War in Ukraine: Implications for North Korea

(Source: Michelle Lee, https://flic.kr/p/cmX74S)

When Russia invaded Ukraine two years ago, not even the most prescient minds could have imagined that North Korea would eventually be connected to the conflict, let alone become a major player in it. Even as signs of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK or North Korea) gravitation toward Russia became unequivocally clear, the extent of that pivot, and whether Russia would find North Korea useful enough to reciprocate were uncertain at best. Now, as the war grinds on, the world is left to grapple with ever-deepening ties between Pyongyang and Moscow.

The most obvious concern is the widely reported provision of artillery, rockets, and missiles by North Korea to Russia in exchange for what many governments and experts suspect to be Moscow’s transfer of sensitive military technologies that could further propel the North’s weapons programs.[1] The impact of their military cooperation is alarming enough. Yet, perhaps even more worrisome are the implications of the war itself for North Korea’s posturing—specifically, how the war shaped and gave impetus to Kim Jong Un’s shifting worldview and foreign policy. Moreover, it is worth reviewing how this, coupled with North Korean domestic factors, has emboldened Kim, further increasing the risk of armed conflict on the Korean Peninsula.

Impact on North Korea’s Foreign Policy

North Korea shifted to harder lines across all realms, including foreign policy, following the collapse of the second US-DPRK summit in Hanoi in February 2019.[2] Though not completely renouncing diplomacy with Washington—recall Kim’s meeting with Donald Trump in the Demilitarized Zone in June 2019 and the US-DPRK working-level nuclear talks in Sweden in October of that year—Kim made “self-reliance” a policy priority and started hunkering down for what he called a “drawn out” confrontation with the United States.

As conservative thinking gained a foothold and skepticism of the United States grew in Pyongyang, signs emerged of North Korea’s recalibration of foreign policy. In August 2021, the website of the North Korean Foreign Ministry started hosting articles supporting Chinese and Russian positions on key international and foreign policy issues, a notable break with its past practice of carrying mundane reports on diplomatic exchanges between North Korea and China or Russia.[3] The following month, Kim Jong Un, for the first time, publicly referred to a “neo-Cold War” in a policy speech to the Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA), the North’s legislature.

Had there been any doubt among North Korea’s leadership circle about whether to move on after three decades of efforts to normalize relations with the United States and fill that void by aligning itself with China and Russia, those doubts have since been put to rest. The China-Russia joint statement in early February 2022 pledging “no limits” in friendship and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine soon thereafter appear to have given impetus to a reorientation of North Korea’s foreign policy that had already been underway by then. The DPRK moved swiftly to side with Russia in the wake of the invasion, both publicly and consistently, and was one of only three countries to recognize the two breakaway Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.[4]

In a speech to the SPA later that year, in September 2022, Kim took a step further than his speech at the previous year’s SPA session and characterized the global order as being in a transition from “a unipolar world advocated by the US into a multipolar world.” It was in that same speech that Kim also said, “We have drawn the line of no retreat regarding our nuclear weapons so that there will be no longer any bargaining over them.” In saying so, he appeared to be walking back a key policy goal established by his grandfather and continued by his father: normalization of relations with the United States by working toward denuclearization.

It is worth noting that while North Korea’s pivot to China, which arguably began as early as June 2019 with Xi’s rare state visit to Pyongyang, had been a steady progression, its alignment with Russia has been more akin to a sudden spurt.[5] The aforementioned support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and recognition of the Ukrainian breakaway regions by North Korea were just a start to a new honeymoon period, as the highly publicized Kim-Putin summit in the Russian Far East in September 2023, a string of follow-on bilateral exchanges and, most recently, Vladimir Putin’s car gift to Kim Jong Un, can attest.[6]

Emboldening Kim Jong Un

We like to say the divide between the United States and both China and Russia provides a golden opportunity for Kim Jong Un to make advancements in his weapons programs at no political or economic cost. China and Russia, both permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, have vetoed additional sanctions aimed at North Korea since 2022, blaming the United States for North Korean actions; additionally, their violations of sanctions targeting the North have been widely documented.

That is indeed true, but the real problem is not Kim taking advantage of the divide between the great powers. Rather, the focus should be on his worldview—one where a beleaguered United States, no longer as powerful as it once was, is constantly challenged by the rise of China, failed to deter Putin, and when Putin provoked, has been unable to repel or punish Russia in any consequential way—and the lessons learned from Kim’s understanding of the global order and how the United States responds to another nuclear power in the face of aggression. It is no coincidence that the North Korean Foreign Ministry website has closely followed US-China strategic competition, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, waning support in the United States and Europe for the protracted war in Ukraine, and more recently, the conflict in the Middle East.[7] These topics all reflect the leadership’s interest.

The favorable external environment for Kim, when viewed in tandem with the North Korean domestic situation, would only seem to embolden Kim even further. North Korea reportedly suffered from acute economic difficulties during the self-imposed lockdown during the global pandemic—something that North Korea, including Kim himself, acknowledged on multiple occasions. It managed to survive, however, all the while advancing its weapons programs and minimizing the impacts of international sanctions and stalemated diplomacy with Washington. Moreover, according to the 2023 year-end party plenary meeting readout, the country in 2023 attained economic growth—for example, the North claimed its gross domestic product grew by 1.4 times compared to 2020, the year it went into lockdown. Even if we do not believe North Korean reporting at face value, it does reflect the North Korean leadership’s confidence in managing the economy.

North Korea stands to benefit from its ties with Russia, at least for as long as the war in Ukraine persists. For that reason, it will likely maintain or even harden its current domestic and foreign policies.

Ironically, due to its economic achievements in 2023, when it continued to dial down on market-oriented reforms and reinforce central control over the economy, North Korea may wish to attribute its economic achievements to its anti-reform measures and step up central control even further. In that vein, an unusual front-page article in the party daily Rodong Sinmun published recently, exclusively dedicated to emphasizing central control over the economy, bodes ill for North Korea’s stance on economic reform. In North Korea’s case, there has traditionally been a correlation between a desire to implement market-oriented measures and pursuing diplomacy with the United States because the North believed good relations with the US were essential for fundamentally improving the economy. However, if Kim no longer views market-oriented measures as essential for economic development—for example, if he thinks he has found a workaround for improving the civilian economy by giving priority to defense industries and manufacturing more weapons, including those to sell to Russia—that further reduces the strategic value of the United States for North Korea.


There has been a much-needed debate lately over what North Korea’s continued threats mean, triggered by two seasoned and respected North Korea watchers’ assessment that Kim has made a decision to go to war.

The real risk, in this author’s opinion, is an empowered Kim Jong Un—emboldened by his view of the global order and his perceived range of foreign policy options, emboldened by the fact that his country survived the three-plus years of lockdown despite international concerns about the country’s economic situation, and emboldened by some improvement in the country’s economy in 2023. With this newfound confidence, the threshold for North Korea’s aggression—defensive or offensive, accidental or intentional—would appear lower, and the likelihood of miscalculation higher. Furthermore, he now has the legal and institutional grounds for the use of nuclear weapons, if it comes to that: the 2022 nuclear law enables North Korea to launch a preemptive nuclear strike, and since the Party plenary meeting in December 2023, the North has taken steps to redefine inter-Korean relations, making it easier for the North to justify use nuclear weapons against the Republic of Korea (ROK or South Korea), which it now calls its “principal enemy,” if needed.[8] Against that backdrop, it is important to pay attention to Kim’s repeated calls for “war preparations” and his depiction of the inter-Korean maritime border, the Northern Limit Line, as illegal or a “ghost” line.[9]

Besides the obvious reason that close ties with Russia bring political, economic, and technological benefits, North Korea is drawn to Russia because Putin’s adventurism is better aligned with Kim Jong Un’s interests in its stand-off with the United States than the more cautious stance taken by China. And unless there is a major change in the international situation, such as the war in Ukraine or North Korea’s domestic circumstances, Kim is unlikely to modify his policy course for the foreseeable future.

Rodong Sinmun recently quoted the Russian president’s press secretary as saying “the special military operation”—a reference to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—“will end when all its goals have been attained.” One wonders what will become of Russia-DPRK relations when the war ends, but that is another question for another day.

  1. [1]

    Julian E. Barnes, “Russia Is Buying North Korean Artillery, According to U.S. Intelligence,” New York Times, September 5, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/09/05/us/politics/russia-north-korea-artillery.html; Michael D. Shear and David E. Sanger, “White House Says North Korea Providing Russia With Ballistic Missiles,” New York Times, January 4, 2024, https://www.nytimes.com/2024/01/04/us/politics/north-korea-russia-missiles.html#:~:text=The%20White%20House%20accused%20North,range%20of%20Russian%20military%20technologies.

  2. [2]

    For more, see Rachel Minyoung Lee, “The North Korea Conundrum: Pyongyang’s Strategic Calculus and Future Trajectory,” Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, May 31, 2023, https://gjia.georgetown.edu/2023/05/31/the-north-korea-conundrum-pyongyangs-strategic-calculus-and-future-trajectory/.

  3. [3]

    “Who Is Global “Hacking Kingpin”?” DPRK Foreign Ministry website, August 8, 2021, http://www.mfa.gov.kp/view/article/13065; and “China and Russia Censure U.S. for Incurring Afghanistan Crisis,” DPRK Foreign Ministry website, August 21, 2021, https://kcnawatch.org/newstream/1629534649-13077824/china-and-russia-censure-u-s-for-incurring-afghanistan-crisis/.

  4. [4]

    “Answer of Spokesperson for Ministry of Foreign Affairs of DPRK,” DPRK Foreign Ministry website, February 28, 2022, http://www.mfa.gov.kp/view/article/14457; and “DPRK Officially Recognizes Donetsk and Lugansk,” DPRK Foreign Ministry website, July 14, 2022, http://www.mfa.gov.kp/view/article/15441.

  5. [5]

    Rachel Minyoung Lee, “Economic Security and U.S.-China Competition: The View from North Korea,” Korea Economic Institute’s Korea Policy 2023 1, no. 3 (2024): 139.

  6. [6]

    “Talks Held between Foreign Ministers of DPRK and Russian Federation,” KCNA, January 17, 2024, https://kcnawatch.org/newstream/1705497210-897678607/talks-held-between-foreign-ministers-of-dprk-and-russian-federation/; and “DPRK Delegations Leave for Russia,” KCNA, February 20, 2024, https://kcnawatch.org/newstream/1708409099-118458823/dprk-delegations-leave-for-russia/; and “Respected Comrade Kim Jong Un Receives Gift from Russian President,” KCNA, February 20, 2024, https://kcnawatch.org/newstream/1708382277-846145512/respected-comrade-kim-jong-un-receives-gift-from-russian-president/.

  7. [7]

    “U.S. Fiasco in Afghanistan – Inevitability of History,” DPRK Foreign Ministry website, September 5, 2021, https://kcnawatch.org/newstream/1630841493-184570390/u-s-fiasco-in-afghanistan-%e2%80%93-inevitability-of-history/; “Cut-throat Competition Between China and U.S. Over New Science and Technology,” DPRK Foreign Ministry website, October 25, 2022, http://mfa.gov.kp/view/article/16017; “Barrage of Protests in Europe,” DPRK Foreign Ministry website, June 27, 2023, http://www.mfa.gov.kp/view/article/17103; and “Mounting International Criticism of U.S. for Patronizing Israel’s Aggression Heightening Tension in the Middle East,” DPRK Foreign Ministry website, December 14, 2023, http://www.mfa.gov.kp/view/article/18971.

  8. [8]

    “Law on DPRK’s Policy on Nuclear Forces Promulgated,” KCNA, September 9, 2022, https://kcnawatch.org/newstream/1662687258-950776986/law-on-dprks-policy-on-nuclear-forces-promulgated/; “Report on 9th Enlarged Plenum of 8th WPK Central Committee,” KCNA, December 31, 2023, https://kcnawatch.org/newstream/1704014527-622062548/report-on-9th-enlarged-plenum-of-8th-wpk-central-committee/; and “Respected Comrade Kim Jong Un Makes Policy Speech at 10th Session of 14th SPA,” KCNA, January 16, 2024, https://kcnawatch.org/newstream/1705369092-194545332/respected-comrade-kim-jong-un-makes-policy-speech-at-10th-session-of-14th-spa/.

  9. [9]

    “Respected Comrade Kim Jong Un Makes Policy Speech at 10th Session of 14th SPA,” KCNA, January 16, 2024, http://www.kcna.kp/en/article/q/f4bf631617198851f067bd66d7f48d18.kcmsf; “Respected Comrade Kim Jong Un Guides Test-fire of Surface-to-sea Missile Padasuri-6,” KCNA, February 15, 2024, https://kcnawatch.org/newstream/1707950494-414159282/respected-comrade-kim-jong-un-supervises-test-fire-of-surface-to-sea-missile-padasuri-6/.

Stay informed about our latest
news, publications, & uploads:
I'm interested in...
38 North: News and Analysis on North Korea