North Korea’s Coming Breakout
Bad news for the world is often welcome relief to North Korea, a country that thrives in the shadowy cracks of the international system. With global cooperation plummeting and competing blocs solidifying, the near to mid-term future will offer a sorely needed means of continued survival for an unrepentant and destabilizing Kim Jong Un’s regime. Over time, this may even culminate in North Korea’s emergence out of the shadows, shielded by a patchwork of revisionist allies who are united, more than anything else, by opposition to a rules-based order that has cast these countries as pariahs.
Three dynamics — one under way, one occurring in real time, and one conceivably occurring in the not-too-distant future — are threatening to enable North Korea’s destabilizing foreign policy practices. The first dynamic is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; the second is an increasingly roguish direction for Iran and Syria; and the last is a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan. All of these dynamics might help to grow and embolden the pool of nations subjected to international sanctions and opposed to the liberal international order. As demonstrated in the examples below, such countries perceive an increasingly small cost for engaging in illicit transactions with North Korea. In this way, global disintegration will provide refuge and sustenance for an unleashed Pyongyang that has unprecedented opportunities to proliferate, profiteer, and compel with near impunity.
For the past century, the Korean Peninsula has been subject to the indifferent (and sometimes hostile) twists of superpower competition. But from the outset, North Korea’s ruling family dynasts, the Kims, have learned to manipulate pattern breaks and schisms, reaping benefits from cracks in alliances between friends and foes alike. Kim Il Sung secured Soviet and Chinese support for his invasion of the South despite serious reservations in both Moscow and Beijing, and he then received security pacts from both countries during the Sino-Soviet split.
Looking back, the years 2016 and 2017 will represent the high-water mark for international cooperation on imposing costs for North Korea’s dangerous aggression. At that time, Russia and China supported the adoption of United Nations Security Council resolutions containing sectoral export prohibitions to slow the infusion of cash used by the Kim regime for its weapons programs. But the implementation of these sanctions dramatically declined in recent years. Kim Jong Un’s frantic spree of summits with Chinese General Secretary Xi Jinping (five meetings between 2018 and 2019) and Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2019 was as much about bolstering his partnerships as it was about preparing for summits with U.S. President Donald Trump. Looking ahead, the new fragmented U.N. Security Council won’t simply dampen cooperative efforts to constrain North Korea’s weapons development; it could spur the growth and cross-pollination of multiple networks of illicit proliferation and procurement.
At a recent military parade to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the Korean War, Kim Jong Un sat aside two guests of honor: Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chinese Politburo member Li Hongzhong. These atypical appearances at the country’s yearly parade are deeply significant. The fact that Shoigu travelled to Pyongyang in the middle of his country’s war of aggression against Ukraine signals Moscow’s reliance on continued North Korean military support in the form of artillery and other weapons, which North Korea gladly supplies in exchange for badly needed financial support. This week, Kim will make a rare trip abroad to meet with Putin in Vladivostok to discuss more arms assistance and military cooperation. And after a prolonged and severe pandemic lockdown, rumors are swirling that North Korea could reopen its borders imminently. When it does, it will rely on China for a bump in trade. Pyongyang clearly aims to end its isolation with strengthened partnerships that will enable a bigger breakout.
Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine has already opened up new profiteering and two-way proliferating opportunities for North Korea. Previously, Russia maintained at least a façade of U.N. sanctions implementation, even if evidence pointed to infractions. Now, Russia’s hostile relationship with the United States and Europe has eroded its enforcement of sanctions. Shoigu even praised North Korea’s defensive development despite economic sanctions and international isolation.
In addition to hosting North Korean workers and transferring Russian oil in excess of agreed-upon price caps, both in contravention of the sanctions, Russia and China blocked the passage of a new Security Council resolution seeking to impose costs against North Korea for its record-breaking spree of ballistic missile launches. In a move intended to obstruct the work of the U.N. panel of experts responsible for monitoring sanctions implementation on North Korea, Russia again collaborated with China to force the United Kingdom’s coordinator of the panel to step down.
When South Korea announced last winter it would join the multilateral effort to sanction Russia, Russian ambassador to South Korea Andrey Kulik warned that the bilateral relationship would “change course” and threatened to withdraw Russian support for cooperation on Korean Peninsula peace and nuclear security cooperation. Now, with debates heating up in Seoul about South Korea’s potential to provide lethal aid to Ukraine, the deputy secretary of Russia’s Security Council, Dmitry Medvedev, threatened to arm North Korea if that happens. The leadership in North Korea has begun referring to its relationship with Russia as “tactical and strategic collaboration.” To mark Russia’s National Day, Kim Jong Un sent a message to Putin on June 12 calling for “closer strategic cooperation” and castigating the United States and the West for “hegemonic” policy.
Russia’s motivation to strengthen ties with North Korea starts and ends with self-interest. Moscow derives numerous benefits from this increasingly close relationship. North Korea is supplying Russia with artillery shells and badly needed rockets and missiles, according to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. The White House disclosed intelligence that Russia is seeking more munitions from North Korea, offering food and commodities in exchange. The U.S. Treasury Department rolled out sanctions on a Slovakian arms dealer who has brokered past exchanges between the governments in Moscow and Pyongyang and “is at the center” of the new proposed food-for-weapons deal. To make matters worse, the U.S. State Department worries that Kim’s June 12 message could foreshadow additional North Korean weapons shipments to Russia to support its invasion.
Indeed, when Kim travels to Vladivostok to meet Putin, Russia will ask for artillery shells and antitank missiles in exchange for providing North Korea with advanced technology for satellites and nuclear-powered submarines, according to U.S. officials. Such a transaction would prolong Russia’s ability to wage war in Ukraine and could also shift the nuclear deterrence dynamics on the Korean Peninsula in North Korea’s favor. Advancements in North Korea’s missile technology are aimed at evading and defeating the U.S.-Republic of Korea alliance missile defense network. Quieter submarines could significantly enhance North Korea’s pursuit of the nuclear triad. Although unlikely to occur rapidly, both of these developments would carry profound challenges for the alliance defense posture.
Another benefit that Moscow derives is the fact that North Korea is one of the world’s few nations that recognize Russia’s illegal claim of sovereignty over breakaway states in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. Pyongyang has even hinted it may send construction workers there. Since hosting North Korean workers is a violation of U.N. sanctions, Russia’s increasing acceptance of them on its soil can be interpreted as a reciprocal political benefit for Pyongyang in exchange for its outspoken support of the Kremlin’s war.
The relationship between Russia and the international community will likely continue down this path of deterioration, at least until some sort of settlement is reached in Ukraine. Putin even announced that his country would withdraw from participation in the New START nuclear arms control treaty with the United States. This is welcome news for North Korea, which can expect continued and expanding opportunities to sell more weapons, export more workers, and earn more profits to fund its illicit nuclear and missile programs so long as Russia is at loggerheads with the international community.
Iran and Syria
Turning to the Middle East, there are two nations that have a history of engaging in proliferation activities with North Korea that are becoming increasingly estranged from the international community: Iran and Syria. The Joseph Biden administration has given up on resuscitating a nuclear deal with Iran that the Trump White House withdrew from, and U.S.-Iranian relations have continued to deteriorate. Now, given the questionable fate of the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the continued breakdown in U.S.-Iranian relations, and the ongoing domestic unrest from the Mahsa Amini protests, prospects for an offramp of tensions appear dim.
North Korea’s illicit arms dealing with Iran began in the early 1980s. During the Iran-Iraq war, about 90 percent of North Korea’s arms exports were destined for Iran. Missile cooperation began during this time period. The U.S. intelligence community assessed that “North Korean cooperation with Iran’s ballistic missile programs was ongoing and significant.” Experts have posited that Iran’s Shahab-3 missile could be modeled after North Korea’s Nodong missile, and aspects of Iran’s space launch vehicle share characteristics with the Hwasong-14 missile. This cooperation apparently slowed, according to 2016 testimony by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. However, cooperation on long-range missile technology resumed in 2020, according to a report by the U.N. panel of experts.
Less substantial evidence exists to definitively link North Korea and Iran on the nuclear front, although officials have repeatedly voiced concerns about that possibility, and nonofficial sources hint at potential collaboration. According to Dr. Bruce Bechtol, North Korea and Iran have cooperated on developing nuclear technology provided by Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan. A Japanese newspaper claimed that 200 North Korean nuclear scientists were working at uranium enrichment facilities in Natanz, Iran, in 2011. Iranian nuclear officials have attended nearly all of North Korea’s nuclear tests, according to Iranian defectors, and delegations of North Korean experts regularly travel to Iran for consultations, according to an Iranian opposition group in 2015. Moscow apparently supports the consolidation of Tehran-Pyongyang cooperation, with transiting North Korean officials stopping in Russia on their way to Iran.
North Korea has also proliferated to Syria, providing Scud B and Scud C missiles in the 1990s and helping to build a plutonium reactor in the 2000s. The reactor facility, known as Al-Kibar, was located near the Euphrates River in Syria’s northeast. It was apparently built with North Korean cooperation and modeled after North Korea’s 25-megawatt thermal reactor at Yongbyon. Israel acknowledged in 2018 that it had destroyed Al-Kibar in 2007. Syria disputed these allegations, but subsequent investigation by the International Atomic Energy Agency uncovered “a significant number of chemically processed natural uranium particles” at the site of the destroyed facility. In 2012, Kim Jong Un publicly praised Syrian President Bashar al Assad and wished him success in quelling the rebellion threatening to dethrone him. Throughout the civil war, North Korea provided missiles and materials for chemical weapons. Syria hosted 800 North Korean construction workers in 2020, according to the U.N. panel of experts.
The situation with Iran will deteriorate further if efforts to replace the previous nuclear deal fall flat and U.S.-Iranian tensions worsen. For now, it seems like “the Supreme Leader in Iran has [not] yet made a decision to resume the weaponization program,” according to Central Intelligence Agency Director William Burns. But that decision can be reversed at any time, and Tehran could turn to Pyongyang for more assistance in the form of proliferating technologies and providing technical guidance. In the meantime, at a minimum, Pyongyang will continue to assist Tehran with missiles. Syria, suffering from a devastating earthquake and over a decade of civil war, will keep looking to North Korea for support on the world stage and arms provisions behind the curtains. Equally concerning, looking ahead, Syria “could facilitate North Korea’s military cooperation with Iran and its proxies.” In the near future, North Korean proliferation to Iran and Syria will check at least three boxes that are Kim regime priorities: securing revenue, enabling U.S. adversaries, and drawing the world’s attention away from its nuclear activities by assisting new breakout states.
The emergence of these actors as a unified anti-U.S. bloc is most conspicuously evidenced by Russia and China’s “no-limits friendship” and Beijing’s ongoing endorsement of Moscow’s war of aggression in Ukraine. After establishing a military cooperation plan in 2019, China and Russia have conducted six joint air force patrols, including a June 6 incursion without warning into South Korea’s air defense identification zone. And Russian officials have hinted that North Korea could join in trilateral naval exercises.
China has to date been reluctant to go all in on this relationship by providing arms to Russia for the war, even while railing against “U.S. hegemony” and blaming NATO for the invasion. Beijing may yet provide lethal aid, despite the costs that would entail. In the meantime, China is already supporting Russia’s invasion by providing dual-use goods like transport vehicles, drones, and semiconductors, and ramping up purchases of Russian oil. This support may be sufficient to gain Russia’s support if Xi decides to pursue unification with Taiwan by force of arms.
It’s difficult to imagine a likely event that would more severely unwind the gains of globalization and fracture the international community than a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Regardless of the outcome, most wargame exercises forecast that the toll in human lives would be horrific and the economic impact would be widespread, causing an eruption of unprecedented schisms in the global system. Given the obvious costs for all, it would be difficult to find many clear winners in this contingency, except, of course, for North Korea. To understand why, we need to imagine the post-invasion reality.
The precise outcomes of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would be shaped by the nature of the takeover attempt and the response of Taiwan and the international community. But it’s highly likely that the United States and its allies would strive to assist Taiwan and impose costs on China. The response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine might serve as a model for the type of sanctions that could be meted out against China. Of course, China is a much more important trading partner and engine of global industry compared to Russia, so coalition building would have its complications. Nonetheless, it’s reasonable to project that some amount of ostracization would elicit a retaliatory blow from China, and fence-sitters all over the world would face increasing pressure by both Beijing and Washington to pick a side. Under tremendous strain, global systems of finance, technology, and trade would increasingly split and diverge.
Here’s where North Korea benefits. First, the geopolitical instability wrought by the invasion would provide an opportunity for the Kim regime to provoke and compel on the peninsula in an effort to demonstrate capabilities, change the status quo in its favor, and drive a wedge between the United States and South Korea. Second, for political, economic, and strategic reasons, North Korea would quickly side with China, and, most likely, China would cease to implement virtually all of the U.N. sectoral sanctions against North Korea, facilitating a huge windfall for North Korea. The regime could earn billions of dollars per year through exports of coal, fisheries, textiles, and overseas workers. This would also mean unrestrained imports of oil from China (and Russia). Cross-border Sino-Korean business ties and procurement networks would return to and then surpass presanction levels. Third, North Korea’s existing proliferation partners (including Iran, Russia, and Syria) would likely join this team as well, providing even greater opportunities for enhanced collaboration throughout this expanding network of actors with a diminished fear of sanctions. The emergence of parallel global economic and technological systems would give North Korea safe harbor to attack the opposing bloc through financial, cyber, and kinetic means, likely with the endorsement of its partners.
Conclusion and Recommendations
Gaming out worst-case scenarios serves as a useful reminder that seemingly unconnected global developments can have ruinous downstream effects. This underscores the point that the United States should proactively cooperate with allies and partners to plan for the worst and be ready to respond effectively. This also serves as a counterargument against the notion that coalitions should be regional in nature and focused on immediate problem sets, such as marshaling European Union partners to focus on the Russian invasion and working separately with Asian partners on North Korea and Taiwan. That approach disregards the increasingly cross-regional integration of the problem sets. Values-based global coalitions are better suited to the task and will be more durable over time.
Additionally, this thought experiment provides another compelling reason to actively cooperate with competing states on averting crises through confidence-building measures, red-line phones, and institutionalized dialogues at the top military and diplomatic channels. These steps could reduce the likelihood of dangerous retaliatory exchanges that could provoke the worst version of this grim future, which would serve very few people save for a few elites in the capital cities of Pyongyang, Beijing, Moscow, Tehran, and Damascus.
The United States should always seek to de-escalate and build conditions that reduce tensions and precipitate rapprochement. For example, a negotiated settlement to freeze North Korean missile and nuclear tests would substantially limit Pyongyang’s ability to develop these programs and so could be worth concessions from the United States. That said, the national security apparatus needs to remain clear-eyed about the challenges ahead and envision scenarios in which U.S. diplomats are unable to dial down tensions.
North Korea has friends of convenience that bond over shared antipathy. The United States has a deep and wide network of allies that share not merely interests but also values. The United States should therefore anchor its approach in deep multilateralism, with as broad a coalition as possible, on two essential tasks.
First, sanctions enforcement. The purpose of sanctions is not to change the target country’s decision calculus overnight, but rather to serve as one aspect of diplomacy to incrementally change the factors and timetables that affect adversary thinking, deny funds and materials needed for weapons programs, and impose costs as a warning to potential future breakout states. The implementation of sanctions is a global effort requiring a great deal of time and effort to work with regional country firms that are often undereducated on U.N. Security Council resolutions containing prohibitions on certain interactions with North Korean entities. As sanctions fatigue settles in and new U.N. Security Council resolutions appear a dismal prospect, it will be an uphill climb to, first, work with partners to identify emerging patterns of proliferation/procurement and, second, to reenergize implementation through a proactive (not punitive) series of regional diplomatic engagements. Third parties in other countries are often the key points of connection facilitating the illicit transfers. This is why broad coalitions of alert and active partners are needed to enforce prohibitions and stem the flow of deadly weapons between the two pariah states.
Next, the United States should work in concert with its allies, particularly the Republic of Korea, and increasingly as a trilateral with Japan. A recent summit meeting at Camp David between U.S. President Joe Biden, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is a great start. Among other joint agenda items, the allies could enhance information sharing, defensive exercises, and ballistic missile defense. The allied deterrence posture should evolve in conjunction with the developing threat. A more efficient and effective posture can be built around deterrence by denial rather than deterrence by punishment, which will become too costly as North Korea expands its nuclear arsenal and delivery systems. Lastly, over a longer time horizon, this means new capabilities tailored to matching and overcoming North Korea’s ability to coerce and act with impunity. This should include, but not be limited to, improving theater-level and national missile defense and modernizing America’s nuclear forces.
Last, the United States must expand its strategic imagination in intelligence reports and military planning. As explored in this project by the Atlantic Council’s Markus Garlauskas, the likelihood of a two-front conflict is non-zero and worth serious consideration and accommodation. Unfortunately, cognitive and organizational biases prevent the United States from acknowledging these risks and taking the proper precautions, as shown here.
History shows that North Korea cannot be ignored. The more preparation is done today, the easier the answer will be tomorrow.
Jonathan Corrado is director of policy for The Korea Society, a non-profit located in New York City. He produces programming and conducts research on a range of security, diplomacy, and socioeconomic issues impacting the U.S.-Korea Alliance, the Korean Peninsula, and Northeast Asia.
Image: Wikimedia Commons