Editor's Note

In this month's NK Update, Hyunchul Shim, M.A. Candidate at Seoul National University, provides an overview of North Korea's alignment with China and Russia, and South Korea's increased military cooperation with the United States.

NK Update for July 2022


In contrast with the ballistic missile tests of the past few months, North Korea did not proceed with any further provocations in July despite increased military cooperation between South Korea and the United States. Meanwhile, as North Korea’s economy struggles to recover from the repercussions of its COVID-19 isolation measures, its level of political and economic cooperation with Russia and China has strengthened. North Korea’s new alignment with Russia and China casts doubts on the two countries’ commitment to enforcing sanctions on North Korea and denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.


On July 14, DPRK Foreign Minister Choe Sou Hui announced via state media that Pyongyang officially recognizes the “independence of the People’s Republic of Donetsk and the People’s Republic of Luhansk,” becoming the third country to do so. This prompted Ukraine to cut diplomatic ties with North Korea, stating that North Korea establishing state-to-state relations with the two separatist states is an attempt to “undermine the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.” In response, the spokesperson for the DPRK Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that, given that Ukraine has aligned with the United States in adopting an “unreasonable and illegal hostile policy” toward North Korea, Ukraine has “no right” to condemn North Korea for its recognition of the separatist states. As such, North Korea’s decision to recognize the two separatist states despite international criticism has strengthened its political alignment with Russia and opened up new opportunities for cooperation between the two countries.


At the same time, North Korea has also been seeking to improve its relations with Beijing by reemphasizing its ideological and military ties with China and casting a spotlight on the countries’ cooperation during the Korean War. On the 61st anniversary of the DPRK-China Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance, North Korea’s Rodong Sinmun—the official newspaper of the Workers Party—called the two countries’ bilateral relations “unbreakable” while highlighting North Korea and China’s common struggle against the United States and other “hostile forces.” Along similar lines, Kim Jong Un visited the Friendship Tower in Pyongyang on July 28th to pay tribute to fallen Chinese soldiers who fought in the Korean War, commemorating North Korea’s ties with China, which have been “sealed in blood.” Furthermore, Ri Yong Gil, North Korea’s defense minister, affirmed North Korea’s willingness to “closely wage strategic and tactical coordinated operations” with China to guarantee “the cause of socialism with arms.”


With North Korea aligning itself clearly with Russia and China, South Korea has been increasing its military cooperation with the United States by resuming joint military exercises that had been suspended or scaled down over the past few years. On July 22, South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense announced that the two countries plan to conduct 11 joint military exercises this summer, with Ulchi Freedom Shield being held in late August. South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup said that South Korea and the United States will “conduct field training exercises above regiment-level,” including “joint aircraft carrier strike drills and amphibious landing training.” Various exercises have already been held, with U.S. F-35 stealth fighters carrying out a 10-day training mission with the South Korean Air Force in early July and Apache attack helicopters holding live-fire drills near the DMZ for the first time since 2019.


Aside from deterrence-oriented military exercises, the allies also participated innaval exercises to practice seizing ships, which some interpreted as a response to North Korea’s sanctions evasion. Such re-“normalization” of joint military exercises was complemented by structural changes within the South Korean military. General Kim Seung-kyum became the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on July 5, calling for ruthless retaliation against North Korean provocations. This was followed by the Defense Ministry’s announcement of South Korea’s intention to implement a new “strategic command” system capable of leading a “precision strike operation plan against imminent North Korean attacks,” highlighting the unified nature of South Korea and the United States’ stance against North Korea.


With both South and North Korea seeking stronger ties with their allies and partners, an atmosphere of confrontation has crystallized in East Asia. Such a political mood is likely to continue with the Yoon administration’s emphasis on deterring North Korean provocations through the ROK-US alliance and inducing North Korea to denuclearize through “sanctions, pressure and dialogue,” as well as Kim Jong Un’s reiteration of North Korea’s readiness for military confrontation with the United States. Hence, North Korea’s newly strengthened partnerships with Russia and China may be interpreted as efforts to evade sanctions and even acquire support for North Korea’s efforts to become a nuclear state. North Korea’s decision to recognize the separatist states, rather than focusing on traditional methods of cooperation, shows how far the country is willing to go to strengthen its ties with Russia. Thus, North Korea’s behavior can be understood as taking a “calculated risk” to encourage Russia “to be less stringent in enforcing international sanctions.”


To that end, South Korea and the United States have repeatedly stressed the importance of sanctions in bringing about North Korea’s denuclearization. But the current political mood in East Asia has brought into question Russia and China’s willingness to fully implement sanctions on North Korea. Furthermore, there have been signs of sanctions evasion in the past, casting doubts on the effectiveness of the measures. A ship that left Busan in May sailed to Nampo and was transferred to North Korea, while at least nine North Korean ships were linked to coal smuggling at a Chinese port in July. These events demonstrate how vital Russia and China’s cooperation is for international sanctions to be maximally effective against North Korea.


Considering the ongoing war in Ukraine and the consequent divide among international powers, it remains unlikely that regional powers will cooperate as a unified body in implementing sanctions and maintaining pressure on North Korea. Therefore, it is imperative that South Korea and the United States seek out other international partners with the will and capability to effectively enforce sanctions on North Korea. Increased cooperation with Japan, a key regional power and an ally of the United States, is vital. South Korea should also use President Yoon’s attendance at the NATO summit in June as a Launchpad for finding international partners and work to expand its diplomatic activities with other entities, such as ASEAN. Although Russia and China’s veto power in the UN Security Council may hinder future sanctions on North Korea, given the standing mandate for a General Assembly debate to be held when a veto is cast, it is critical that South Korea maximize its diplomatic capital so that it can secure international backing on the issue of North Korea’s denuclearization, maintain political pressure, and justify implementing further sanctions.■



Hyun Chul Shim is a M.A. candidate at the Graduate School of International Studies, Seoul National University. He received his Bachelor of International Relations from the Australian National University. Currently working as a research assistant at the Sejong Institute, his research interests include international security, power and alliance politics in the Asia-Pacific region.



Typeset by Junghoo Park, Research Associate
    For inquiries: 02 2277 1683 (ext. 205) | jhpark@eai.or.kr