Although it was at the end of 2019 that the North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong Un had declared his intention to break away from a self-imposed moratorium on testing nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, it was only in 2022 that the country tested a record number of missiles including the ones reaching the US mainland.
North Korea in the context of the continuing war over the Ukrainian territory seems to have been led to believe that it can circumvent sanctions with the assistance of Russia and China despite indulging in provocative actions such as testing and displaying nuclear weapons capabilities and missile power and technologies.
The sharp dividing-line between the transatlantic powers on the one hand and Russia, China and North Korea on the other against the backdrop of the Ukrainian war suggests Pyongyang can make most out of this rising polarity and go on developing nuclear and missile power in defiance of the non-proliferation regimes. By doing so, it can force Washington to agree to a greater quantum of concessions over the existing sanctions on Pyongyang. Both Russia and China being permanent members of the UN Security Council can be expected to prevent it from punitive measures as well. Further, the transatlantic commitments to the ongoing war over the Ukrainian territory would prevent Washington from dedicating military and economic resources far exceeding the existing level towards another theatre – the Korean Peninsula.
The war over the Ukrainian territory has no simple and direct implications on North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme. The lessons are complex yet Pyongyang would like to use it as a pretext for strengthening its nuclear and missiles ambitions further. The Ukrainian war scenario provided the convenient context for Pyongyang to practically break away from the self-imposed moratorium on nuclear weapons programme and test missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads including testing of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). At this critical juncture when Russia and Ukraine are engaged in a prolonged war that the North Korean supreme leader considered to swiftly implement the declaration he made at the end of 2019.
While North Korea has tested a variety of ballistic, cruise and hypersonic missiles, it has recently in April 2023 test-fired a solid-fuel ICBM after years of testing solid-fuel short-range missiles. Experts argue: ‘solid-fuel ICBMs come ready-fuelled, and would therefore enable North Korea to strike the US with far less warning’.
China and North Korea with authoritarian leaders at the helm share similar viewpoints on the war over the Ukrainian territory. First, these states have hesitated to consider the Russian action an invasion. Second, these countries did not support economic sanctions measures against Russia. Third, these powers put the blame on the role of the transatlantic military block – NATO for its intrusion into the Russian space and on the US for maintaining double standards on global issues. Russia and China share mutual interests in North Korea’s provocative actions to distract the Transatlantic attention from Ukrainian hotspot and to prop up an anti-US Axis which could bypass the stringent sanctions regime and keep the US attention cleft between two hotspots.
China and Russia have shared but not identical interests in Peace and Stability in Northeast Asia:
While the Axis is gathering strength in the background of the war over Ukrainian territory, it will be an overstatement to say that these powers pursue identical interests and there is likely to be a convergence of interests and ideology in the long-term. Russia now faced with stringent economic sanctions and military debacles would like to see more countries to join anti-US camp, challenge its hegemony and assist it in circumventing stringent economic sanctions. North Korea is unhesitatingly doing this. In the year 2000, Russia and North Korea signed the Treaty on Friendship, Cooperation and Good-Neighborly Relations.
This friendship treaty with Pyongyang enables Moscow to lend key security assistance too. However, this treaty contains no mutual defense clause unlike the agreement between China and North Korea. Sino-North Korean Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty signed between the two countries in 1961, on the other hand, includes provisions for mutual military assistance during war situations. These two treaties have been instrumental for Russia and China in bolstering the North Korean regime against the perceived American strategies towards weakening and then changing the regime in Pyongyang by replacing it with a pliable one. So long as the US is perceived to having a larger military footprint in the region posing substantial and credible threat to the North Korean regime, these powers are likely to consider North Korean nuclear and missile power an effective deterrent against the possible US encroachments.
A cursory look at the historical developments in the Korean Peninsula points to the fact that both China and Russia have a shared interest in peace and stability in the Peninsula and hence to contain North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, these powers supported key UN Security Council sanctions against it. However, they have guarded against the US desire to roll back Pyongyang’s nuclear weapon programme irreversibly while entrenching its own military presence through deployment of Missiles Defence Systems such as the Thermal High-Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) and invigorating its security ties with its allies in Northeast Asian region such as Japan and South Korea including through bilateral military exercises. Thus, these powers have been opposed to excessive sanctions and use of force at the UN Security Council against Pyongyang which could lead to its collapse and the US desire to install a pliable regime would be materialised.
As North Korea embarks on a path of amassing nuclear weapons and ICBMs, China and Russia would remain uncomfortable with this development as it would provide a spur to instabilities in the Peninsula and would provide the US a rationale for enhancing its military presence and role in the Peninsula.
China and Russia share similar objectives on the questions of stability and denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula also for reasons that both countries share border with North Korea (albeit Russia only shares a smaller 11miles border) and they remain apprehensive that instabilities and war on the Peninsula would cast immediate impacts and carry ominous repercussions including flight of refugees into their homelands.
Russia and China also remain cautious about the fact that threats from North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme would propel other countries of the region including South Korea and Japan to go nuclear. Japan and South Korea have frequently expressed their concerns emanating from Pyongyang and they are also willing to develop their military capabilities independent of the US security umbrella as well. This apart, Russia seeks unification of Korea and peace in the Peninsula for integration between its underdeveloped far-east and Korean Peninsula through railways, transportation and different economic project networks.
However, it would be a mistake to say that these powers pursue identical interests in the Korean Peninsula. China exercises far greater economic and military influence over the Northeast Asian region compared to Russia which it would seek to deepen further whereas Russia not only seeks to dilute its economic dependence on China but it is also in the look out for opportunities that could bring economic integration between its far-east and the Peninsula and with the broader region of Northeast Asia which could help it to attain the objectives of relieving it from economic dependence on China and establishing it as a major power in the region. Russia would prefer a multipolar Northeast Asian region where it can have consequential economic and security role rather than the region being dominated by China.
Ideology or Expediency provides glue to the Axis:
Many scholars have recommended formation of plurilateral groupings of liberal democratic states across the regions around the globe to hash out the dangers that the emerging axis can bring to the liberal democratic international order at the world stage and further advised for increased readiness to combat such axis by amassing more military power and forming military alliances.
These scholars are speculative of a dividing-line that is emerging in global politics based on ideology of authoritarianism including the axis between China-Russa-North Korea posing a formidable challenge to Liberal International Order on the one hand and ideology of liberal democracy which upholds the principles of liberalism and human rights at the world stage on the other which the transatlantic community is committed to.
Data on voting at the UN General Assembly on two key issues related to Ukraine – the first one to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the second one to suspend Russia from Human Rights Council -point to the fact that not all authoritarian states think alike nor there is convergence based on ideology. In an article entitled ‘The Russia-Ukraine War and The Seeds of a New Liberal Plurilateral Order’, the authors David L. Sloss and Laura A. Dickinson compiled the data on UN General Assembly voting on these two issues related to the war over the Ukrainian territory and observed the voting pattern on the basis of the ideological divisions and they found 45 percent of autocratic states voted to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and 16 percent of these states voted to suspend Russia from UN Human Rights Council.
However, a fact that cannot be ruled out that a higher percentage of these states perceive threats from increasing investments of the US towards inducing pro-democratic changes in various countries through organisations like National Endowment for Democracy and from its role in propping up pro-democratic forces to dislodge authoritarian leaders such as the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004 and later the ouster of Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych in February 2014. These actions not only threatened the authoritarian leadership in Russia, it must have sent a strong message to all the states with authoritarian leaderships to take a measured stance on the voting at the UN.
Confusing signals from the Ukrainian Tragedy:
The arguments of some scholars that war over the Ukrainian soil increasingly widens the gulf between the two ideologies by pitting one against the other are misleading if we look at the shared interests emerging from the context of war. Ukrainian war theatre does not have any straightforward implications for the North Korean nuclear and missile provocations.
It is widely believed that Pyongyang does not want to be another Ukraine without nuclear weapons to deter and defend itself. However, it needs to be noted that Ukraine’s denuclearization in 1994 was a wise decision in so far as it inherited nuclear warheads installed on its territory as a consequence of the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the ultimate control over which remained in the Russian hands. So just to retain these without technical knowledge to use would have unintended and destabilizing consequences. North Korea on the other hand has developed an indigenous nuclear weapon programme.
Those who overemphasize the dangerousness of the emerging axis in destabilizing the Korean Peninsula and broader Northeast Asian region citing the fate of Ukraine need to underline that unlike South Korea which is part of US military alliance, Ukraine is not a member of NATO nor does it share any bilateral security arrangements with the US. North Korea’s missiles tests and nuclear provocations cannot easily destabilize the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asian region as the US not only has strong military presence in the region, it has determined allies which can effectively deter a Korean war.
The North Korean leader Kim Jong Un broke away from the self-imposed moratorium on the grounds that he did not receive expected concessions over the sanctions imposed on his country to resume dialogue on nuclear issues. The American expectations that the North Korean regime would bend under the weight of sanctions and succumb to its desire of unconditional and unilateral denuclearization or else it would give way to another regime are being belied under the prevailing circumstances which the North Korean leader seeks to exploit. The leader observed restraint for a certain timeframe indicates that the objective of peace and stability in the Korean Peninsula is not unattainable.