Global chaos has given Kim Jong Un a stronger hand

At a recent banquet to celebrate the achievements of his country’s navy, a relaxed Kim Jong Un sat with his wife and young daughter as they were serenaded by a choir of North Korean sailors.

The east Asian country’s millennial dictator had every reason to feel content as he sipped wine kept in a little electric cooler at the lavish jamboree, held at a luxury Pyongyang resort in August, overlooked by a giant scale model of a Hwasong-18, the regime’s most advanced long-range intercontinental ballistic missile.

Steering North Korea through a period of extreme isolation to counter Covid-19 while defying tough international sanctions, he has emerged into the warm embrace of Moscow and Beijing amid intensifying geopolitical tensions in the region.

“He survived [Donald] Trump, he survived the sanctions and he survived the pandemic,” says Andrei Lankov, professor of history at Kookmin University in Seoul. “Who in his position would not feel triumphant?”

A month after the festivities, Kim embarked on his first foreign trip since 2019, boarding his armoured train destined for a Russian spaceport to meet Vladimir Putin.

The visit consummated a relationship that has flourished in the wake of the Russian president’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, illustrating how a fragmenting international order has benefited a country under sanctions from nearly a dozen UN security council resolutions since its first nuclear test in 2006.

“It’s nothing new for North Korea to be out in the cold, but for Russia to join it there is a massive stroke of luck for Kim Jong Un,” says Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein, a North Korea expert at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs.

With travel having reopened between North Korea and its northern neighbours as Pyongyang starts to relax Covid-era restrictions on foreign trade, analysts see little prospect of western countries exerting sufficient pressure on the regime to cease, or even slow, its nuclear weapons development.

Kim has also used the pandemic to strengthen his regime’s grip on power, bulking up border controls and passing legislation threatening the death penalty against subjects caught distributing or consuming foreign media.

“The regime is much more secure than when Kim came to power in 2011,” says Peter Ward, a fellow at the University of Vienna’s European Centre for North Korean Studies.

“He’s purged his internal opponents, he’s built a formidable nuclear weapons programme, he has tightened his control over society and Russia and China’s growing enmity with the US is playing right into his hands.”

Some observers argue that with the country’s economy still in disarray Kim is unlikely to enjoy anything more than a brief moment in the sun.

His ambition to create a “completely different North Korea” remains unrealised, says Go Myong-hyun, senior fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.

But Jenny Town, director of the 38 North programme at the Stimson Center think-tank in Washington, argues that Kim’s ambitions have shifted.

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In the past, North Korean leaders have sought to trade what leverage they have for concessions from the international community. Seen this way, Kim would be expected to return to the negotiating table, seeking ways to lift sanctions and alleviate the economic pressure on his regime.

Instead, says Town, Kim appears to have given up on the possibility of reaching an accommodation with the US and “what we are seeing is a fundamental reformulation of his foreign policy”.

“It is often assumed that we are still in the same old cycle of confrontation and engagement as we always had,” says Town. “But if there’s one thing Kim has shown, it’s that he paves his own way.”

Facing a cold front together

Putin arrived 30 minutes early for his meeting with Kim at the Vostochny Cosmodrome, taken as a rare mark of respect from a president with a history of turning up late for meetings with world leaders.

Kim repaid the favour, describing the two countries, via a translator, as partners in the “fight against imperialism”. Russia’s war in Ukraine, he declared, was a “sacred fight to protect its sovereignty and security . . . against the hegemonic forces”.

As talk of a new cold war emerged, “Kim was very quick to embrace the idea”, says Town. “He chose sides early on, and now he is being rewarded.”

Vladimir Putin talks to Kim Jong Un at a meeting in Siberia in September.

The relationship between the two countries is proving fruitful. Last month, the US published images it claimed showed 1,000 containers of “military equipment and munitions” being transported from North Korea to Russia following a deal brokered by Putin’s defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, during a visit to Pyongyang in July.

In exchange, North Korea is seeking “fighter aircraft surface-to-air missiles, armoured vehicles, ballistic missile production equipment”, among other materials and advanced technologies, according to US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby.

South Korea’s unification minister, Kim Yung-ho, warned on Monday that Pyongyang appeared to be receiving technical assistance from Moscow before an anticipated launch of its first military reconnaissance satellite.

At the same time, Kim continues to benefit from the patronage of Beijing, which has been accused by human rights campaigners of colluding in crimes by the North Korean regime against its own people.

Hanna Song, of the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights (NKDB) in Seoul, points to China’s decision last month to forcibly repatriate hundreds of North Korean refugees in the face of international opposition.

“It was a huge win for Kim,” says Song, adding the refugees faced a high likelihood of torture and execution. “The US Congress, the governments of several different countries, big human rights organisations and UN representatives were all demanding for it to be stopped, but Beijing did what Kim wanted instead.”

The decision is rooted in growing tensions between Beijing and Washington. “China always valued North Korea as a buffer zone, even if they do not like its nuclear ambitions or its provocative behaviour,” says Lankov, of Kookmin University. “Now that Beijing understands it is likely to be in conflict with the US for decades to come, it is willing to support Pyongyang and ask for very little in return.”

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Other perks have emerged from the regime’s blossoming friendships.

The number of North Koreans entering Russia has surged amid demand for workers in its sparsely populated far east, for example. As a thank you, the governor of the eastern Russian region of Primorsky Krai sent Kim a gift of five kamikaze drones, according to Russian state news agency Tass.

There has also been a rebound in cross-border trade, including in areas where co-operation is still prohibited by UN sanctions.

Data published last month shows that recorded trade between North Korea and China in September jumped to its highest level in almost four years, with Beijing openly offering Pyongyang banned goods, including industrial equipment, while receiving imports of sanctioned North Korean coal and steel.

North Korea has also started to close down foreign embassies and missions in Africa, Europe and Asia — marking an acceptance, says Silberstein, of the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, that “the idea of expanding trade relations far beyond China and Russia is dead, for the time being at least”.

This shows that “Kim is doubling down on relationships where the overall potential benefits may be less than you might get from improved relations with the US, but at least [they are] tangible, quick and come at very little political cost,” says Town.

It helps that Russia and China’s commitment to support the sanctions regime, which cannot be ended without unanimity among the UN security council’s five permanent members, has waned. The two countries now regularly circulate draft resolutions calling for the alleviation of the measures, while shielding Pyongyang from western censure of its illegal ballistic missile tests.

Shoigu, the Russian defence minister, has also floated the idea of joint naval drills between the three countries in response to trilateral exercises held by the US, Japan and South Korea.

Western officials worry that the easing of sanctions and a resumption of economic activity will accelerate the unrelenting progress of North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme, which continued even during the pandemic.

In September, Kim christened the country’s first nuclear-capable submarine. Two weeks later at the North Korea’s Supreme People’s Assembly he reaffirmed his commitment to “exponentially increase nuclear weapons production to realise all kinds of nuclear strike methods”.

Kim Jong Un at a launch ceremony in September for a nuclear submarine

Pyongyang is now “on pace to deploy nuclear-armed intercontinental range missiles in sufficient numbers that could potentially challenge US homeland ground-based ballistic missile defences”, warned a report from the US Congress last month.

This has exposed the limitations of sanctions, some analysts argue. “If the goal . . . is strictly political, to demonstrate there’s a cost to breaking international law, then they still have a purpose,” says Town. “But if the goal is to dissuade North Korea from [developing weapons of mass destruction] they have abjectly failed.”

‘Guns but no butter’

Growing military muscle and a limited resumption of trade with Russia and China cannot by themselves repair the fundamental problems facing the North Korean state, however.

Go, of the Asan Institute, argues that the country today, and its relationship with the wider world, falls far short of Kim’s true aspirations.

“Kim’s two most important ambitions are still securing recognition as a nuclear state and having the sanctions regime lifted, and he needs the US for both,” says Go.

“Seen that way, 2023 is a low point,” he adds. “His real high point was during his summits with Donald Trump in 2018 and 2019, when he was being taken seriously by a US president — Putin is just a consolation prize.”

The country’s economy also remains in a parlous state, notes Go. In 2021, the regime admitted to a “food crisis” brought on by border closures, sanctions and a miserable harvest. Hundreds of thousands of North Korean children are malnourished, according to a recent UN report.

Soldiers participate in a joint exercise between South Korean and US troops in Paju, north of Seoul

Kim has made attempts to reform North Korea’s agricultural sector, reviving a ministry of food administration and calling on his officials to improve irrigation systems and supply “high-efficiency” farm machines to rural areas.

In his September speech to the Supreme People’s Assembly, he signalled that economic development would soon replace upgrading his nuclear programme as his regime’s main priority.

Meanwhile, the regime has ramped up its propaganda efforts, such as exhorting citizens to display miniature models of the country’s nuclear weapons at home and in the workplace.

More significant, Go argues, are Kim’s efforts to clamp down on foreign influences, such as a new law prohibiting his subjects from adopting South Korean patterns of speech.

“The intensity of regime propaganda and social oppression is directly connected to the level of economic malaise,” says Go. “He wanted to offer ‘guns and butter’, but all he can offer is the guns.”

But others argue that Kim’s decisions are consistent with a longer-term political strategy.

The years of lockdown simply offered him an opportunity to “rid the country of the menace of foreign influence”, says Vienna university’s Ward, noting that Kim’s campaign to tighten regime control over its once porous border with China stretches back at least a decade. “They’ve used the pandemic to really cement a far greater level of social control than they otherwise would have been able to do.”

While the ordinary North Korean goes hungry, the elites upon whose loyalty Kim depends have benefited from a post-pandemic influx of luxury goods. His foreign minister, Choe Son Hui, was photographed clutching a rare ostrich leather Gucci handbag during a recent visit to Russia’s Yuri Gagarin Aviation Plant.

To Kim, wider prosperity is not necessary for regime survival, explains Silberstein. “For North Korea, the most relevant question is not whether the economy is doing great, but whether it is doing well enough to meet the basic needs of a society used to a very low standard of living.”

“Hunger appears to be widespread, but starvation appears to be rare,” he adds. “It’s not the economy Kim dreamt of, but I think it’s one that he’s perfectly content with.”

‘Increased control’

What is clear is that Kim is growing in confidence as he reaps the benefits of Russian and Chinese protection, leaving the US and its allies at a loss as to how to halt his momentum.

A key concern is that Pyongyang’s burgeoning alliance with Moscow could accelerate his nuclear arsenal, perhaps by boosting North Korean supplies of the plutonium and highly enriched uranium needed to produce nuclear bombs.

A naval exercise involving Japan, the US and South Korea

“There are no technical hurdles to [Russia] shipping 100 or even 1,000 kilogrammes of plutonium . . . to North Korea,” Siegfried Hecker, a former director of the US Los Alamos national nuclear research laboratory, told the Stimson Center in a recent interview.

Even if Moscow was unwilling to transfer fissile material directly, it could instead offer Pyongyang composite carbon fibre materials to upgrade centrifuges used to produce highly enriched uranium, warns Go.

“Composite materials can be marked as being for civilian use and slipped into any container transporting wheat or flour — it would be almost impossible to track,” he adds.

North Korea’s nuclear progress — and Washington’s inability to stop it — has spooked neighbouring South Korea.

Last month Cho Hyun-dong, Seoul’s ambassador to the US, told a parliamentary committee he was worried that American faith in the possibility of successful nuclear diplomacy with Pyongyang was fading.

US president Joe Biden attempted to soothe growing South Korean anxieties this year by agreeing to a new bilateral nuclear consultative group to give Seoul more insight and input into US war planning.

The US military is also deploying more nuclear-capable bombers and submarines on temporary missions to South Korea and, last month, a US B-52H nuclear bomber appeared alongside fighter jets from the US, South Korea and Japan during the three countries’ first ever joint aerial drills.

The problem, says Go, is that “the debate in the US is now almost exclusively about how to reassure the South Koreans, which is not the same thing as deterring the North Koreans”.

So far, says Lankov of Kookmin University, Washington’s assurances have failed to address Seoul’s nagging doubt that any US president would risk nuclear retaliation for the sake of an ally.

In the meantime, he warns, the North Korean menace will only continue to grow with Kim, not yet 40 years old, free to bide his time and build his power.

“The best, or perhaps even the only, way to explain the direction of Kim’s nuclear weapons development is that the North Koreans are seriously preparing for a second round of the Korean war and conquest of the South,” continues Lankov. “It is a threat that will start to become more and more apparent over the next 10 or 15 years.”

In response, there have been growing calls from some western analysts and policymakers to step up efforts to filter outside information into North Korea to step up pressure on the regime.

But not only is such an approach incompatible with the present reliance on sanctions designed to isolate the country, Town argues, the draconian punishments Kim has introduced means “it’s a strategy that also puts North Koreans in danger”.

For Lankov, the window for that approach has long passed. Western countries missed their chance when Kim’s ailing father’s grip on power loosened over the course of the 2000s, he says.

“Under Kim Jong Il, there was a de facto tolerance of outside information, including South Korean media, entering the country,” notes Lankov. “But the opportunity was not exploited because at the time western decision makers did not see the North Korean nuclear programme as a realistic threat.”

“Now, Kim Jong Un has his apparatus in place,” he adds. “I assumed it was impossible for the old level of control to be restored — I was wrong.”

Data visualisation by Andy Lin

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