Since the first days of the Russia-Ukraine War, North Korea has offered ongoing support to its strategic ally, Russia. This is thanks to the strong bilateral relations that have brought the two countries together since the Soviet era, especially in light of the international isolation of Pyongyang resulting from the enmity of Western countries. Normally, both Moscow and Beijing support North Korea and break its isolation—motivating Pyongyang to provide a range of military and diplomatic assistance to Russia in the war. In so doing, Pyongyang has been able to achieve numerous gains—notably related to its nuclear program—in addition to pursuing its regional and economic objectives. In general, the Ukrainian War has been a prime opportunity for North Korea to achieve gains.
Seizing the Opportunity
North Korea has performed varied political, economic, and military functions in support of Moscow during the Ukrainian War that broke out approximately nine months ago. The most prominent of these roles may be presented as follows:
1. The recognition of Russia’s moves to annex Ukrainian provinces: This past July, North Korea recognized the secession of the provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine. Among United Nations member states, only Syria and North Korea (alongside Russia) have taken the step of recognizing the independence of these two provinces, which are under Russian protection. In response, Kiev cut diplomatic ties with Pyongyang. (In any case, the two countries had never had close relations.) In addition, North Korea is the only country among United Nations member states to have recognized the Moscow-backed referendums in Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia. Pyongyang was quick to support the results of these referendums, pointing to the fact that the vast majority of voters supported incorporation into Russia.
Continuing along its previous path, the government in Pyongyang has alluded to the accusation that it sent building workers to help rebuild the pro-Russia separatist regions in eastern Ukraine. Labor is perhaps the only resource that North Korea can share with Russia. In the past, the Soviet Union (and later Russia) relied on numerous workers brought in from North Korea. For this reason, Russian authorities look to resume the import of North Korean labor despite the ban on this practice by the Security Council.
2. Increasing Military Aid to Moscow: In a declassified American intelligence report this past September, members of the administration of President Joe Biden confirmed that Russia was in the process of secretly buying millions of weapons from North Korea—including artillery shells and missiles—in order to assist in the war in Ukraine. Pyongyang had been concealing the true nature of the shipments by attempting to make it appear that they were being sent to countries in the Middle East, particularly Iran. The export of North Korean weapons to Russia violates United Nations resolutions banning Pyongyang from importing or exporting weapons.
For Russia, North Korea is an attractive source for missiles and shells, as it manufactures the same grade of weapons as those produced during the Soviet era of which Russia has large stockpiles. However, Korean authorities have denied these allegations with the defense that they have not exported any weapons to Russia during the war in Ukraine and have no plan to do so. They claim that the American intelligence reports of weapons transports are attempts to defame North Korea.
3. Western Accusations that Korea Has Made a Deal with Russia: There has been much speculation in the West regarding a standing agreement between Moscow and Pyongyang to exchange Russian grain and oil for North Korean soldiers and weapons for the fighting in Ukraine. Some think it likely that North Korea needs foodstuffs, fuel and other materials from Russia because it struggles to purchase such products internationally due to UN-imposed sanctions on its nuclear program. Previously, news of North Korean plans to send up to 100,000 troops to Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine spread among media experts, although the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs denied these claims.
4. Opposition Statements Towards the West: Immediately following the outbreak of war in Ukraine, the North Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that the root cause of the Ukraine crisis lay entirely in the hegemonic policies of the United States and the West toward other countries. Steeped in authoritarianism and arbitrariness, these policies threaten Russia’s national security, pushing Russia to take preemptive military action in eastern Ukraine. Pyongyang further accused Washington of adopting double standards compared to the rest of the world, notably regarding meddling in the internal affairs of other countries in the name of peace and security. Per North Korea, the days of American global hegemony have passed.
Gains from the War
Pyongyang has been able to realize a varied set of military and economic benefits since the outbreak of war in Ukraine. Many further gains are possible, the most important of which may be summed up as follows:
1. Pressure on Regional Adversaries: In heightening the pressure on its regional adversaries and issuing security threats against them, Pyongyang has benefited from the Ukraine War. Notably, in holding new nuclear missile tests (which had been paused since 2017), North Korea is profiting from the splintering of global attention between the war in Ukraine and the ongoing US-China dispute over Taiwan—especially the vision that it is necessary to prepare for the potential outbreak of a third World War. North Korea has taken advantage of this to achieve its regional goals. Thanks to continuous support from Russia and China, North Korea feels an increasing sense of impunity. This has encouraged Pyongyang to heighten tensions with Western countries via a series of missile-launch operations that have recently rattled South Korea and Japan.
2. Expanding the Nuclear Program: If it might have been hoped that Pyongyang would refrain from further developing its nuclear program, it is probable that, as a result of the events in Ukraine, North Korea is even warier of accepting restrictions on its nuclear weapons program. The events have prompted North Korea to expand its nuclear tests, especially in the surrounding region. And in September, the Supreme People’s Assembly in Pyongyang passed a law authorizing the preemptive use of nuclear weapons in a variety of scenarios in which the country faced external threats. This was followed by recurrent testing activities that could provoke an outbreak of nuclear conflict with South Korea, Japan, and the United States.
3. Strengthening International Allegiances: The Ukrainian War has served to strengthen the bonds between Moscow and Pyongyang. Moscow’s increasing need for weapons from Pyongyang will likely lead to a greater alignment of the two countries’ military and diplomatic interests. Thanks to the strategic convergence between Moscow and Pyongyang, Russia’s presence as a permanent member on the United Nations Security Council reassures North Korea that it is protected from any condemnations or the imposition of any resolutions. Earlier this year, Russia used its veto power to impede new sanctions against North Korea. North Korea has also benefited from cash transfers from Russia, particularly Pyongyang’s quest for technology and materials needed for the ballistic missile program that it has recently been developing.
Furthermore, Pyongyang has sought to consolidate its bonds with Moscow by voting against the United Nations General Assembly resolution calling for a Russian withdrawal from Ukraine, as well as against any related measures. Pyongyang has repeatedly made clear that it supports Russian’s actions and blames the United States, NATO, and Kiev for the Ukrainian crisis. The Russian allegiance with North Korea is not based solely on military pragmatism. The two countries have come together around the shared principle that they must pursue a clash with the West since it is the cause of all of the crises that they face.
4. A Prime Opportunity to Test North Korea’s Weapons: North Korea has used the war as an entry point to accelerate its weapons development. Taking advantage of divisions in the Security Council, where Russia and China stopped the US’s effort to crack down on North Korean weapons testing, Pyongyang has tested dozens of weapons. These include the first long-range missiles tested since 2017, short-range missiles that would likely be capable of carrying nuclear warheads, and intercontinental ballistic missiles that could target even the continental United States. As Pyongyang always states, North Korea is testing missiles and artillery so that it would be able to mercilessly bombard key targets in South Korea and the United States if it wished to do so.
In this vein, the North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un stated on 27 November that the country aimed to possess "the world’s most powerful strategic force." This was during celebrations of the launch of a new intercontinental missile, dubbed "Hwasong-17." According to numerous reports, this missile would be able to strike the continental United States. The missile was tested on 18 November and landed close to Japan. Kim noted, "Hwasong-17 is the world’s strongest strategic weapon and constitutes a great leap forward in the development of technology for mounting nuclear warheads on ballistic missiles."
5. Realizing Economic Gains: Despite the freeze of economic trade relations between North Korea and Russia since early 2020, when Pyongyang cut direct transport links in order to contain the spread of COVID-19, there had been expectations that movement along the rail line between the two countries would resume in September 2022. To date, North Korea has kept its borders with Russia closed. In November, however, there were several reports of satellite imagery indicating the movement of trains from North Korea to Russia along the land route between the two countries.
In the same context: bilateral trade between the countries has been restored through the exploitation of wartime conditions. In addition to Pyongyang’s plan to send workers to eastern Ukraine and the opening of a new pipeline to import the oil that Kim regime desperately needs, economic relations with Donetsk and Luhansk also offer Pyongyang a range of opportunities. As the two breakaway regions are not member states of the European Union, they are not bound by Security Council resolutions imposing sanctions on North Korea. They are among the only regions in the world with which North Korea could conduct maritime trade. There will be no embargo on a wide range of North Korean goods and services—notably including expatriate workers for artillery systems—as is the case for United Nations member states such as Russia.
In conclusion, it must be said that North Korea has played an appreciable role in the Russian-Ukrainian War, through the continuous support it has provided to its Russian ally, as well as through its ongoing feuding with Western countries and their regional allies (Japan and South Korea), aiming to splinter Western efforts against Russia and its Asian allies. North Korean support is expected to continue uninterrupted in the coming period, especially in light of the gains already accrued by Pyongyang.