A Threat Like No Other: Russia-North Korea Military Cooperation

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The summit meeting between Russian president Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un presents the greatest threat to U.S. national security since the Korean War. This relationship, deep in history and reinvigorated by the war in Ukraine, undermines the security of Europe, Asia, and the U.S. homeland. Amid front-burner issues like the wars in Ukraine and Gaza, the administration relegates this problem to the back burner at its own peril.

What started out as a small arms sale by North Korea to the Wagner Group in November 2022 has recently been acknowledged by Secretary of State Antony Blinken as a “matter of deep concern” over the North’s provision of 5 million rounds of ammunition and scores of ballistic missiles. As the summit suggested, Kim is likely to fuel Russian war stocks indefinitely. Of pressing concern, however, is what Putin is giving in return. It is highly unlikely that Kim would have feted Putin so lavishly only for the promise of food and fuel. That may have been the gift when Kim visited Russia in September 2023, direly needed at the time as his country was just emerging from a three-plus year Covid lockdown. But Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines laid down a significant marker in March 2024 when she said Moscow may be dropping long-held nonproliferation norms in its dealings with North Korea.

Kim wants advanced telemetry, nuclear submarine technology, military satellite wares, and advanced intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) technology. Putin needs Kim’s weapons to make up for a monthly munitions shortfall of 50,000 rounds (even if Russia is producing ammunition at full capacity) in his pursuit of victory in Ukraine. A gaggle of Russian scientists were in North Korea prior to this month’s military satellite launch. Kim has also been expressing satisfaction with his nuclear submarine plans, which is a very bad sign. This aspect of the relationship not only destabilizes security on the peninsula and in Asia; it also heightens the direct threat posed by North Korea to the homeland. ICBMs with advanced countermeasure technology, overhead reconnaissance capabilities, and nuclear submarines would allow Kim to target the entirety of the United States with a nuclear force that Washington would have difficulty taking out in a preemptive first strike.

In fairness, the Biden administration has called out the problem. It has declassified satellite imagery and other intelligence, providing glimpses of these ties. Biden has advanced an unprecedented battery of new defense exercises with Japan and South Korea that enhances deterrence and makes the three allies stronger. Nonetheless, Kim is on pace to conduct more military provocations this election year than ever before (surpassing 2022’s record of 48 provocations).

It is on the diplomatic front where fault can be found. Biden is on autopilot when it comes to North Korea, recycling talking points on denuclearization circa the Obama administration. Most experts think North Korea has at least 50 nuclear bombs now. Pyongyang has spurned over 20 private attempts by the administration to restart talks. It has even thrown letters back in the face of engagement-oriented U.S. diplomats.

The administration should shelve denuclearization and prioritize policies to disrupt the arms trade between Russia and North Korea.

This is not an easy task. First, the routes used to transport North Korean arms to Russia run deep in the latter’s territory, making military interceptions of munitions cargo, whether by boat or rail, dangerously escalatory; Biden does not need a third war on his watch. Second, Russia’s veto in March 2024 to reauthorize a UN watchdog body on North Korean proliferation is aimed at dismantling the entire UN sanctions regime toward Pyongyang. 

Nonetheless, the toolkit is not completely bare. The United States should mobilize Europeans at G7 and NATO conferences this summer to apply economic and diplomatic pressure on Pyongyang. While the United States does not have diplomatic relations with Pyongyang, most European governments do, and North Korea has traditionally seen Europe as its gateway to the West. As a first step, actions like those taken at the G7 summit last week against Russian and North Korean financial assets should be expanded in the name of disrupting the weapons trade. 

President Biden should make lemonade out of the lemon of the new Russia-North Korea tie. South Korea, Japan, and Australia are invitees at the NATO summit in Washington, D.C., in July 2024. The three allies should consider a collective defense declaration stating that a threat to one is a threat to all. Such a statement would build on the existing 60-plus trilateral meetings completed since the Camp David summit in August 2023 and would represent a major step forward in allied defense and deterrence. Australia and the Philippines could also be brought into the fold.

Biden should capitalize on Beijing’s unhappiness with the closer ties between its traditional junior partner and Putin. If Putin is modernizing Kim’s nuclear arsenal, that will only create a greater U.S. military presence in China’s neighborhood and potentially even a nuclear domino effect in the region, starting with South Korea. China is still the economic lifeline for the North and it can join in sanctions against any companies supporting the weapons trade.

Finally, the United States should launch a major human rights and information penetration campaign. It should enlist Europe in this effort given the death and human suffering of Ukrainians caused by lethal North Korean support of Russia. North Korea’s deploying of trash balloons to the South in the past weeks in retaliation for South Korean loudspeakers blasting K-pop music at the border and NGOs dropping bibles into the North shows how sensitive the regime is to its people being exposed to the outside world. The Kim regime is more afraid of BTS than U.S.-South Korean military exercises. U.S. policy desperately needs to try something new and should leverage this fact. 

Putin and Kim may feel that they have a match made in heaven. The former is getting what he needs for the war while complicating Biden’s security policies in Asia. The latter, with Russian sustenance, is able to wait out Biden while advancing and modernizing their nuclear force. Biden should take the offensive. While these recommended half measures will not solve the problem, they are better than the administration recycling standard talking points.

Dr. Victor Cha served as director for Asian affairs on the National Security Council and U.S. deputy head of delegation for the Six Party talks. He is senior vice president for Asia and Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., and distinguished university professor and professor of government at Georgetown University.

Victor Cha
Senior Vice President for Asia and Korea Chair