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KEI Spotlight

[Op-ed] Focus on North Korea’s economy and Russia

February 7, 2024

This article was published in The Korea Times on February 7, 2024.

In recent weeks, there has been significant discussion of whether North Korea has made the fundamental decision to go to war with South Korea. But focusing exclusively on whether Pyongyang has made a strategic decision to go to war in the absence of evidence of an imminent attack takes the focus off other important developments, especially North Korea’s economy and its growing ties to Russia.

After the failure of the Hanoi Summit, North Korea began to move away from engagement with South Korea and the United States. Kim Jong-un likely realized that there was no path to the normalization of relations with the United States that did not entail the significant dismantling of the regime’s nuclear weapons program. If Donald Trump would not give him the deal he wanted, it would be unlikely that any future U.S. president would.

Instead, the pandemic, U.S. tensions with China, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine altered the geopolitical dynamics around the Korean Peninsula. Kim seized the opportunity presented by these shifts to redirect his strategy towards self-reliance, strengthening the regime’s control domestically, and developing closer relations with Russia and China.

While these shifts provide Pyongyang with room to maneuver internationally, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is informative in considering whether North Korea’s strategic shift includes plans to go to war. In preparing for war, Russia used a pre-planned military exercise with Belarus to relocate critical military units prior to the invasion. It also spent years modernizing its military.

There have been no signs that North Korea has made changes to its military exercises that would suggest that it is preparing to invade, nor has it undertaken preparatory troop movements. While North Korea is working to modernize its military equipment, this is an ongoing process. If Pyongyang had made the strategic decision to attack South Korea soon, it would be retaining its weapons stockpiles rather than selling them to Russia.

Russia’s struggles against Ukraine are also likely to weigh on any North Korean decision to attack South Korea. While Putin has threatened the use of nuclear weapons, he has advantages Kim lacks. With a population almost four times the size of Ukraine, Russia can grind down Ukraine over time without using nuclear weapons, especially if the United States and its allies lessen their support. North Korea’s military lacks the training, supplies, and weapons of the Russian military and South Korea would be a powerful adversary.

North Korea, however, has made economic progress. After declining for three straight years, North Korea’s economy likely returned to growth in 2023. Exports to China grew by 118 percent to $291.9 million, exceeding all previous levels since U.N. sanctions were fully implemented in 2018. Imports from China were up 140 percent and surpassed $2 billion for the first time since 2019.

Food production is estimated to have grown by 6 percent last year, along with growth in the imports of rice (120 percent), flour (nearly 90 percent), and cooking oils such as soy oil and palm oil (150 percent or more). Concerns about food insecurity in North Korea should be lessening.

The economy has also been changing. The regime utilized the pandemic years to assert greater state control over markets and has taken steps to centralize more of North Korea’s economic activity. One example is the opening of state-run food shops designed to push market purchases of food to a secondary role. Instead of rationing food through the public distribution system, the state-run stores have moved towards undercutting the price of rice and other foods in markets.

Stolen cryptocurrency has also played a role in reviving the North Korean economy. During the pandemic, it was the primary source of revenue for the regime, and it remains an important source of hard currency. The blockchain analysis firm Chainalysis attributed a record 20 cryptocurrency hacks to North Korea last year worth an estimated $1 billion. While down from the estimated $1.7 billion stolen by North Korea in 2022, stolen cryptocurrency remains an important source of revenue for the regime.

The most significant shift for North Korea, however, is in its partnership with Russia. Moscow has demonstrated a willingness to countenance sanctions evasion in exchange for North Korean armaments. While Moscow has always allowed some sanctions evasion, its willingness to break sanctions by providing military and economic aid to North Korea will make it easier for other countries to ignore sanctions. How China responds will be critical to maintaining sanctions or seeing them continue to erode in 2024.

The potential for North Korea to attack South Korea is something that Seoul and Washington must always take seriously, but in the absence of tangible signs that North Korea is preparing to attack it, takes the focus off the changing North Korean economy and the real challenges presented by Russia. Pyongyang has always found ways to do more with less and an improving economy will only help the regime expand its military capabilities. A Russia willing to assist only makes the regime more dangerous.