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KIMS Periscope

KIMS Periscope No. 351

Russia in the Asia-Pacific region and the Korean Peninsula: traditional low profile, “forgotten backyard” or “new challenge”?

Russian State University Professor
Yury Sigov

The military conflict between Russia and Ukraine, which has been going on for more than two years (or as it is called in Moscow, “the conflict with the collective West”) has dramatically changed the balance of forces in the world, including in the Asia-Pacific region. The strengthening of old and new alliances, the aggravation of the general situation in the Pacific Ocean both around Taiwan and in the confrontation between Russia and China on the one hand, and the United States and its allies on the other, have led to the fact that the Asia-Pacific region may soon become new ” hot spot” of geopolitical relations. A special place in this changed military-political balance of power is played by the sharp strengthening of relations between Russia and North Korea.

North Korea is currently called by the Russian President “a partner and friend with whom we should cooperate, not quarrel”. I want to remind you that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, or rather in the last years of its existence, Moscow tried to become friends with South Korea. Gorbachev, who was then the President of the USSR, was courted competently and subtly by South Korean side with memorable oriental gifts, while his wife was made happy with various pearl jewelry. That time the diplomatic relations between Moscow and Seoul have been established, leading South Korean business companies came to the USSR, and then to Russia, and the Russian authorities preferred not to remember their former ideological partner, the DPRK at all.

Meanwhile, Moscow periodically betrayed its “old friend in Pyongyang” by joining various international sanctions (or rather, sanctions imposed by the United States) against North Korea. Trade with South Korea grew by leaps and bounds (before the start of Covid, it exceeded the entire trade of Russia with all countries of Latin America and the Caribbean combined), the visa regime between the countries was canceled, and, it would seem, the Russian Federation has a more reliable friend and trading partner in the Far East than anybody else. However, when Moscow started a military conflict with Ukraine, South Korea joined Western countries with strict sanctions against Russia commercial interests. For this, Seoul was included in the list of “enemies and unfriendly states” – and everything went awry in the Korean strategy of the Russian authorities.

Suddenly, Moscow remembered a faithful and reliable friend whom they deceived and neglected for so many times – North Korea. Last year, the North Korean leader came to Russia, and this year a Russian president is planned to pay a return visit to Pyongyang – by the way for the first time since July, 2000. Russia has just generously presented the leader of the DPRK, Kim Jong-un, with a Russian-made Aurus VIP-type car. As stated in the official communiqué on this occasion, this was a gift personally from the President of Russia. Moreover, during last year’s visit to the Far East, Comrade Kim Jong-un traveled in his own armored Maybach. But then he really liked the Aurus, and now the “true friend of Russia” received it as a gift (the average cost of such a car is about 150 thousand dollars without special VIP-style bells and whistles).

Let me remind you that the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the DPRK, Choi Song Hui, recently visited Moscow to discuss the possibility of expanding the military-strategic partnership between Moscow and Pyongyang. It is also symbolic that last summer the Russian Minister of Defense attended a military parade with Kim Jong-un and Deputy Chairman of the PRC Parliament Li Hongzhong. And when the Korean leader was in the Russian Far East, he was taken to the strategically-secret “Vostochny” cosmodrome, the Russian military officials showed him a number of military factories, military airfields and submarines of the Russian Pacific Fleet, which is still inaccessible to any foreigner.

At the same time, once “the great friends of Russia in the Far East” – South Korea and Japan openly support Kyiv in the conflict with Moscow, providing the Ukranian side with financial assistance and certain military equipment. In response, North Korea has already offered Russia military assistance, including sending its combat units to the front (they were discussions back in fall of 2022 about 30-40 thousand military personnel from DPRK but the Russian political authorities were scared to provoke the international uproar and put this proposal on hold).

Separately, it is worth mentioning the presence of nuclear weapons in the DPRK, and the development of its naval component, which is important not only for Pyongyang, but also for the Russian Pacific Fleet in maintaining the balance of power in the region in the face of the navies of the United States and South Korea (to a lesser extent – Japan).

Over the past decade, the DPRK has made significant progress in mastering nuclear missile technologies. Within a relatively short period of time, nuclear charges of various powers were demonstrated and tested, as well as new delivery systems for nuclear weapons – tactical systems, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, liquid-fueled intercontinental ballistic missiles, and finally, solid-fueled missiles.

The country is mass producing the most effective and successfully tested missiles of various ranges, including intercontinental ones. At the moment, the DPRK, according to various estimates, has 50–100 nuclear charges of varying power and is capable of producing 6–7 charges every year.

For the time being, DPRK seems not capable of creating not only a nuclear triad, but also a dyad (with its naval component). While the main enemy of DPRK is the United States, factors such as the geographic location and relations with Russia and China, which together have the largest nuclear potential, already serve as a reliable means of deterrence for Pyongyang.

DPRK limits itself to a dyad (land + sea components) or may prefer an alternative structure for the distribution of its nuclear forces. The 2021 report of the 8th Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) made no mention of the air component of the proposed nuclear triad. Along with measures to improve the ground-based component of the nuclear system, the task was set by Pyongyang to develop a nuclear submarine and underwater-launched nuclear strategic weapons.

With the ground component, DPRK has both the Hwasong-12, -14, -15 and -17 liquid-fuel ICBMs, as well as the solid-fuel Hwasong-18, which has undergone a series of tests since April 2023.

Despite the task set by the country’s leadership to create a nuclear submarine, there is no information yet on the progress of construction of the strategic submarine. In March 2023, North Korea tested the Haeil-1 underwater unmanned attack vehicle, which covered a distance of 600 kilometers and remained underwater for 41 hours before launching its warhead. The state information agency of DPRK, KCNA called the drone an “underwater nuclear strategic weapon” that is capable of causing “a radioactive tsunami through an underwater explosion to destroy enemy naval strike groups and large operating ports”.

A month later, Haeil-2 was tested, which covered a distance of 1000 kilometers underwater in 71 hours. In January 2024, KCNA reported testing of the Heil-5-23 unmanned underwater strike system “with big success”.

On September 6, 2023, the launching ceremony of the first “tactical nuclear submarine” No. 841 “Hero Kim Gun Ok” took place in DPRK. This submarine is not equipped with a nuclear power plant, but can carry nuclear weapons and has ten missiles – the Pukkykson series and Hwasal series cruise missiles.

In principle, underwater drones of the Heil series can perform some of the functions of submarines and serve as a naval component of the nuclear system of DPRK. At the same time, it cannot be completely denied that the DPRK has ambitions to create nuclear submarines and attack submarines (modification of the Romeo class submarine), but it differs from the submarine demonstrated in DPRK in July 2019, which is considered as a strategic submarine project.

The DPRK continues to work on the creation of nuclear submarines or submarines equipped with long-range nuclear weapons. However, the fact that work is progressing rather slowly may indicate not only technological and resource complexity, but also that the DPRK does not consider strategic submarines as the main component of a dyad, but considers it only an additional way to ensure the survival of nuclear weapons in a nuclear conflict.

It is also important to mention that the air component of the nuclear triad in its classic version may be considered inappropriate by the DPRK leadership since even in the United States itself there have long been calls to abandon strategic bombers, which require enormous costs, and are not as effective as intercontinental missiles: they are slow and vulnerable to air defense systems and attacks on their bases, and therefore provide only a minimal capability for retaliatory strike.

Meanwhile DPRK is trying to get the Russian technological assistance with creation of heavy attack unmanned aerial vehicles. Thus, in July 2023, during the visit of a delegation from the Russian Ministry of Defense to Pyongyang, the DPRK military officials demonstrated two heavy unmanned aerial vehicles – Satbyol-4 and Satbyol-9, which are similar to the American models RQ-4 GlobalHawk and MQ-9 Reaper.

Given the DPRK’s efforts to develop its space program, its possession of nuclear warheads of varying power, and the need to deter both nuclear and conventional attacks, an EMP for the DPRK may turn out to be a very attractive and technically feasible option. That is the main reason why the North Korean leader was so eager to visit “Vostochny” during his last year visit to Russia.

Considering the protracted conflict with Ukraine, and the likelihood of a military clash with military contingents of NATO countries on Ukrainian territory, for Russia today close interaction with the DPRK and China, including in the maritime dimension, is critically important. This will make it possible, if necessary, to transfer military units from the Far East and the Pacific Fleet (especially marines) to the center of Europe, and at the same time, with the help of the balance of military forces of the DPRK and the PRC, to restrain possible military pressure from the United States, as well as its main allies in the region – South Korea and Japan.

Let’s take into account that the DPRK army is approximately 1.2 million people. And if we add in the military potential of the Russian Federation and China (more than 2 million army), then their joint military actions (if necessary) could completely change the strategic situation in entire Asia-Pacific region.

It is also fundamentally important that the Russian president sees strengthening Russia’s presence in the Far East as a political, military, as well as economic necessity, given that relations with key countries in Europe have been damaged for years to come. Therefore, the current strategy of “increased activity” in the Asia-Pacific region for Moscow is not just a tribute to verbal fashion, but a much more serious attitude.

Bowers, I. (Ed.). (2024). Coalition Navies during the Korean War: Understanding Combined Naval Operations (1st ed.). Routledge.

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