Deterring an Emerging Nuclear Axis in Northeast Asia

Amid an increasingly unstable international order, Moscow wielded its veto on March 28, blocking the annual renewal of the United Nations (UN) Security Councils 1718 Committee Panel of Experts. Russias act overturned 15 years of continuity by the Panel to monitor and ensure implementation of UN Security Council sanctions in response to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK or North Korea) nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Equally unsettling was Chinas first-ever abstention from the annual vote to extend the work of the panel. Prior to this diplomatic blockade, the Panel had enjoyed unanimous support for 14 years since its establishment in 2009 under UN Security Council Resolution 1874. The contrarian move by Russia and China undermines international efforts to restrain North Koreas expanding nuclear arsenal while accelerating prospects for regional instability.  

The shutdown of the Panel, whose work will be sunset in late April, is a disturbing manifestation of the effects China, Russia and North Korea can produce working in tandem toward a strategic goal. To be clear, the coordinated move by the three countries should not be construed as an ephemeral act of protest or obstruction; rather, it signifies what has become a hard strategic reset in Northeast Asia that has been gaining rapid momentum since 2022. This rebooted configuration has cascaded an opportunity for North Korea, the junior partner in the arrangement, to reevaluate its risk assessment matrix, resulting in Pyongyangs decision to also reset its attention and resources. The result, in the broader geopolitical context, presents the US, and by extension, the US-Republic of Korea (ROK or South Korea) alliance, with a gargantuan strategic predicament. To maintain effective deterrence capabilities amid the regional realignment, the US should actively evolve and bolster existing security frameworks while anticipating and adjusting to changing geopolitical conditions. 

Hard Reset 

The latest episode of strategic solidarity on display at the UN Security Council is further evidence of the calculated alignment that has been building in strength among North Korea, China, and Russia since 2022. Beijing and Moscow officially embarked on a revisionist path regarding North Korea in May that year, when the two countries vetoed a proposed US-led resolution to impose additional UN Security Council sanctions on Pyongyang following missile launches. This was the first veto by either country since the punitive sanctions against North Korea began in 2006. China and Russia continued this trend, opposing UN Security Council collective measures to condemn North Korea’s attempts to launch a spy satellite in May and August 2023. 

North Korea has basked in Chinese and Russian support, launching an unprecedented 69 ballistic missiles in 2022, the year marking Beijing and Moscows split from the international sanctions regime. Pyongyang has reciprocated by positioning the DPRK as an arms supplier to Russias war with Ukraine. The US State Department estimates North Korea has delivered over 10,000 containers filled with munitions and related supplies to Russia since September 2023. Among the weapons deliveries, Russia has received North Korean-provided ballistic missiles, the use of which stands to give Pyongyang invaluable technical data and insights through direct battlefield testing. 

Pyongyang’s New Emboldened Approach 

The increased support from China and Russia has emboldened North Korea, leading Pyongyang to reassess its strategic approach and realign its foreign policy priorities and resources. There are two demonstrable pieces of evidence for this. In September 2022, after China and Russia vetoed US-led attempts to add sanctions against North Korea for its missile launches, Pyongyang adopted a law enshrining new, offensively oriented nuclear doctrine. The new doctrine superseded a previous law enacted in 2013 centered on the defensive use of nuclear weapons. The doctrine updated in September 2022 insinuates preemptive employment of nuclear weapons using tactical warheads to advance battlefield objectives. 

In addition to upgrading its nuclear doctrine to an offensive posture, North Korea has decisively abandoned bilateral talks with the US and inter-Korean diplomacy. The shift began in 2020 when Pyongyang announced that Washington had deceived North Korea and wasted 18 months of its time negotiating with the Donald Trump administration. In June of that year, North Korea announced the severing of all contacts with the South, whom it would subsequently regard as the “enemy.” North Korea continued to rebuff early attempts by the Biden administration to engage, maintaining its stance of rejecting US offers of dialogue. In January 2024, Kim Jong Un announced a formal policy shift, directing a revision to the DPRK’s constitution to remove references to “peaceful reunification” and define the South as the “principal enemy.” The order included codifying a commitment to subjugate and annex the ROK in the event of a new outbreak of war.

Nuclear Asymmetry  

By itself, North Korea now has the theoretical capacity to attempt to simultaneously deter the US with ICBMs—a capability Pyongyang continues to refine through continued missile and satellite launches—while compelling South Korea with shorter-range ballistic missiles and tactical nuclear weapons. All that is missing is a transformative change in the international order capable of creating a disruption to the US-ROK alliance—a strategic inflection point that would alter the status quo of international relations. This is where China and Russia come in. Together, the three nuclear-armed countries produce an asymmetric nuclear capability—strategic depth creating a potentially dominant position in a tit-for-tat escalation spiral—that could stretch US hub and spoke extended deterrence commitments with the ROK and Japan. 

The three countries not only share common borders, but they also share the same objective of reshaping the international system, which they bitterly complain is dominated by Western rules and values and rigged in favor of the US and its allies. The current China-Russia-DPRK trajectory, particularly as evidenced by Russia’s Panel of Experts veto at the UN Security Council and the Chinese abstention, indicates that coordinated operations to undermine the status quo in Northeast Asia are already well underway. If precedence is a gauge of future actions, then the patterns of Pyongyang’s past are likely to be replicated in the decisions to come. Thus, one can logically expect North Korea to assiduously work to undermine the Armistice Agreement and the US-ROK alliance as well. 

Dynamic and Pragmatic Deterrence 

In order not to cede strategic ground in the face of a shifting balance of power, the US should continue to actively evolve and enhance existing security frameworks while realistically anticipating and effectively adjusting to the rapidly changing geopolitical conditions.  

First, in practical terms, gone are the days of North Korea being willing to sign onto “complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement” of its nuclear program. When Pyongyang was in the building stage of its nuclear program, talks with the US were useful since Pyongyang could use parts of its nuclear weapons program as collateral for concessions. But, North Korea has already transitioned from the research and development phase of its WMD development to fielding and deployment. Moreover, without cooperation on sanctions implementation from Russia and China, Pyongyang can get more of what it wants without the time-consuming efforts of “engaging the enemy” to get sanctions lifted. Instead, that diplomatic energy will, in the near term, be focused on enhancing and balancing relations with Beijing and Moscow, where tangible benefits can be negotiated with little risk and quick results. 

Second, Washington should continue to study and understand the potential South Korean pursuit of nuclear parity did not simply die with the signing of the Washington Declaration. This is not an endorsement of South Korean development of indigenous nuclear weapons, as there are obvious downsides—namely, igniting an arms race involving Japan, further eroding the rules-based order through the delegitimization of liberal mechanisms and institutions like the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and the International Atomic Energy Agency. The point is, polls show that the majority of South Koreans, regardless of political affiliation, are currently in favor of having their own nuclear weapons. While South Korea has, for now, reiterated its commitment to uphold its NPT obligations, this domestic consideration could still evolve into an unavoidable demand for all electable South Korean political leaders to deal with in the next ROK election.  

In the meantime, to balance against a strengthening China-Russia-North Korea axis without escalating tensions, further institutionalization and operationalization of both the US-ROK Nuclear Consultative Group (NCG) and the US-ROK-Japan trilateral framework will be required. Much progress has been made with both lines of effort, as evidenced by the two NCG meetings held in 2023, which helped deepen deterrence cooperation and by the establishment of a multi-year trilateral exercise plan. More work will be required to consolidate and lock in the gains made and ensure continued momentum with these efforts, particularly for ensuring trilateral framework momentum that can withstand potential future political transitions in any of the three capitals. To safeguard against the ebb and flow of regional political currents, burgeoning processes for DPRK missile warning data sharing, multi-domain exercise planning, integrated missile defense, and other forms of information sharing should be honed and institutionalized down to the deepest actionable levels within the trilateral framework. 

As the activities of the Panel of Experts draw to a close in late April, the implications of the strategic alignment among China, Russia, and North Korea will become even more pronounced. The emerging China-Russia-DPRK axis is not merely a transient gesture of defiance or disruption; it is indicative of a profound strategic shift in the geopolitical context of Northeast Asia. With this shift, North Korea has seized the chance to overhaul its strategic calculations, re-channeling its focus and resources. Such developments pose a colossal challenge to the US and the US-ROK alliance’s strategic position. To maintain a successful deterrent posture, the US should not only sustain progress with existing security mechanisms like the NCG and trilateral framework, but also stay ahead of the curve by pragmatically adjusting to rapidly changing geopolitical conditions. 

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