What Has North Korea Learned from Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine?
Daniel A. Pinkston, Ph.D.
Troy University, Korea
As Russia’s so-called “special military operation” in Ukraine continues into its second year, most observers have been surprised by some aspects of the conflict. The consensus is that the Russian military shockingly has underperformed against Ukraine, and the Ukrainian resistance has exceeded expectations. Furthermore, students of international relations and warfare are analyzing the implications for geopolitics as well as the advances in weapon systems. While many analysts have considered the possible implications for conflict in the Taiwan Strait, it is important to understand the lessons Pyongyang is learning from Ukraine given North Korea’s growing nuclear capabilities.
Pyongyang is an ardent student of conflict and international affairs, so North Korea is observing Ukraine with great interest. To accomplish this objective, Pyongyang has several institutions and channels to support its monitoring of the situation abroad. These institutions are embedded in the ruling Korean Workers Party (KWP), the state, and the Korean People’s Army (KPA) to form a network for processing information and distributing the “guidance decisions” of the party leadership (Kim Jong-un). The system is personalistic with an extreme concentration of power under the party’s "monolithic leadership” system and the “monolithic ideological” system, which are prone to interject considerable cognitive biases for North Korean analysts and policy advisers.
In the context of the Ukraine conflict, the North Korean leadership is particularly interested in the war’s impact across four dimensions:
- geopolitical trends;
- possible consequences for Pyongyang’s foreign policy;
- possible effects on inter-Korean policy; and
- developments in military technology.
As the leadership seeks clarity in these issue areas, the collection, processing, and analysis of information subsequently is linked to senior decision-makers for the distribution of “party guidance,” thus forming a continuous loop of information flows and directives to support the Kim family regime.
The senior leadership: what is it and how does the central node of the system learn?
How do the channels work? In North Korea, all activities are conducted under the guidance of the party, which is clearly stated in both the KWP Bylaws and the DPRK constitution. Therefore, assessments and understanding of the party’s organization, motivations, and objectives are critical to any analysis of North Korea. The ultimate North Korean decisionmaker and consumer of information across all issue areas is KWP General-Secretary Kim Jong-un. Regarding issues of grand strategy, the Politburo Presidium constitutes Kim’s closest advisers. In addition to Kim, the Politburo Presidium consists of four members: Kim Tŏk-hun, Cho Yong-wŏn, Ch’oi Ryong-hae, and Ri Byŏng-ch’ŏl, whose portfolios cover the main issues of concern for the Kim regime. Furthermore, the Politburo Presidium nominally has the authority to lead and to appoint a successor if Kim Jong-un were unable to serve as Supreme Leader.
Kim Tŏk-hun (62) is concurrently serving as premier of the cabinet and as vice chairman of the State Affairs Commission. He was recently named chairman of the State Physical Culture and Guidance Commission, but he is considered an economic technocrat who managed electrical and heavy machinery factories in Chagang Province, where many military production facilities are located. He also served as chairman of the Chagang Province People’s Committee before being promoted to the national-level leadership.
Cho Yong-wŏn (66) rose through the ranks of the Organization and Guidance Department (OGD) and currently serves as the director. Cho also sits on the Central Military Commission (CMC) and the State Affairs Commission (SAC). Cho knows all the background of senior party members, and controls monitoring and investigations of “organizational life (조직생활),” which is the recorded history of every party member’s activities, particularly those that demonstrate the degree of loyalty (or disloyalty) to the Kim regime.
Ch’oi Ryong-hae (73) is a former princeling and arguably about the closest one can get to being “North Korean royalty” but not a Kim family member. Ch’oi’s father was a guerrilla comrade of Kim Il-sung who later became defense minister, so the Kim-Ch’oi family ties go back generations. Ch’oi has served in a number of important positions given his closeness to the Kim family. He has held the rank of vice marshal and has served as the director of the General Political Bureau (GBP), which is the party’s political officer system that provides the oversight and control of the KPA. Ch’oi is not a professional military officer, but he concurrently serves as first vice chairman of the SAC. Ch’oi has a diverse background with prior service in the OGD, the CMC, and the Socialist Patriotic Youth League. In 2014, Ch’oi paid a seven-day visit to Russia as a special envoy seeking to improve bilateral ties. Although over eight years have passed since his trip, Ch’oi almost certainly is a centerpiece of Pyongyang’s current efforts to exploit opportunities presented by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Ri Byŏng-ch’ŏl (75) holds the rank of marshal and is a former commander of the KPA Air and Anti-Air Force. He’s also a vice chairman of the CMC and has served on the SAC. Ri is rumored to be related to Ri Sŏl-ju, Kim Jong-un’s wife, and has played a prominent role in North Korea’s rapid weapons and missile development in the Kim Jong-un era. There are eight additional members of the Politburo and 17 alternate members (as of spring 2023). Politburo staff including analysts and advisers undoubtedly act as gatekeepers for the information that passes to and from the senior leadership.
According to the KWP Bylaws, the party must continuously strengthen the ideological power and technical military capacity of the state. The supreme deliberative and decision-making authority on military affairs is the CMC with the KWP party general-secretary serving as the ex officio CMC chairman. The two vice chairmen are Ri Byŏng-ch’ŏl and Ri Yŏng-gil (68), a vice marshal and professional military officer who has served in several high-level KPA positions. Most of the other nine CMC members have extensive military backgrounds so they would be qualified and interested in the details of new weapons technologies and how they are integrated into the fighting forces of Russia and Ukraine. The CMC is the ultimate deliberative and decision-making body on military affairs, so the CMC will review developments in unmanned systems, artificial intelligence (AI), loitering munitions, cyberwarfare, influence operations, and other aspects of the Ukraine conflict as the senior party leadership excogitates new technologies and tactics that could be adopted by the KPA.
In Pyongyang, the senior leadership clearly is looking to Ukraine for lessons regarding geopolitical trends, North Korean foreign policy, inter-Korean policy, and developments in military technology, as mentioned above. But how is this foreign information collected, processed, and disseminated to the leadership? And what are the lessons the leadership likely is learning?
Regarding intelligence collection, Pyongyang can conveniently access vast amounts of open-source information from the internet. North Korea has several institutions throughout the party, state, and military that can collection information from abroad. The KPA General Staff’s Reconnaissance General Bureau (RGB) remit includes foreign intelligence, cyber operations, reconnaissance, and covert operations. The RGB’s Technology Reconnaissance Bureau (Third Bureau) and the Foreign Intelligence Bureau (Fourth Bureau; formerly Office 35) responsible for collecting strategic and overseas intelligence on South Korea, the U.S., and other important countries, and presumably Ukraine and NATO countries given the current conflict. The RGB administratively is under the General Staff, but it is under the direct command and control of Kim Jong-un. In June 2022, Major General Ri Ch’ang-ho was appointed RGB director and to the CMC.
In sum, the RGB is positioned to collect information regarding a broad range of issues for the leadership, but it is not the only agency capable of doing so. Regarding geopolitics and its impact on North Korea’s foreign policy, the KWP International Department is the leading authority on international affairs, but the DPRK Ministry of Foreign Affairs maintains 46 embassies abroad, including missions in the following important countries: Austria, Brazil, Bulgaria, China, Czech Republic, Germany, India, Indonesia, Iran, Italy, Poland, Romania, Russia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the UK.
North Korea’s diplomatic missions abroad develop human intelligence (HUMINT) networks to assess the geopolitical trends as they pertain to Ukraine and Pyongyang’s foreign policy interests. Embassies are staffed with diplomats, political officers, security officers, and defense attachés that are managed by the Defense Ministry’s Foreign Military Affairs Bureau. Embassy staff whether wearing a party hat, a state hat, a KPA hat, or some combination of the three, maintain formal contacts with their government hosts. Staff also network with non-governmental entities for various economic and political reasons. Economic objectives can include DPRK exports, which includes arms sales, and imports of items and materials that the regime prioritizes back home—often luxury goods and military components or technology for weapons development. DPRK missions are expected to earn foreign exchange to finance their operations, and if possible, to remit hard currency to Pyongyang, so missions are engaged in a range of business activities, some of them illicit.
The KWP has an extensive network of “liaison organizations” and “friendship committees” that develop contacts with foreign non-governmental organizations such as political parties and activist groups. These liaison organizations target both Korean diaspora and other foreign nationals abroad, and they are under the control of the KWP’s Foreign Cultural Liaison Committee.
According to the KWP Bylaws, the party’s basic foreign policy principles are grounded in independence, peace, and friendship with an aim to strengthen amicable relations with other countries to enhance the capacity of anti-imperialism and solidarity. The text from the party bylaws preamble is reiterated in Article 17 of the DPRK constitution:
Independence, peace and friendship are the basic ideals of the foreign policy and the principles of the external activities of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The State shall establish diplomatic as well as political, economic and cultural relations with all friendly countries, on the principles of complete equality, independence, mutual respect, non-interference in each other’s affairs and mutual benefit. The State shall promote unity with people all over the world who defend their independence, and resolutely support and encourage the struggles of all people who oppose all forms of aggression and interference and fight for their countries’ independence and national and class emancipation.
International liaison with Korean diaspora is the responsibility of the party’s United Front Department (UFD), which is tasked with North-South Korean relations and managing foreign supporters of the party’s unification line. There are several UFD subordinate organizations assigned to liaise with the Korean diaspora and foreign nationals abroad through “friendship committees” for cultural exchanges and other activities. These organizations are managed through DPRK diplomatic missions under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) party committee.
DPRK embassies have a minimum of eight personnel assigned including the ambassador and the deputy chief of mission (chargé d’affaires), a party representative who ensures all personnel are following the party guidance as issued form Pyongyang. North Korean embassies have three main areas of activities: economic, information collection from South Koreans abroad, and collection of information about the United States. The details of the collection effort depend upon the location and the tasking from Pyongyang that is delivered through the MOFA party committee. Undoubtedly, DPRK diplomatic missions in Moscow, Minsk, Warsaw, Bucharest, Berlin, London, Brussels, Tehran, and other relevant capitals have adjusted their collection activities towards the geopolitical developments surrounding the war.
Regarding military intelligence, defense attachés collect open source and possibly covert information through formal military channels in their host countries. In locations tasked with the procurement and/or sales of materials, components, or systems related to weapons, a representative from the party’s Munitions Industry Department (군수공업부, also known as the Machine-Building Industry Department) will post a representative to manage those activities. It’s safe to assume that those representatives are scouting the landscape for potential suppliers of new weapon systems that emerge from the conflict in Ukraine. Furthermore, if the war in Ukraine has a ripple effect of greater insecurity in other regions, those missions will look for opportunities to export North Korean arms. For example, if the war is prolonged and causes greater food insecurity in Africa, the destabilizing effects could drive actors to acquire North Korean small arms, which are price competitive in international arms markets.
Advantages and disadvantages of North Korean information collection and learning
North Korea has two main advantages when collecting information from abroad. First, all organizations whether in Pyongyang or abroad have access to a tremendous amount of open-source information—much more than North Korea could ever collect, process, and analyze. The RGB also has range of cyber capabilities that target foreign computer networks, but it’s unknown whether North Korea has conducted cyber espionage related to the Ukraine conflict. Nevertheless, it’s probably a lower espionage priority compared to targets in South Korea, the U.S., Japan, and others in the Indo-Pacific.
Open societies such as those in Europe, South Korea, Japan, and the U.S. not only provide enormous amounts of open-source information, but they also permit relative freedom of movement, which makes it easy to operate North Korean liaison networks. While most foreign government officials, at least those in the liberal democracies, are almost certainly guarded in their personal interactions with DPRK MOFA officials, these contacts are connected to an information channel back to Pyongyang. Furthermore, even though North Korean officials are monitored and in most cases their movements are limited abroad, local citizens are much less restricted and more approachable than North Korean citizens are for foreign diplomats in Pyongyang.
On the other hand, North Korean information collection, analysis, and learning face two major obstacles—one temporary and the other more intractable. First, COVID-19 has disrupted the operations of liaison HUMINT networks overseas. In addition, the pandemic has impacted reporting channels from regular government interlocutors and the defense attaché system. Many DPRK diplomats and intelligence officers were stranded abroad and many foreign missions in Pyongyang have been closed or now operate with minimal staff.
The second and more enduring problem for North Korea is cognitive biases. This bias is present in both HUMINT collection, processing, and analysis. First, although North Korean embassy staff are exposed to a range of foreigners with various careers, motivations, and objectives, the liaison networks and friendship committees consist of like-minded fellow travelers who echo what the North Korea authorities want to hear, such as their “solidarity in opposing American imperialism.” Cognitive biases accompany the processing and analysis of information from the very bottom until final reports are dropped into Kim Jong-un’s inbox. A whole lifetime of indoctrination under the monolithic ideological system and the monolithic leadership system instills confirmation biases about the international system and the causes of war. Those who deviate from the party’s ideology are unlikely to survive and succeed in North Korea; only those who adhere closely to party guidance and its world view will be recruited for positions of information collection, processing, and analysis.
The first geopolitical lesson from the conflict in Ukraine is that U.S. and allied resilience and resolve are greater than what has been depicted in Russian, Chinese, and North Korean story lines. Moscow and Pyongyang did not expect to see such determined counterbalancing from Europe and NATO against Russian aggression. However, after a decade of North Korea’s accelerated nuclear and missile development, similar counterbalancing is now emerging in Northeast Asia in the context of the U.S.-ROK alliance, the U.S.-Japan alliance, and in trilateral security cooperation. Increasingly closer security cooperation among the U.S. and its allies contradicts the views of many autocrats who were convinced America and the West were in decline. There has been plenty of evidence to support such a view: Trumpian chaos that weakened U.S. alliances, the UK withdrawal from the European Union (Brexit), the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and Russia’s unrequited aggression in Georgia, Crimea, and eastern Ukraine.
The usual suspects—Beijing, Moscow, Pyongyang, and Tehran—have their own versions of this narrative, but for Pyongyang, the “ideological weakness of the U.S. and its vassals” is said to be compounded by decadent bourgeois capitalism and American immorality. In sum, they agree the world would be better off if the U.S. and its allies were punished and weakened even if the process includes military aggression, astronomical economic costs, and war crimes in violation of the UN Charter and international law.
Although Ukraine, NATO, the EU, the U.S. and its allies are standing up to Russian aggression, and are demonstrating they are not weak, cognitive biases likely will prevent the North Korean leadership from correctly learning this lesson. Instead of viewing this conflict as Ukraine defending its sovereign territory while the U.S., NATO, and like-minded countries are responding to protect the liberal world order, Pyongyang will interpret this as Russia acting preemptively against “Western aggression,” which Pyongyang believes is an enduring feature of the international system and “American hegemony.”
Pyongyang views the East Asian geopolitical situation in similar ways. Borrowing extensively from Lenin’s theory of capitalist imperialism and from Thomas Hobbes’s depiction of “the state of nature,” Pyongyang sees the international system as a menacing place where foreign powers seek conquest and the enslavement of the Korean people. For the KWP, security is a never-ending zero-sum struggle, and acquiring more power is the only pathway to security and survival. Echoing the words of John Mearsheimer, in Pyongyang’s view, no amount of power would ever be sufficient unless there is a transformation of the international system. The North Korean literature is replete with stories of innocent Korean peasants defending their homeland from foreign invasions centuries before the United States existed. The concept of collective security is incomprehensible to the North Korean mindset; therefore, NATO, and U.S. alliances in East Asia can only be instruments for American imperialism. Therefore, the KWP leadership would be pleased if the conflict in Ukraine led to the fracturing of NATO and the ultimate demise of U.S. alliances in East Asia.
The second lesson is that the “Beijing-Moscow unlimited partnership” does have limits. All relations between states have boundaries; even the closest treaty allies do not agree on everything. However, compared to alliances of democracies with shared interests and values, authoritarian regimes are more opportunistic and they have greater credible commitment problems—not just with democracies but also among themselves. This is not really a lesson for Pyongyang though; the inability to make credible commitments is a way of life in North Korean domestic politics. Nevertheless, North Korea will take advantage of any opportunity to profit from the war in Ukraine and to undermine the liberal world order. In the short-term, Moscow-Pyongyang ties almost certainly will improve as the two isolated revisionist states can benefit from mutual support.
For North Korea, closer cooperation between China and Russia in their efforts to undermine the West also provides North Korea with greater autonomy in its efforts to subvert the Korean War Armistice regime and the broader liberal world order. The days of the UN Security Council adopting punitive resolutions for North Korean nuclear and missile tests are over. Now the North Korean leadership could feel emboldened since China almost certainly will be even more tolerant of North Korean belligerence than it has been in the past. For North Korean foreign policy, Pyongyang might believe now is a good time to seek greater cooperation with other revisionist states dissatisfied with the liberal world order.
As for inter-Korean relations, Pyongyang has shown no desire for dialog with the Yoon Seok-yol government, and this is unlikely to change in the near future. North Korea’s operational nuclear arsenal combined with Beijing’s tolerance for Pyongyang’s tolerance for belligerence means that the North Korean leadership could take greater risks in coercive actions towards Seoul. As a result, the Korean peninsula could face increasing dangers of the stability-instability paradox, especially if Pyongyang senses any gap in the combined U.S.-ROK integrated deterrence posture.
The third lesson of the war in Ukraine is the poor performance of the Russian military. There are many reasons for this, but rampant corruption has been a major cause. Despite two decades of “military modernization,” the Russian military has been exposed as corrupt and inefficient. All military services are susceptible to corruption, but autocratic regimes are even more vulnerable than democracies. This vulnerability also applies to the KPA and the North Korean arms industry overall. North Korea’s analysts must be aware of Russia’s poor military performance but it’s uncertain what they believe the underlying causes are. The North Korean leadership believed the collapse of the Soviet Union was due to corrupt leaders and the decay of ideology in the Soviet bloc, and now they probably blame similar causes as well as the Kremlin’s assertion that “Russia is at war with NATO and the West.” While corruption is prevalent in North Korea, the leadership doesn’t see it as a structural problem inherent to the system, but as a sign that ideological indoctrination has not been sufficient. Regardless of outcome in political, military, or economic affairs, Pyongyang is quick to cite inadequate ideological fortitude. Therefore, we should expect the North Korean leadership to see the ineptitude of the Russian military as further evidence of the need to double down on the party’s ideology.
The final hybrid geopolitical and military lesson from Ukraine is the limited utility of nuclear weapons. As the Americans learned in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, nuclear weapons are not effective in compelling non-nuclear states to acquiescence to the demands of a nuclear power. The Soviets learned this lesson in Afghanistan as well, but Putin seems to have forgotten or he feigns ignorance. Nuclear saber-rattling is not credible for compellence, as the conflict in Ukraine has demonstrated once again. North Korean media are likely to express shrill nuclear threats occasionally in the future, particularly during combined ROK-U.S. military exercises in South Korea. The aim of these threats is to intimidate Seoul, Washington, and their allies to coerce them into accepting Pyongyang’s demands. However, any threat by the leadership to use its nuclear weapons for anything other than a last gasp of desperation as the regime was being destroyed by force is simply not credible because it would be suicidal. However, the Kim family regime is not suicidal, which is one reason the regime has survived decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the socialist bloc in Eastern Europe.
 Andriy Zagorodnyuk, “Ukrainian victory shatters Russia’s reputation as a military superpower,” UkraineAlert Blog, Atlantic Council, 13 September 2022, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/ukrainealert/ukrainian-victory-shatters-russias-reputation-as-a-military-superpower/.
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 “리병철,” 통일부, 북한정보포털, https://nkinfo.unikorea.go.kr/nkp/theme/viewPeople.do?menuId=PEOPLE_86&nkpmno=23305; “리병철,” 북한
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 Ri Yŏng-gil also currently serves as Minister of National Defense. “리영길,” 통일부, 북한정보포털, https://nkinfo.unikorea.go.kr/nkp/theme/viewPeople.do?menuId=PEOPLE_86&nkpmno=36429;북한
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