August 24 of this year marked the six-month anniversary of the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In February, Moscow massed a hundred thousand troops along its border with Ukraine, all the while sanctimoniously proclaiming that it had no intention to invade.
Expectations in Moscow were that Russia would quickly overthrow the government led by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and occupy Ukraine, much the same as it illegally occupied the territory of Crimea eight years earlier. In 2014 on February 27 (the same week in the month of February that Russia began its invasion of Ukraine this year), Russian troops seized strategic points in Crimea, a pro-Russian government was installed on the peninsula, a Crimea “status referendum” was held on March 16, and two days later, the “independent” territory of Crimea was annexed by Russia.
Massed Russian troops crossed the international border into Ukraine on February 24, 2022. It was clear that Russia was expecting a similar quick conquest, including the overthrow of Zelenskyy’s pro-Western government. Ukraine would “request” some trumped-up form of “union” with Russia, and young women in national costume with flowers and ribbons in their hair would present bread and salt to the “liberating” Russian troops.
It is now six months since Moscow launched its invasion of Ukraine, and the expectation of a quick Russian victory has vanished. The Russian military is dealing with a grinding war of attrition, which has caused horrible scenes of death and destruction in Ukraine, while millions of Ukrainians citizens have been displaced by the ongoing fighting. Russian artillery fire and rockets are indiscriminately raining down on apartment buildings, schools, and churches.
Nevertheless, the Ukrainians continue to fight on. Economic and political sanctions are beginning to have some impact on the Russian economy, and those impacts will likely increase as the conflict continues. The NATO alliance stands more unified with an urgent sense of purpose, as well as larger with the addition of Sweden and Finland to its ranks.
The Kremlin’s expectation that Kiev would quickly fold has turned out to be far different than Russia’s illegal seizure of Crimea in 2014. Russia’s military has been shown to be far less capable than anticipated, its economy is more fragile, and informed Russians are more skeptical.
In capitals around the world, diplomats and military leaders are looking carefully at the impact of events in Ukraine on their own security and international policies. It is likely that events in Ukraine are under particularly close review in North Korea.
Ukraine Events Will Stiffen Pyongyang’s Reluctance to Cut its Own Nuclear Weapons Program
In particular, Kim Jong-un and his generals are likely focused on their nuclear strategy. Ukraine is one of the very few countries in the world that at one point had nuclear weapons and voluntarily gave them up. Ukraine, as well as Belarus and Kazakhstan, were constituent republics of the Soviet Union, whose dissolution in 1991 resulted in 13 fully independent states. All three had nuclear missiles located on their territory during the Soviet era. In fact, Ukraine had the third largest number of nuclear missiles in the world in the early 1990s.
The nuclear missiles located in Ukraine were under control of Soviet and later Russian military authorities, so the missiles were not Ukrainian developed and controlled missiles. But the issue was sufficiently complicated that Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States signed joint agreements with Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus recognizing that those now independent countries were voluntarily giving up nuclear weapons on their territories. Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States pledged to recognize and respect the sovereignty, security, and independence of these former constituent Soviet republics, which in turn signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). The countries signed the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances formalizing these commitments.
Russian military action against Ukraine for the last six months is in violation of the assurances given by Russian leaders in formal agreements. The United States and many other countries, including the members of NATO, have sent military assistance to Ukraine, but not directly committed their own military forces to conflict.
As a result of the unfolding events in Ukraine, Pyongyang will likely be even more cautious and reluctant to agree to any limitations on its own nuclear weapons programs. The Ukraine situation only highlights the problem of depending on any other countries to protect one’s own interests.
The irony, of course, is that North Korea has supported Russia in its military actions in Ukraine. After remaining initially silent for the first few days following the unprovoked Russian attack on Ukraine, a Foreign Ministry spokesperson proclaimed via KCNA, “The root cause of the Ukraine crisis totally ties in the hegemonic power of the U.S. and the West, which enforce themselves in high-handedness and the abuse of power against other countries.” These statements and actions by Pyongyang never really explain how the United States is at fault for Russia unilaterally launching an attack against Ukraine.
The experience of Ukraine—being attacked by Russia after having abandoned its possession of nuclear weapons—is also a scenario that North Korean officials fear could befall Pyongyang. In my conversations with senior North Korean officials in Pyongyang, the example of Libya has been cited. Libyan leader Muammer el-Qaddafi reached an agreement with the United States to abandon his nuclear weapons program. A few years later, he was deposed and killed during a local uprising. “We will not follow the example of Libya,” North Korea’s then first vice minister of Foreign Affairs Kim Kye-gwan told me during a visit to Pyongyang a few years ago.
Pyongyang’s concern is to cement its national ties with Moscow. North Korea recognized the “independence” of two territories in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in eastern Ukraine which proclaimed their independence and separated from Ukraine. The Ukraine government severed diplomatic relations with North Korea over Pyongyang’s action, and the Ukrainian foreign minister Dmitriy Kuleba said: “Russia has no more allies in the world, except for countries that depend on it financially and politically, and the level of isolation of the Russian Federation will soon reach the level of isolation of the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea]. Ukraine will continue to respond as harshly as possible to encroachments on its sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
North Korea Labor for Rebuilding Russian-Controlled Areas of Ukraine
Russia’s ambassador to Pyongyang, Alexander Matsegora, has suggested that North Korean labor could help in reconstruction efforts in Ukrainian areas now under Russian control. He reportedly said that North Korean workers could aid in rebuilding the self-proclaimed people’s republics in Donetsk and Luhansk, areas in eastern Ukraine which are under Russian control, and where local officials have declared their independence of Ukraine. Other reports suggest that North Korean officials are already lining up North Korean workers to aid in these war-ravaged areas.
At this point, there is no indication that North Korean workers have already been sent to eastern Ukraine, and the current priority is the military effort. Sending North Korean workers to Donetsk and Luhansk might be possible once the military situation is more under control, and that is likely to take some additional time to resolve.
North Korean workers are already involved in the Russian far eastern port city of Vladivostok, which is not far from North Korea.
North Korean workers are not likely to head into contested Ukrainian territories now under Russian control as a pro bono gesture of good will from Pyongyang. Foreign workers are an important source of income for the regime and its officials. It is unlikely that North Korea would send workers without compensation.
UN Sanctions against North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons Program Will be Increasingly Difficult to Enforce
In the past, Russia and China have played a positive role in imposing UN economic sanctions against North Korea for its nuclear weapons programs. The sanctions have prohibited trade with North Korea in certain items of military equipment, frozen foreign-held assets of leading North Korean officials involved in nuclear programs, and restricted technical and scientific cooperation in certain important areas.
Such prohibitions require approval of the UN Security Council in order for the United Nations to tighten or impose sanctions. However, any single one of the Permanent Members of the Security Council—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—can veto council resolutions. Since 2006, the Security Council has approved nearly a dozen separate sanctions resolutions on North Korea which have been important in limiting and slowing Pyongyang’s nuclear program.
Furthermore, China and Russia play an important role in enforcing the UN sanctions. Some 90 percent of foreign trade with North Korea is either from China or it reaches the North through China. While trade with Russia is significantly less, it shares a border with North Korea that it can use to slow or facilitate smuggling by Pyongyang. Any successful effort to enforce UN nuclear weapons sanctions against North Korea requires cooperation and enforcement of China and Russia.
Criticism of Russia for its military actions against Ukraine is also making it increasingly difficult for the UN Security Council to impose sanctions against North Korea. This spring—after Russia began its war against Ukraine—North Korea test fired three missiles including an ICBM, contrary to previous UN Security Council resolutions and actions, a resolution critical of North Korea for its “flagrant disregard” of previous resolutions, was vetoed in the UN Security Council by both Russia and China.
An overwhelming majority of members of the United Nations have been critical of Russia. For example, Russia has been a member of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC), which is a body of 46 UN member countries who are elected to serve for a period of time to deal with human rights issues. This past April, when Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had been underway for two months, a resolution was considered in the UN General Assembly to suspend Russia’s membership in the HRC. The result was 93 countries in favor of suspending Russia’s membership, 24 countries opposed, and 58 abstentions. It is a very rare and unusual action to suspend HRC membership for any country, and this action was a significant diplomatic slap at Russia. In a nose-thumbing speech immediately after the vote, the Russian ambassador told the General Assembly that Russia had decided to leave the HRC before the end of its term earlier that very day before the decisive UN vote.
Kim Jong-un and his regime are likely to see benefits from Russia’s miscalculation in Ukraine. Moscow has alienated relationships and increased tensions around the world. It is beginning to feel the economic costs of an expensive war coupled with sanctions by the United States, the European Union, and a number of other leading countries. It faces heavy domestic costs in terms of the lives of its soldiers, the costs to its economy, and the support of its citizens. Many of Russia’s international relationships are weakening, and its influence in the United Nations is also waning. Loyal friends, such as Kim Jong-un, will be rewarded by the Russians, particularly as the number of such friends of Russia have declined. Loyalty in troubled times leads to stronger ties. Russian concerns for North Korea’s nuclear ambitions are likely to have a lower priority for Moscow as it struggles with the mismanagement of its Ukrainian misadventure.
Robert R. King is a Distinguished Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America (KEI). He is former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights (2009-2017). The views expressed here are his own.
Photo from the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.