On Feb. 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin launched an invasion into Ukraine, claiming that he was ridding the country of neo-Nazis and stopping a nonexistent genocide. In the weeks since, the United States and its NATO allies have scrambled to impose sanctions, accept refugees and denounce the conflict in accordance with global outrage. The world’s diplomats, foreign affairs officials and elected leaders have been working around the clock to respond to the war in a frenzy not seen in decades.
However, another country, and a Russian regional neighbor, is acting up. But with its hands tied with Ukraine, the West is ignoring what is increasingly becoming an even more unstable threat.
On Jan. 29, North Korea detonated the most powerful ballistic missile in their possession since 2017 — to almost no reaction from the international press or public. This was Pyongyang’s sixth launch in January alone, a number already equal to the total number of missiles launched last year. At their December Politburo meeting, North Korean officials stated that they are preparing for “long-term confrontation with the U.S.” Since then, they have tested three more weapons that US intelligence believes to be intercontinental ballistic missiles.
The only reaction North Korea received to its launches was routine sanctions on five North Korean officials. Interestingly though, the other groups who received sanctions for funding the Kim administration’s nuclear program were — unsurprisingly — Russian oligarchs.
During the Korean War, the Soviet Union was the first international actor to recognize North Korea as a legitimate government and was a major supporter of the Korean People’s Army. Relations between the two continued after the war. Russia even sent substantial aid to North Korea on multiple occasions, and most recently, in 2015, a state visit between Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-Un was hosted.
However, the Russian public generally has a negative perception of North Korea. As a result, Moscow’s North Korean foreign policy goals are primarily concerned with keeping the DPRK stable enough to avoid a refugee crisis on Russia’s border.
Regardless, if conflict between Moscow and Kyiv expands to include NATO member countries, some may assume that Pyongyang will have a greater role to play in the dispute. While North Korea and Russia are not the strongest allies, some believe that the two countries’ mutual disdain for NATO and the United States might be enough to bring the two together in the event of a pan-Eurasian war. However, many foreign policy experts do not foresee this being an impending scenario.
Recently, however, a spokesperson for the DPRK Ministry of Foreign Affairs went as far as to say that Russia has the full support of Pyongyang and that the United States is the “root cause of the Ukrainian crisis”.
Additionally, Kim Jong-Un’s choice to escalate his country’s nuclear program while the United States is preoccupied with the Russia-Ukraine crisis is no accident. This lapse in attention from Washington allows Pyongyang to operate more under the radar than usual. And as a result, the United States may have to fend off not one, but two, of their most unpredictable adversaries in the coming months.
However, a true Russia-North Korea partnership hinges on Putin’s ability to control Kim, a doubtful outcome considering Kim’s aversion to foreign assistance and aid and globalized economic interdependence — both of which are tools the Kremlin would normally use to reign in North Korea.
Since Kim Jong-Un assumed power in 2011, he has had one goal for his country: to be recognized and respected as a global security superpower. He cut national programs dedicated to nutrition and energy in order to funnel as much government money as possible into the country’s nuclear program and has ignored escalating rounds of sanctions from the West in response to his dictatorship’s human rights violations.
If the United States and its NATO allies continue to devote complete attention to Russia and Ukraine, North Korea could use this opportunity to rapidly advance its nuclear capabilities and take the rest of the world by surprise.
Whether North Korea chooses to ally with Russia or fly solo, this is exactly the chance Kim has been waiting for to gain the power he is desperate seeking. The stage is set and Kim is ready to make his move — all he needs now is continuing distraction.