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Why North Korea is denying its involvement in Russia’s war in Ukraine

In a case of history repeating itself, the Korean War is set to be revived. Not on the Korean Peninsula but in Eastern Europe. Both North Korea and South Korea are currently contemplating sending military supplies to Russia and Ukraine respectively to assist in the ongoing war.

South Korea is under increasing pressure from the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation to supply arms to Ukraine after the country apparently agreed to export munitions to the United States, which would then find their way to Ukraine. South Korea’s longstanding policy is to not directly supply arms to a country that is actively at war.

Across the demilitarised zone, North Korea has allegedly been producing artillery shells for Russia in exchange for Russian oil, gas and flour. Satellite imagery appears to confirm such exchanges are taking place. An arms deal in the hundreds of millions of dollars with Russia would help boost the North Korean economy battered by the pandemic. Pyongyang is also recruiting personnel from its companies in Russia to work on reconstruction projects in eastern Ukraine.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (L) with Russian President Vladimir Putin during Russia-North Korea talks in Vladivostok, April 2019 (Photo: Kremlin.ru)

While it is not surprising that North Korea is sending military assistance to Russia, what is remarkable is its repeated denial of such activities. In November, North Korea’s military responded with a public statement to what it regarded as moves by the United States to “tarnish the image of the DPRK in the international arena by invoking the illegal ‘sanctions resolution’ of the UN Security Council against the DPRK”.

In January, Pyongyang again warned Washington that “trying to tarnish the image of the DPRK by fabricating a non-existent thing is a grave provocation that can never be allowed and that cannot but trigger its reaction”. The denial is even more noteworthy considering Kim Yo-jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, publicly affirmed that North Korea would “always stand in the same trench, together with the army and the people of Russia”.

As an international pariah, North Korea has almost nothing to lose, so why does it keep denying its involvement?

One possibility may be that North Korea, like the South, was reluctantly dragged into the Russian quagmire in Ukraine. The war has proven an extra burden in an already tumultuous geopolitical environment. North Korea is busy coping with a long list of problems: a contracting economy, the unpredictable trajectory of the pandemic, and escalating tensions with the United States and South Korea. And as a country that usually consumes a great deal of Washington’s bandwidth, the war in Ukraine has exhausted what energy the United States has left in dealing with the hermit state.

North Korea has recently exploited its position as a nuclear-armed actor by flexing its missile-testing muscles while the United States is distracted by events in Ukraine, but in contrast to past provocations, its recent moratorium-breaking tests do not attract as much US attention.

Importantly, Russia’s war is also causing collateral damage to North Korea’s own policy towards the United States. In the past, North Korea could simply switch from confrontation to engagement independent of other actors, but now its “power-for-power” policy cannot be detached from Russia’s war. North Korea likely understands that so long as it continues to ship military supplies to Russia, the chance of dialogue revival with the United States is low.

This explains why Pyongyang has continually denied sending arms to Russia, and the country’s basic agreement with Russia forbids North Koreans from participating in the war, presumably to avoid being seen as supplying mercenaries. The last thing Pyongyang wants is for its troops to fight NATO troops on the front line and jeopardise any chance of negotiations with the United States. North Korea’s delay in deploying workers to eastern Ukraine out of concerns for their security shows how much it wants to avoid being trapped in a situation where its workers are directly involved in fighting.

However, like South Korea in its military relationship with the United States, North Korea cannot ignore Russia, one of its main backers. Moscow continues to serve as an alternative option for North Korea to limit Chinese leverage over the country’s political and economic isolation. And North Korea is increasingly counting on Russian assistance in the remote scenario that a war resumes with South Korea. In covertly sending military supplies to Russia in an attempt to avoid damaging relations with the United States, North Korea is simply hedging its bets, not looking for any major gains from the war in Ukraine.  

North Korea’s support for Russia appears to be more a silver lining than a deliberate partnership. If this is the case, there is still hope that North Korea may not completely close its dialogue with the United States, despite its warlike rhetoric. An end to the war in Ukraine may somehow boost the chance of a North Korea–US détente.

Khang X. Vu is a doctoral candidate in the Political Science Department at Boston College, where he focuses on East Asian politics and nuclear weapons. Khang earned his master’s degree from Dartmouth College in 2019.

Source: Lowy Institute

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