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The Peninsula

The Lessons North Korea Might Learn from Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine

Published January 5, 2023
Category: North Korea

The year 2022, when the world hoped to be free from COVID-19, had a grim start due to the Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Every country in the world is being influenced and taught lessons by the Ukrainian war. North Korea is no exception. What lessons did Kim Jong-un learn from the Ukraine case?

∙ Domestic Unrest and Diversionary War: Putin’s approval rating has increased since the start of the invasion of Ukraine. His approval rating, which stood at 65% in December 2021, reached 84% immediately after the invasion, and remained at 79% in November. Putin had previously seen his approval rating rise to 80% after the annexation of Crimea, but hit a low of 60% at the end of 2013. Of course, the argument that Putin chose war to boost his approval rating is not convincing, but it is a result of confirming the “diversionary war” theory that domestic political instability and dissatisfaction can be diverted externally.

The consequences of the war raising the dictator’s domestic support would have taught Kim Jong-un an important lesson. Kim Jong-un can use military provocations to relieve the responsibility and burden of social complaints and instability from economic difficulties and dictatorship, which are intensifying due to COVID-19. On the contrary, however, if Putin is to be held accountable for the causes and consequences of the war in the future, Kim Jong-un will also be worried about the consequences of the war. Moreover, diversionary provocations, if handled poorly, could also result in further domestic instability and dissatisfaction over time, particularly among key regime constituencies.  The international community should work together to make just lessons for North Korea.

∙ Importance of Military Capability: As the war continues for more than 10 months, both Ukraine and Russia are addressing problems with their ability to sustain war. Despite its initial military dominance, Russia is struggling with a prolonged war. Eventually, Russia drafted additional troops by declaring a mobilization order, but a shortage of weapons and ammunition has been reported. On the other hand, Ukraine, which suffered from a significant military deficit compared to Russia, is waging a war with military and economic support from its allies, including the United States.

The war in Ukraine would also have emphasized to North Korea that military power is still a key element of national power. North Korea will learn lessons from Russia’s struggling lack of war capabilities, military misjudgments and mistakes, and from Ukraine’s willingness to carry out the war, support from the international community, and integrating civilian elements to offset the military gap. In addition, North Korea will have learned from Russia and Europe, which have been economically interdependent, the vulnerabilities to economic pressure that comes with deep economic ties. All of this will likely encourage North Korea to further build its own military capabilities while reducing its dependence on others as much as practicable.

∙ Effectiveness of Hybrid Warfare: Russia, effectively occupied Crimea by conducting hybrid warfare in 2014, but Ukraine’s use of hybrid warfare in the current conflict is rather noticeable. Cyber resilience and strengthening political psychological warfare, the use of low-priced weapon systems and commercial technologies, and the integration of public information and private assets are representative examples. In the meantime, Ukraine and the West have been preparing for Russia’s hybrid attack, and they are successfully carrying out their own defensive “hybrid warfare.”

North Korea may have learned a lesson from Russia’s hybrid warfare. This is because hybrid warfare can provide an advantage to offender over defender, expand the gray areas that can be utilized, and achieve an advantage while maximizing asymmetry. On the other hand, another lesson is that the hybrid warfare has not shown great results in the Ukrainian war, because the combination of the means once used was ineffective. It is noteworthy that South Korea is developing resilience and defense capabilities to block North Korea’s strategic combination. There is an additional risk that due to North Korea’s awareness of this narrowing gap – between its asymmetric capabilities and South Korea’s advancing resiliency – it could propel Pyongyang to try and take advantage while it still has one.

∙ Utilization of Nuclear Coercion: President Putin has mentioned the possibility of using nuclear weapons since the beginning of the war. On February 27, the fourth day of the invasion, President Vladimir Putin put Russia’s nuclear deterrent on high alert. The U.S. CIA director assessed that Russia could use tactical or low-level nuclear weapons as a last resort. Whenever Russia is at a disadvantage, it raises the level of coercion with its nuclear card, and Russia’s “nuclear shadow” covers all of Europe.

North Korea is seeing the effect of nuclear coercion, which has previously remained at the theoretical level. If Russia uses nuclear weapons by lowering the threshold, North Korea will also lower the threshold for its own use of nuclear weapons. On the other hand, if Russia does not use nuclear weapons and the war ends, North Korea will find reason to act in opposition to the current situation in which Russia is reluctant to use nuclear weapons. Several remarks by North Korea, which has been strengthening its rhetoric in 2022 by mentioning the preemptive use of nuclear weapons, supports this perception. That said, North Korea’s new nuclear policy law is likely driven by other factors as well.

∙ Triangle of North Korea, China and Russia: There has been a debate over whether the U.S.-China strategic competition is like the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, but the Ukrainian war has ended this debate and warned of a new Cold War. In its 2022 National Security Strategy, the U.S. reaffirmed Russia as an “immediate threat” and China as its “only competitor,” saying “the most pressing strategic challenge facing our vision is from powers that layer authoritarian governance with a revisionist foreign policy.” NATO established a strong front against Russia in the wake of the Ukrainian war, and in the Indo-Pacific region, the unified front to counter China is slowly forming, centering on Australia, Japan, and South Korea.

From North Korea’s point of view, the West’s move is not bad as it changes the geopolitical context in ways that are advantageous to Pyongyang. North Korea, which signed a “Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty” with China, will actively seek to utilize China’s automatic intervention provisions in case of emergency. Recently, North Korea has reportedly offered China its first joint military exercise. North Korea and Russia supported each other on issues such as the South Kuril Islands and North Korea’s ICBM test. What attracted the most attention was military cooperation between the two. U.S. intelligence officials have said that Russia is purchasing millions of shells and rockets from North Korea. Of course, there is historical evidence that North Korea has a strong distrust of Russia and China, but it will maximize interest through cooperation with China and Russia.

Countries around the world are overcoming the shock of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by objectively analyzing the effects of the war and learning lessons from its conduct. North Korea will also learn various lessons from this war and try to overcome the current difficult situation it faces at home and abroad. From the standpoint of the ROK-U.S. alliance, efforts will be needed to ensure that North Korea does not take only lessons in its favor to strengthen opportunistic actions, and misunderstand or misjudge the current situation.

Hanbyeol Sohn is an associate professor in the Department of Military Strategy at the Korea National Defense University (KNDU) and Director, Center for Military Strategy in the Research Institute for National Security Affairs (RINSA).

Photo from Shutterstock.

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