North Korea: What you need to know with Wilder School expert Benjamin Young
by David Slipher
From leader Kim Jong Un’s recent visit with Vladimir Putin and rumors of a military alliance with Russia to nuclear weapons development and COVID isolationism, North Korea punches up for its size in international politics. The impacts of this secretive nation are felt across the globe.
We spoke with expert Ben Young, assistant professor of homeland security and emergency management at the VCU Wilder School, to explore what we need to know about North Korea.
Kim Jong Un met with Vladimir Putin last month. What are the takeaways from this meeting and what outcomes do you see as likely?
The most interesting part of this meeting was that Putin actually waited for Kim Jong Un's arrival. Putin rarely does this for foreign leaders. He infamously makes other leaders wait long periods of time for his arrival. I think this tells us something about how important North Korea has become to Russian militarism and its imperialist war strategy in Ukraine. This likely signals closer Russia-North Korea relations. Pyongyang has historically played off both Moscow and Beijing for maximum personal gain. I would not be surprised if Kim Jong Un and Chinese leader Xi Jinping have a summit in the near future. The Chinese leadership may be feeling left out and do not want their "comrades" in Pyongyang drifting too far off into the Russian political orbit.
"Russia is a member of the UN Security Council and has previously signed off on resolutions and sanctions targeting North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. In other words, this is a major reversal of previous Russian policy. I am also interested to see how North Korea responds to the developing events in the Middle East. Will we see North Korean weapons covertly delivered to Iran or Syria? Will North Korea openly support Hamas or Hezbollah? All of this remains to be seen."
– Benjamin Young
Recent photos indicate North Korea may be sending weapons to Russia for the war in Ukraine. What do you make of this and why is it significant? Does NK have the capacity to sway the war in Russia's favor?
North Korean weapons deliveries to Russia are important for mainly two reasons. First, it bolsters Russia's declining artillery supplies. North Korea's Soviet-era artillery are largely compatible with Russian systems so that is particularly helpful for Putin's forces. Secondly, these arms deals almost certainly put money back into Kim Jong Un's coffers. After three years of brutal COVID lockdowns, the North Korean economy suffered greatly, and it appears that this deal helps the regime financially.
It's been reported North Korea is now able to strike U.S. territory with a nuclear-armed missile, and it has also adapted to survive under sanctions for its nuclear program. What tools does the US have to fight this threat? How does this development change US-NK relations? How does US interaction with NK reflect on diplomatic relationships with countries like China and Russia?
The Kim family regime is deeply resilient and is not going to collapse anytime soon. I think we need to finally acknowledge that North Korea is not going anywhere soon, and it's a rational actor. This is a relatively stable regime that is seen as legitimate and powerful by a majority of its citizens. International sanctions against the North Koreans are largely ineffectual if Russia and, most importantly, China choose not to enforce them. Frankly, the U.S. does not have a lot of policy options available for countering the North Korean nuclear threat. But I also don't think the North Koreans are suicidal or irrational. They understand that if they use nukes, that means the end of the regime, as we would almost certainly fire back.
What are the most significant impacts from North Korea felt by Western nations? How do these current events and developments affect the U.S. and its policymaking? How is North Korea a key player in shaping international politics?
Compared to Russian militarism or Chinese IP theft, North Korean effects on U.S. society are currently minimal. However, North Korean hackers are very adept and increasingly help fund their nation’s nuclear development program. They target U.S. financial institutions, private industry, military sectors, and even academics. North Korean hackers also target blockchain networks and steal tons of cryptocurrency. We are still unsure how North Korean agents turn cryptocurrency into fiat currency but my supposition is that their diplomats in Southeast Asia play a role. For a deeply impoverished nation, North Korea certainly punches above its weight in international affairs. They have nuclear weapons and a huge army and devote something around 20-30% of their GDP to their military. If a war ever broke out on the Korean peninsula, the level of bloodshed and catastrophe would rival World War II and World War I.
South Korea says China has forcibly repatriated a "large number" of North Korean defectors. What does this signal about China/NK relations?
China has always repatriated defectors back to North Korea. They regard them as illegal economic migrants and deport them according to Chinese law. Obviously, I think this is abhorrent as these North Koreans almost certainly face harsh punishment back home. The CCP are not protectors of human rights themselves so this does not bother them. Most interestingly, the North Koreans used the COVID lockdowns to build a border wall with China. The number of North Korean defectors have dramatically declined in recent years.
North Korea implemented some draconian isolation mandates during the pandemic. Have these restrictions eased and what are the lingering effects?
Yes, it appears that these restrictions have eased. North Koreans working abroad have finally been allowed to return home. They still face a quarantine period when they return to North Korea. Inside North Korea, citizens no longer wear masks and it appears the harsh COVID-related travel restrictions have been mostly lifted.
Do you see North Korean involvement in the Middle East related to the war in Gaza? Or is this likely to develop as Iran and China begin to indicate their support for Palestine?
Historically, North Korea has always supported the Palestinian cause. They regard the Israeli state as a U.S. imperialist lackey and a colonizing force in the Middle East. They even trained some Palestinian militants in guerilla warfare during the 1970s. In the more recent past, North Korea supplied weapons to Hamas via Iran and may have even helped to build tunnels for Hamas. North Korean engineers are notorious for their tunnel building skills. In recent Israeli photos of captured Hamas weapons, there appear to be North Korean-supplied F-7 rocket-propelled grenades, which indicates a continuing supply of North Korean weaponry. Iran is the likely intermediary between Pyongyang and Hamas. Also, old North Korean weapons are commonly found in the Middle East. The Egyptians, Syrians, and Iranians have purchased large amounts of North Korean weapons in the past so these could be cheap leftovers in the regional arms market.
What are the implications of this support? Will they have a destabilizing effect in the region?
The North Korean state-run media denied allegations that they supplied weapons to Hamas. They do not directly sell to Hamas so I don’t think they’re necessarily lying. The problem is that North Korea has historically sold weapons to nefarious state actors around the Middle East and it was only a matter of time until their weapons trickled down into the hands of Islamist terrorists, such as Hamas.
What other news or events are developing in North Korea that we should know about?
There is a chance that Vladimir Putin will soon visit Pyongyang to personally meet with Kim Jong Un. That would be a major indication that this Russian-North Korean relationship is essentially a quasi-alliance and it makes international sanctions on North Korea more ineffectual than they already are.
Russia is a member of the UN Security Council and has previously signed off on resolutions and sanctions targeting North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. In other words, this is a major reversal of previous Russian policy. I am also interested to see how North Korea responds to the developing events in the Middle East. Will we see North Korean weapons covertly delivered to Iran or Syria? Will North Korea openly support Hamas or Hezbollah? All of this remains to be seen.