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Pyongyang’s pivot back to military tensions and Cold War alliances

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Oleg Kozhemyako, governor of the Russian far eastern region of Primorsky and Ji Kyong Su, North Korea's vice minister of External Economic Relations walk during a march on the day the two countries met for talks on economic cooperation, in Pyongyang, in this picture released by the Korean Central News Agency on 13 December 2023 (Photo: Reuters/Korean Central News Agency).

In Brief

In 2023, North Korea put aside diplomacy with South Korea and the United States, increasing its military arsenal, conducting missile tests, and reaffirming alliances with Russia and China from the Cold War era — all while the world focused on conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza. As Russia and China’s international presence intensified, the North Korean government strengthened its cooperation with them by increasing trade levels and allegedly supplying military resources to Russia for use in Ukraine. North Korea also rejected international contempt for its missile activities ahead of anticipated instability in the Korean Peninsular.


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More missile tests, rapidly advancing relations with Russia and China and zero progress on diplomacy with the United States and South Korea — this was the direction North Korea took in 2023. While the rest of the world was distracted by conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza, Pyongyang continued biding its time, expanding its military arsenal and solidifying its Cold War-era alliances.

The year started with Kim Jong-un calling for a massive increase in the production of tactical nuclear weapons and labelling South Korea as its ‘undoubted enemy’, signalling little interest in returning to the times of inter-Korean cooperation under former president Moon Jae-in. Instead, North Korea unveiled four new missiles at a military parade on 8 February and just ten days later conducted its first missile test of the year — a long-range missile that fell in Japan’s exclusive economic zone.

Pyongyang’s irritation at Seoul grew even more in April when the South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol flew to Washington to meet with US President Joe Biden. In response to the US–South Korea joint statement released after the summit, Kim Yo-jong said it would ‘only result in making peace and security of Northeast Asia and the world be exposed to more serious danger, and it is an act that can thus never be welcome’.

Sensing that the Yoon government was opting for an all-in strategy with the United States and Japan, the Kim government in the North also began shifting its attention to old-time allies, Russia and China.

Kim Jong-un expressed support for Russia’s war in Ukraine, saying Moscow ‘will prevail’ in its fight against what he described as ‘imperialists’. In April, Chinese leader Xi Jinping also expressed willingness to elevate bilateral ties with North Korea to a higher level by ‘strengthening the strategic communication and jointly guiding’ the development of the Beijing–Pyongyang relations. Russia and China publicly displayed their support for North Korea in June when both ignored a US call to condemn Pyongyang’s satellite launch and instead blamed Washington for raising tensions.

The most important partnership for North Korea this year has been with Russia. After Kim Jong-un hosted a Russian delegation in Pyongyang in July, the level of bilateral cooperation significantly deepened in September when he made a personal visit to Russia to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The two leaders agreed to expand cooperation in military and other fields, with the Russian leader expressing willingness to assist North Korea with its space program. In return, North Korea allegedly agreed to supply Russia with artillery for its war in Ukraine.

In October, South Korea, the United States and Japan confirmed and condemned several deliveries of North Korean weapons to Russia for use in Ukraine. While the United States accuses North Korea of supplying over 1000 containers of military equipment and munitions to Russia, Pyongyang denies the claims. North Korean and Russian officials held talks again in November in Pyongyang to discuss further expanding cooperation in the fields of economy, science and technology.

Trade with Russia has increased significantly since Kim’s visit. Chinese traders have also reportedly begun re-entering North Korea for the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, though many remain wary of reinvesting in the country or expanding economic cooperation. Still, China will likely continue providing aid to North Korea.

Cooperation with Russia may already be paying off as Pyongyang was able to successfully launch a satellite for the first time on 23 November 2023. South Korea’s intelligence service accused Russia of providing the necessary support to make the launch happen, with the Yoon government announcing the partial suspension of the 2018 inter-Korean Comprehensive Military Agreement soon after the launch. The latter marks a significant move in a risky direction.

Under the deal, North and South Korea agreed to ‘cease all hostile acts’ along the border by imposing no-fly zones and maritime peace zones, removing guard posts, and halting propaganda activities, among others. But now, the North has vowed to ‘withdraw the military steps taken to prevent military tension and conflict’ while announcing plans to launch ‘several reconnaissance satellites in a short span of time’.

Due to these recent developments, there is now a heightened risk of inadvertent border clashes and North Korea is more likely to engage in more provocative weapons tests, potentially including a nuclear test.

Amid the ongoing diplomatic stalemate, an opportunity presents itself with the upcoming 2024 US presidential elections. While a Biden re-election could lead to renewed nuclear testing, a Trump victory may result in revisiting diplomacy. The most important thing for Pyongyang is that the new US president adopts a marked change in North Korea policy — one that is open to concessions, arms control and setting the denuclearisation issue aside.

With the sanctions regime effectively dead, North Korea is forming increasingly close partnerships with Russia and China and its military capabilities are rapidly improving. The suspension of the 2018 Comprehensive Military Agreement shows that the peninsula’s security situation is at risk of further deteriorating in 2024.

Gabriela Bernal is a PhD candidate at the University of North Korean Studies, Seoul.

This article is part of an EAF special feature series on 2023 in review and the year ahead.

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