[Column] The curious connection tying war in Ukraine to the Korean Peninsula

Posted on : 2024-02-26 17:06 KST Modified on : 2024-02-26 17:06 KST
What are we to make of the fact that the two Koreas are the main suppliers of weapons in a war being fought on the other side of the continent?
Smoke rises from a water purification facility in Kramatorsk, Ukraine, hit by a Russian missile strike on Feb. 20, 2024. (Reuters/Yonhap)
Smoke rises from a water purification facility in Kramatorsk, Ukraine, hit by a Russian missile strike on Feb. 20, 2024. (Reuters/Yonhap)

The ongoing war in Ukraine, sparked by Russia’s invasion on Feb. 24, 2022, has officially passed the two-year mark. There are many viewpoints on the war. One that we must remember is that the war is deeply connected to the geopolitics of the Korean Peninsula. Since the conflict has essentially developed into a proxy war between Russia against the US and the West, it is further stoking the flames of division between the pro-US South Koreans and the anti-US North Koreans. This division goes beyond mere rhetoric, as South Korea and North Korea have become major suppliers of key weaponry in the war.  

Last year, major American news outlets reported that South Korean-made artillery shells delivered to Ukraine from the US outnumbered the total number of shells provided by all of Europe. Russia responded by warning that South Korea’s movements to arm Ukraine could severely damage or completely sever South Korea-Russia relations. 

Russia then quickly reached out to North Korea. Since the two countries’ summit in September 2023, they have been collaborating on all fronts, resulting in North Korea becoming one of Russia’s main suppliers of weapons. Despite insistent denials from Moscow and Pyongyang, the intelligence and evidence are clear: North Korean artillery and missiles are making their way onto Ukrainian battlefields in massive numbers. 

After the Korean Peninsula’s division in the 1940s, South and North Korea formed their respective governments. Up until the Cold War between the US and the Soviets ended in 1989, the Americans sponsored South Korea and the Soviets sponsored North Korea militarily for over 40 years. Recently, both sides officially declared the other as their principal enemy, and are openly preparing for war. Yet the two Koreas are the main suppliers of weapons in a war being fought on the other side of the continent. What can we make of this bizarre and unfamiliar phenomenon? 

At first glance, the arms race could be a manifestation of the clash between what the Yoon Suk-yeol administration in Seoul has called an “alliance of values” and North Korea’s “anti-US alliance.” If the South Korean government were truly concerned about a balanced approach to foreign relations, as it was in the past, it wouldn’t have jumped at the chance to fulfill Washington’s artillery shell order. 

If North Korea were truly intent on eventually establishing relations with the US, as it was in the past, then it wouldn’t have gotten entangled in a proxy war against Washington as Russia’s largest weapons supplier and most vocal ally. These confrontational policy choices are the result of a geopolitical structure comprising a blindly pro-US South Korea and a North Korea that’s given up any faith it once had in the US. 

Viewed in this light, it’s not an exaggeration to say that North Korea’s nuclear weapons are a “game changer.” Pyongyang’s conventional military and weaponry are hopelessly outmatched when compared to those of Seoul. Nuclear weapons are the only thing that provides the former enough confidence to become Moscow’s arms supplier. 

Moscow’s shifting geopolitical calculus is also a factor. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council and a key participant in the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, Russia historically advocated, at least publicly, for the prevention of nuclear proliferation. That is why it partook in the UN Security Council’s condemnations of and sanctions against North Korea. Recently, however, Moscow has clearly concluded that the geopolitical landscape has changed, as it now tolerates Pyongyang’s nuclear armament and receives regular shipments of North Korean weapons. 

Basically, North Korea supplies Russia with weapons in exchange for the latter’s support for its nuclear armament. As the North enhances its nuclear capacity, South Korea’s reliance on the US becomes more inescapable. This has led to another type of trade: In exchange for Washington’s expanded deterrence against Pyongyang, Seoul is indirectly providing artillery shells to Ukraine.

Yet the situation seems to be favoring North Korea-Russia solidarity more than the South Korea-US alliance. Ukraine’s counter-offensive last summer essentially failed, and Western support for Ukraine is faltering. Conversely, Russia is building up its capacity for a war of attrition. Moscow-Pyongyang solidarity looks like it will only become stronger, as Putin is scheduled to visit North Korea after Russia’s presidential election. Back in the US, if Trump is reelected as president, it will create massive waves in both the war in Ukraine and in inter-Korean geopolitics. 

Before it’s too late, the concerned parties must seek an end to the war in Ukraine, now a bloody stalemate, and a resumption of dialogue between the two Koreas, who seem bent on stoking more conflict. 

By Cheong Wook-sik, director of the Hankyoreh Peace Institute and director of the Peace Network

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

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