On Thursday, White House national security spokesman John Kirby delivered a warning to Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un: the United States knows what you’re doing, and it urges you to cease and desist.
The subject of consternation: North Korean weapons supplies to the Russian military, which over the last three months has been trying to defend against a Western-supplied Ukrainian counteroffensive along the 600 mile-long front line. ”Under these potential deals Russia would receive significant quantities and multiple types of munitions from [North Korea], which the Russian military plans to use in Ukraine,” Kirby told reporters during a White House briefing. “These potential deals could also include the provision of raw materials that would assist Russia’s defense industrial base.”
This isn’t the first time the Biden administration has sounded the alarm about potential weapons agreements between Pyongyang and Moscow. In September 2022, Washington declassified intelligence that pointed to Russian purchases of North Korean artillery shells and rockets, all of which occurred at a time when the Russian army’s position on the ground was even worse off than it is today. In November 2022, the U.S. alleged that North Korea was covertly supplying munitions to the Russians, routing them through the Middle East to obscure their origin. This March, the White House released additional information: in exchange for artillery, Russia would provide the North Koreans with desperately needed food aid.
Pyongyang has consistently and emphatically denied Washington’s claims. But let’s face it: there are some very practical reasons why the Russians and North Koreans would be engaging in a trade like this. Washington’s claims are more than plausible and reflect the strengthening of a North Korea-Russia relationship that has been going on for quite some time. And it’s all driven by today’s ever-shifting geopolitics.
Closer Russia-North Korea ties aren’t surprising to those who monitor Asia for a living. The two countries have been helping one another out in more ways than one. Russia, in coordination with China, has effectively turned the U.N. Security Council into a meaningless debating society on the North Korean nuclear issue. The last time the Security Council passed a sanctions resolution on Pyongyang for its nuclear and ballistic missile development, the year was 2017 and Donald Trump was still in the first year of his presidency. Ever since, the Russian and Chinese delegations have shut down action and undermined U.S.-led initiatives to pile more economic pressure on the North. As U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield fumed on August 25, ”since the beginning of 2022, this Council has failed to live up to its commitments because of China and Russia’s obstructionism.” The fact U.S. officials are angry is immaterial to Russia, a country that never really bought into the U.N. sanctions regime and is increasingly unwilling to be helpful to the U.S. in any capacity.
Indeed, Moscow isn’t even pretending to care about the Security Council resolutions it previously agreed to. In July, a Russian delegation led by Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu flew to the North Korean capital to attend the 70th anniversary celebration marking the end of the Korean War, during which nuclear-capable ballistic missiles, attack drones, tanks, and rocket launchers were prominently displayed for the world to see. Two days earlier, Shoigu had toured a North Korean weapons facility with Kim Jong-un, where some of the very same missiles Russia is on record opposing were nonchalantly pointed out to him.
As important as these developments are, it’s even more important to understand why they are occurring.
While Moscow and Pyongyang have maintained relatively positive relations since the early days of the Cold War—Joseph Stalin, after all, appointed Kim Il-sung, the founder of the Kim dynasty, as the secretary general of North Korea’s Communist Party in 1945, and the Soviet Union provided the North Koreans with arms, oil, and financial aid before the onset of the Korean War.
The two have closed ranks over the last 18 months. North Korea, for instance, has been one of the few countries (along with Syria and Belarus) to call Putin’s war of aggression against Ukraine a justifiable, if not necessary, reaction to U.S. containment policies against Moscow. The talking points rehearsed by North Korean state media are practically identical to what you might hear from Russian propagandists. While there is little at stake in Ukraine for Kim Jong-un, he has nonetheless exploited the war and leveraged Russia’s pressing need for munitions and artillery to his advantage. This serves a short-term practical need in the form of mitigating North Korea’s food shortages while accomplishing one of North Korea’s long-term objectives—undermining Washington’s policy agenda on the Korean peninsula and in Asia writ large.
Unfortunately for the U.S., there isn’t much it can do to rectify this situation. Due to decades of adversarial relations with Pyongyang, U.S. leverage over North Korea is extremely limited. If Kim Jong-un were begging for negotiations with the U.S., then perhaps the Biden administration could press the point. But Kim simply isn’t interested in talks and may have given up on the current U.S. administration anyway. So Washington is left with a familiar but worn-out tool in its North Korea policy toolkit: economic sanctions. On August 16, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned three entities involved in supporting arms deals between Moscow and Pyongyang.
But let’s be honest: this is the equivalent of a band-aid on a fire hydrant. As much as we would like to tell ourselves otherwise, the U.S. isn’t all-powerful.
Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a syndicated foreign affairs columnist at the Chicago Tribune.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.
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