[News analysis] N. Korean nuclear threat takes on new weight, destabilizing US-led security status quo

Posted on : 2023-09-15 15:36 KST Modified on : 2023-09-15 15:36 KST
It’s hard to predict how far North Korea and Russia will go in their dangerous liaison
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un sits down for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Russia. (KCTV/Yonhap)
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un sits down for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Russia. (KCTV/Yonhap)

North Korea’s summit with Russia on Wednesday, which came as the US and China-Russia move to set up opposing blocs, elevates North Korea into a major variable that could rattle the global security environment as far away as Europe and the continental US. The North Korean nuclear issue, which remains unresolved after three decades, has now become a serious burden not only on the Korean Peninsula and in East Asia but around the world.

During his visit to Russia, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un reached an agreement for even closer strategic and tactical collaboration with Russia, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, as Pyongyang’s state-run Korean Central News Agency reported on Thursday. That enables North Korea to shake off the isolation that has plagued it for more than 30 years, since the collapse of the socialist bloc, and join the common front against the US.

After establishing diplomatic relations with South Korea following the end of the Cold War, China and Russia effectively gave North Korea the cold shoulder, disregarding their traditional friendship. Left on its own, North Korea sought to guarantee its survival through the dangerous path of developing nuclear weapons so as to push the US to normalize relations.

The US has also sought to resolve the nuclear issue and bring North Korea into the US-led international order, at times with Chinese and Russian support (the six-party talks from 2003 to 2008) and at times through bilateral negotiations with Pyongyang (the Geneva Agreed Framework of 1994, the nuclear talks in 2018 and 2019).

Despite sympathizing with North Korea’s plight, China and Russia, as permanent members of the UN Security Council, voted in favor of 11 sanctions resolutions against North Korea following the North’s first nuclear weapon test in 2006. But after the second North Korea-US summit in Hanoi in February 2019 regrettably ended without an agreement, North Korea basically abandoned the idea of normalizing relations with the US and moved down the path of upgrading its nuclear arsenal.

Since then, the geopolitical situation has changed radically. Strategic competition between the US and China has gone into full swing since Joe Biden became US president, and war broke out in Ukraine at the end of February 2022. The US has defined China as a challenger and Russia as a threat.

The US has been ramping up its containment of China through the Quad (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue), AUKUS (a trilateral security pact with Australia and the UK) and the trilateral alliance it has been seeking to arrange with South Korea and Japan. The US has also been fully supplying Ukraine in its fight against Russia while maintaining punishing economic sanctions on Russia along with the other members of the Group of Seven. China and Russia have been strengthening their strategic cooperation while announcing a “no-limits partnership.”

These geopolitical changes have given North Korea some breathing room. Russia is being squeezed by its protracted war with Ukraine, prompting it to reevaluate North Korea’s strategic value. The US assumes that Russia is accepting North Korean overtures because “isolated” Russian President Vladimir Putin seeks artillery shells and other weaponry from Kim, who is a global pariah like himself.

But beyond that, Russia and North Korea’s cooperation appears to have the definite strategic goal of challenging the US. Putin welcomed Kim Jong-un to the new Vostochny Cosmodrome, the nexus of Russia’s aerospace sector, on Wednesday, while remarking that their two countries need to strengthen strategic cooperation. He also made remarks suggesting that Russia intends to share satellite launch technology with North Korea.

“We have many issues pertaining to the development of our relations, including politics, the economy and culture, in order to contribute to the improvement of the well-being of our peoples,” Kim said, leaving no doubt that he intends to pursue cooperation with Russia across all domains.

“Russia is currently engaged in a sacred battle to defend its state sovereignty and security in the face of the hegemonic forces that oppose Russia. [. . .] We have always supported and will continue to support every decision made by President Putin, as well as the decisions of the Russian government,” Kim affirmed.

If Russia gives North Korea its satellite technology as Putin has indicated, it could lead to a massive boost in the capability of North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missiles to strike the American mainland, a capability that many still doubt. And if, on top of that, North Korea acquires the nuclear-powered submarine technology it desires, the US will find it difficult to track North Korea’s strategic submarines in the North Pacific Ocean.

For the US, those are deadly national security threats that cannot be ignored.

John Kirby, the coordinator for strategic communications at the National Security Council at the White House, said during a briefing on Wednesday that if Russia and North Korea “decide to move forward with some sort of arms deal [. . .] we’ll deal with it appropriately.

“Any arrangement that would improve North Korea’s military capabilities would be of [. . .] significant concern to us,” Kirby added.

Russia has veto power as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, which inevitably restricts the kind of hardline response the US might like to make. While Korea’s conservative press is calling on Seoul to make a tough response, the tit-for-tat approach with North Korea has often only made the situation worse.

It’s hard to predict how far North Korea and Russia will go in their dangerous liaison. A complex set of variables is in play, including the details of their bilateral agreement, China’s response, the development of the war in Ukraine and the response made by South Korea and the US.

All we know for sure is that, four years and seven months after then US President Donald Trump walked away from his talks with Kim in Hanoi, North Korea has become a critical factor in global security.

By Jung E-gil, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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