Analysis: What North Korea learned from Ukraine: Now is the perfect time for a nuclear push

That one of the few countries to have voluntarily given up a nuclear arsenal is now under attack by the same country to which it gave its warheads will not be lost on Pyongyang.

In fact, analysts say, Moscow’s actions have offered the reclusive Asian nation a “perfect storm” of conditions in which to accelerate its agenda.

Not only will North Korea use the fate of Ukraine to bolster its narrative that it needs nuclear weapons to guarantee its survival, but leader Kim Jong Un may find that, with all eyes on the war in Europe, he can get away with it more than ever.

Divided over Ukraine, the international community will likely have little appetite for sanctions against the hermit kingdom; indeed, even unified condemnation of a recent North Korean ICBM test remains elusive. Moreover, boycotting Russian oil and gas could even open the door to cheap energy deals between Pyongyang and Moscow, ideological allies whose friendship dates back to the Korean War of the 1950s.

In the worst-case scenario, experts even wonder if this is the beginning of a series of once unthinkable events that could end in a return to inter-Korean conflict, perhaps even with the invasion of the South by the North – although most consider this highly unlikely.

As Professor Andrei Lankov of Kookmin University puts it, the lesson North Korea has learned from Russia’s war in Ukraine is simple:

“Never, ever surrender your nukes.

A nuclear lesson, from Ukraine to Saddam and Gaddafi

Moscow’s invasion of its neighbor reinforced a message that had been on Pyongyang’s mind for decades, Lankov said.

When Ukraine was part of the USSR, it housed thousands of nuclear warheads. He voluntarily handed them over to Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, as part of a 1994 deal with the US, UK and Russia that would guarantee Ukraine’s security. , an agreement known as the Budapest Memorandum.

Ukraine now finds itself under brutal attack from the same country that signed the agreement to protect its sovereignty – a country that now repeatedly refers to its nuclear arsenal to warn the West of intervention.

Would Moscow have invaded if Ukraine had kept its warheads?

Most experts – and most likely Pyongyang too – think not.

“Now (the North Koreans) have yet another confirmation (of this lesson) after Iraq, after Libya,” Lankov said.

Pyongyang regularly uses the experiences of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, the former rulers of Iraq and Libya, to justify its nuclear program, both to its own people and to the world. The two strongman leaders lost their grip on power – and ultimately their own lives – after their own nuclear ambitions came to a halt.

The Russian invasion will reinforce this narrative, but in doing so, it could also have a “very negative impact” on the mind of North Korea’s strongman, according to Lee Sang-hyun, president and senior researcher at the Sejong Institute.

He says Kim will likely respond in only one way: by becoming “even more obsessed with his nuclear weapons and missile capabilities.”

Missiles displayed during a military parade in Kim Il-sung Square in Pyongyang in April.

Pyongyang’s white card

Even before the invasion, North Korea had shown signs of intensifying its nuclear ambitions.

On Saturday, it staged its 14th missile launch of the year – up from just four tests in 2020 and eight in 2021. One of the missiles tested this year is believed to be an ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) thought to be capable of striking the continental United States. It was the first ICBM test since 2017 and was widely seen as a harbinger of testing to come.
Kim made clear his intention to push ahead with his nuclear program during a military parade on April 25.

And commercial satellite images suggest Pyongyang is trying to restore access to its underground Punggye-ri test site, according to South Korean officials and think tanks.

US officials told CNN that North Korea may be ready to resume nuclear testing later this month.
The United States estimates that North Korea could be ready to carry out an underground nuclear test this month

Against this backdrop, the Russian invasion – and subsequent international sanctions – have created a “perfect storm” of conditions in which Pyongyang can operate, analysts say.

“There are some interesting, perhaps unintended, consequences for the Western response against Russia in particular, that a Russia that has been completely isolated from the global economy and under enormous sanctions pressure. I think that it has very little incentive to apply sanctions against North Korea,” said Ankit Panda, senior researcher in the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

A clear division between the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council – Russia and China on one side, the United Kingdom, the United States and France on the other – means that any unified decision to punish the North Korea is impossible.

“It’s quite clear that China and Russia will block additional sanctions and frankly, it’s not quite clear what else you can possibly sanction,” Lankov said.

Even a seventh nuclear test may not elicit the usual negative response from Beijing: “China won’t be happy enough with the nuclear tests, but they will swallow it,” Lankov said.

A South Korean report on a North Korean missile launch in 2019.

Cash in with an old friend

On the contrary, North Korea might even benefit financially from other countries boycotting Russian oil and gas. The cash-strapped country would be more than happy to take some of the slack, potentially at a discount, and deal with a Russia no longer constrained by US sanctions against the North.

“I think Russia will provide more economic and energy support to North Korea,” said Ramon Pacheco Pardo, KF-VUB Korea professor at the Institute for European Studies at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel.

“Oil and gas, sure, but it could also include food…fertilizer, it could be all kinds of economic aid that North Korea wants.”

That Pyongyang is siding with Moscow in a new world order is no surprise.

Relations between the two countries were forged by the Korean War of 1950-1953 and they shared a communist ideology for decades.

The former Soviet Union was a major benefactor to North Korea, supporting the Kim regime financially. While that task has now been passed to China, Russia’s return to strongman power under President Vladimir Putin has given new luster to the relationship.

“(Pyongyang) was kind of disgusted with the democratic and liberal or semi-democratic, semi-liberal Russia that existed before and they basically hailed Vladimir Putin as a leader who was leading the country in the right direction,” Lankov said.

Kim’s fleeting dance with the United States – holding three meetings with former President Donald Trump that ultimately yielded little result – only reminded him that his more natural and lucrative allegiances remain with China and Russia. .

Pyongyang, for its part, made it clear where the responsibility for the war in Ukraine lay. “The root cause of the Ukrainian crisis lies totally in the hegemonic policy of the United States and the West which engages in arbitrariness and arbitrariness towards other countries,” its foreign ministry said.

Workers pour concrete at a nuclear reactor construction site in Kumho, North Korea, in 2002.

Would North Korea invade the South?

Since Russia’s invasion, North Korea’s rhetoric toward South Korea has changed.

Last month, Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, warned that if South Korea were to confront the North militarily, its military “would face a miserable fate close to utter destruction and ruin”.

Pyongyang’s threatening language is nothing new – a US official once described being publicly insulted by North Korea as a “badge of honour”.

What’s new is that since the invasion, experts like Lankov have wondered if North Korea would consider an invasion from the South again, more than seven decades after it invaded in 1950. sparked the Korean War.

North Korea fires projectile into Sea of ​​Japan

This question has been dismissed out of hand for years. Most experts still consider the changes negligible, but the fact that they are even discussed is remarkable.

“North Koreans are probably dreaming again of something they used to take seriously but have almost forgotten over the past few decades. That’s conquering the South,” Lankov said.

For now, the idea seems fanciful. But the future is another matter.

“Maybe, just maybe, the American President of the Year 2045 or 2055 won’t risk San Francisco to save Seoul,” Lankov said. “(By then) the North Koreans could use ICBMs, maybe nuclear submarines to (terrify) the Americans, to blackmail the Americans out of the conflict.”

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