Strategic Liability: Why North Korea May Be Denying It’s Selling Weapons To Russia

By | September 23, 2022 | No Comments

North Korea’s belated denial that it plans to sell weapons to Russia for use in the latter’s war in Ukraine has observers the world over scratching their heads. Although North Korea took aim at its sworn enemy the United States, accusing it of attempting to “smear” the DPRK with insinuations that it plans to sell arms to Moscow, Belarusian analyst Petr Kuznetsov points out that there is a lot to be said for the fact that Pyongyang would consider cooperation with Russia damaging to its reputation. Drawing upon his own country’s relationship with Russia, Kuznetsov also highlights how, despite the fact that North Korea’s outreach to Russia may be part of an effort to reduce its dependence on China, the recent comments from North Korea’s central media outlet could indicate that ties with Beijing remain the DPRK’s top priority hands down. 

 

Kuznetsov: “If even North Korea considers reports of cooperation with Russia “smearing”, where else is there to go?[1]

North Korea is on its whole own level being a closed, isolated, militant and impoverished dictatorship.

 

One observer on the symbolism and meaning of mobilization and the liberation of members of the Azov Battalion, as well as the official word from Pyongyang. 

Somehow over the past several days, many significant political events regarding the war between Russia and Ukraine have taken place, writes Petr Kuznetsov. — Aside from mobilization and everything surrounding that, two other things have cascaded along with this recent development. 

One of them is the exchange of [Viktor] Medvechuk and 55 other Russian soldiers for more than 200 Ukrainians defending their country, among them members of the Azov Battalion, including commanders. Something that never should have happened, did (as Russian propaganda would have it). Yet something else has caught my eye, namely North Korea’s official announcement that they have neither sold weapons to Russia nor have any plans to do so. 

What’s interesting is that US intelligence made this revelation a while ago, yet Pyongyang remained silent up until now. Then all of a sudden, they not only commented on the report, but did so in an insulting tone toward Moscow. As they would have it, such statements from the Americans “smear our Republic” that is, helping Moscow, in North Korea’s current understanding, means doing something “reputationally damaging”. Clearly, in general. 

The symbolism and significance of mobilization and the liberation of the Azov battalion fighters are obvious and eye-catching. Yet it’s quite evident in North Korea’s case that they would like to gently pull away. 

North Korea is on its whole own level being a closed, isolated, militant and impoverished dictatorship. In that regard, little is known about its policies – the general public is dominated by a simplified idea that it is a certain thing in itself that somehow lives in itself. Yet that’s not actually true. 

One needs to start with the fact that if it weren’t for China, there would be no North Korea. Based on various estimates, anywhere from half a million to one million Chinese soldiers died during the Korean War, and by the time of their entry into the war (the war having started with Stalin’s blessing), the Communists had already practically lost. That is to say, we already see from this that from a geopolitical perspective, the interests of China and Russia on the issue of North Korea have been interwoven from the very beginning.

In fact, it’s always been that way, because in spite of their so-called “fraternal” indebtedness to China, Pyongyang has never definitively been under their thumb, always preferring to maneuver. By and large, in this sense North Korea’s foreign policy is not unlike that of Belarus vis-a-vis Russia over the past two decades, until recently, when the country became totally dependent on Russia. 

North Korea has never been totally dependent on China, although China has always been their chief economic lifeline. However, North Korea has maintained its independence, first and foremost, by maneuvering and gaming the contradictions in China, the USSR (Russia), as well as the US and South Korea’s foreign policies. Yes, there is still a third player sitting at the table.  

As such, without getting too deep into things, it’s possible to say there have been times throughout history when Sino-DPRK relations were rather complicated, even including border skirmishes, which sometimes happened when things were warmer.

This depended mainly on the extent to which tensions between China and either Russia or the US grew, and, subsequently, the extent to which the Chinese were, in such moments, willing to raise the level of economic cooperation and acceptance of North Korea’s nuclear program, given that China has traditionally viewed North Korea as a buffer state (insofar as South Korea is a loyal ally of the United States).

Stemming from this, I believe, using a formula Belarusians can understand based on their own example, we can suppose that right now relations between Beijing and Pyongyang are in a very positive state, because during Trump’s time in office, Sino-US relations were very tense, and Pelosi’s recent visit to Taiwan added fuel to the fire. 

Under such conditions, it’s hard to overstate North Korea’s significance as a buffer state against the highly pro-American South Korea. This also confirms the fact that North Korea refers to possible ties with Russia as “reputationally damaging”. Finding itself in its own perpetual standoff with the West, the Kim Jong Un regime could not allow this if something were amiss in relations with China. In practical terms, this means that Kim Jong Un and Xi Jinping[2] are on the same page geopolitically speaking in much the same manner as Putin and Lukashenko. 

That is, if Pyongyang was silent about the prospect of weapons sales to Russia before the SCO summit, after the summit North Korea spoke unilaterally and in a rather rude manner. This allows us to use such diverse events such as mobilization, the Azov Battalion members’ release, and North Korea’s statement to draw a single picture. A picture we could conditionally call “Leads from the SCO summit.”  

Moscow’s Asian partners, including China, told Putin to end the war. He then announces referendums so as to “lock in the profits” — annex the occupied territories, and, should military operations come to an end, at least not appear before them as losers. Mobilization is necessary, as stated before, to “stabilize the front”, that is to say, defend annexed territories. Moscow’s Asian partners told Putin to end the war, and Moscow has enacted a prisoner swap, on which they insisted, and in which Turkey’s Erdoğan was interested – the exchange of the “Azov” commanders took place in Turkey. The North Korean case is somewhat unique, but also fits within a common logic. Judging by Pyongyang’s silence with regards to American assertions about possible weapons transfers to Moscow, China allowed for such a possibility for some time, or, at least didn’t rule it out. It is also possible that they could make transfers through North Korea so as not to not involve themselves directly and not become subjected to sanctions. Yet because the Kim Jong Un regime denied such a possibility after the SCO summit precisely confirms that Putin was strongly advised during the summit to tie up the active phase of fighting – in this issue there is both the formation of China’s position and the consensus among Asian countries. 

Coming from the mouth of a player such as North Korea, such a descriptor as “sullying”— as far as one can see, is a small hint that neither referenda nor the mobilization of Asian partners were looked upon as being workable scenarios to any degree, and the realization of this fact that it will only lead to greater international isolation. 

Truly, if North Korea considers word of cooperation with Russia to be a “reputational liability”, where else is there to go?

 

Original article by Petr Kuznetsov posted on Telegraph (telegra.ph), reproduced in Belarusian media outlet www.ex-press.by. Translated by Anthony V. Rinna.

 

[1] Source, reproduced from original Telegraph posting from September 22, 2022: Kuznetsov: ‘If even North Korea considers reports of cooperation with Russia “smearing”, where else is there to go? [Кузнецов: «Если уж Северная Корея считает информацию о сотрудничестве с Россией «очерняющей», то куда уже дальше?»” , express.by, Septemer 23, 2022, https://ex-press.by/rubrics/politika/2022/09/23/kuzneczov-esli-uzh-severnaya-koreya-schitaet-informaciyu-o-sotrudnichestve-s-rossiej-ochernyayushhej-to-kuda-uzhe-dalshe

[2] Translator’s note: The original text read “Jong Un and Xi”, which appears to have been an inconsistency in employing the family name when referring to Koreans in English. In order to correct this error, the two leader’s full names have been used in the interest of consistency

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