belief in Pyongyang that creating a “favorable external environment”—typically a reference to improved ties with the US—is integral to economic reform.
This is perhaps well encapsulated by these somber words in Kim’s speech to the SPA: “Our generation will not pursue an immediately visible improved environment for the economic life at the cost of giving up the nuclear weapons.” In the same speech, Kim continued to endorse reform initiatives, calling for “improving the management of business and enterprises in a way that they can maximize profits.” The implication is that North Korea would attempt to continue with reforms and ameliorate the economy, but not by improving relations with the US.
This marks a major departure from the past. Historically—for example, in the early 2000s and 2018, both milestone years in North Korea’s economic policy—there has been a strong correlation between North Korea’s reform drive and its diplomatic outreach, particularly toward Washington. It is possible that North Korea’s survival despite prolonged self-isolation, which some had surmised could bring an end to the regime, coupled with potential economic benefits from alignment with China and Russia, has emboldened Pyongyang into seeking a different path.
It is uncertain how long the North’s current foreign policy will last, but the magnitude of the change suggests it will remain in place at least for the near term. That said, this policy is not conducive to diplomacy or easing tensions. For example, North Korea’s “strategic and tactic[al] coordinated operations’’ and “strategic and tactical cooperation” with China and Russia, respectively, could have security implications for the Korean Peninsula and the region if they are translated into action, particularly as the war in Ukraine is prolonged and cross-Strait tensions rise.
North Korea’s foreign policy now seems dominated by the school of thought that engagement with the US is futile and that the country’s national interests are best guaranteed through alignment with China and Russia. Against that backdrop, it is important to make sustained efforts to persuade Pyongyang that normalizing relations with Washington would be advantageous to its regime security in the long run, and create some space for those in the North Korean system who favor diplomacy with the US (assuming they still exist), so that the current policy does not become a fixture.
How exactly to do this? That is a debate for another day.
For 38 North’s analysis of North Korea’s recent missile launches, see Vann H. Van Diepen, “‘A Strong Military Warning:’ Four Key Implications of North Korea’s October 10 Missile Statement,” 38 North, October 14, 2022, https://www.38north.org/2022/10/a-strong-military-warning-four-key-implications-of-north-koreas-october-10-missile-statement/.
“DPRK FM Spokesperson Fully Supports Stand and Measures of Chinese Party and Government towards Hong Kong Issue,” DPRK Foreign Ministry website, August 11, 2019; and “Statement of Spokesman for International Department of C.C., WPK,” Rodong Sinmun, June 4, 2020.
“Respected Comrade Kim Jong Un Makes Policy Speech at Seventh Session of the 14th SPA of DPRK,” Rodong Sinmun, September 9, 2022.
“Answer of Spokesperson for Ministry of Foreign Affairs of DPRK,” DPRK Foreign Ministry website, February 28, 2022.
Political News Team, “Respected Comrade Kim Jong Un Inspects National Aerospace Development Administration (NADA),” Rodong Sinmun, March 11, 2022; Political News Team, “Respected Comrade Kim Jong Un Inspects Sohae Satellite Launching Ground,” Rodong Sinmun, March 11, 2022; and Political News Team, “Striking Demonstration of Great Military Muscle of Juche Korea: Successful Test-Launch of New-Type ICBM – Respected Comrade Kim Jong Un Guides Test Launch of ICBM Hwasongpho-17,” Rodong Sinmun, March 25, 2022.
“DPRK Minister of National Defence Sends Greetings to His Chinese Counterpart,” Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), August 1, 2022; and “Respected Comrade Kim Jong Un Sends Congratulatory Message to President of Russian Federation,” KCNA, August 15, 2022.
“DPRK Officially Recognizes Donetsk and Lugansk,” DPRK Foreign Ministry website, July 14, 2022; and “Press Statement by Jo Chol Su, Director-General of International Organizations Department of Foreign Affairs of DPRK,” DPRK Foreign Ministry website, October 4, 2022.
“Russian Ambassador to DPRK Interviews with Rossiskaya Gazeta,” Rodong Sinmun, August 26, 2022.
“Fifth Plenary Meeting of Seventh Central Committee of Workers’ Party of Korea Held,” KCNA, January 1, 2020.
“Kim Jong Il receives U.S. Secretary of State,” KCNA, October 23, 2000; and Political News Team, “Historic First DPRK-U.S. Summit Meeting and Talks Held,” Rodong Sinmun, June 13, 2018.