North Korea, empowered by Russia, digs in for long-term confrontation

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SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea may not be preparing for imminent war, but the regime is girding for a long-term confrontation against the U.S. and its allies at a time when major international developments argue against a new push to try to eliminate Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal.

The long-isolated nation is not operating in a moral, regional or strategic vacuum: The regime of Kim Jong Un is accepting the embrace offered by Russia, which, since its invasion of Ukraine, has become a fellow international pariah.

This new, transactional partnership offers North Korea political, strategic and economic opportunities it has not enjoyed in previous years.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to visit Mr. Kim in Pyongyang in the coming days — likely with much fanfare — to further deepen a partnership that has seen as many as 3 million North Korean shells and rockets head-to-arm Russian guns and launch tubes on the front lines in Ukraine.

Meanwhile, major powers — not just Russia, but also China and the United States — are defying international institutions while expanding and upgrading their own nuclear arsenals.

The shift has given Pyongyang, a small but feisty power, domestic justification and international leeway to upgrade its own armory of weapons of mass destruction, one of the world’s leading North Korea watchers suggested.

Jenny Town, a senior fellow at the Stimson Center and the co-founder and director of the center’s open-source intelligence platform, 38 North, briefed reporters here Friday on the shifting dynamics on the divided, heavily armed peninsula.

A 38 North analysis earlier this year sparked international concern by suggesting that North Korea had ditched hopes of improving relations with the United States, while its public abandonment of a long-held stance on peaceful reunification with South Korea meant it was preparing for actual war.

Ms. Town, however, downplayed fears of imminent Armageddon in her remarks Friday.

Pointing to the “emergence of a new term” in North Korean state media, she said, “Instead of ‘combat readiness,’ they use the words ‘war readiness.’”

That is open to interpretation. “One of the theories is that if you think of combat readiness, you are able to fight a battle, vs. war readiness — do you have the plan and ability to have continuity of government through an actual conflict?” she asked.

Another indicator that war may not be imminent in the North’s thinking is a series of national policies set for implementation over a 10-year time span.

“It is all tied together,” she said. “North Korea certainly is making plans, long-term plans, on how to build resilience in the country.”

Though unconvinced that Pyongyang is girding for an imminent attack on South Korea, she said that current events are making U.S. hopes of North Korean denuclearization — always a nonstarter, according to many Kim watchers — ever more unrealistic.

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there has been an “elevation of the role of nuclear weapons in national defense,” Ms. Town said.

With the Kremlin threatening nuclear strikes against countries that dare to intervene, the “nuclear taboo has been lifted,” she said. Countries are increasingly viewing nuclear arms — their own or those of their allies — as “core to their national security.”

China and the United States are gearing up their nuclear arsenals, while Russia conducts tactical nuclear combat drills with its neighbor and ally Belarus.

For North Korea, which has defied the world since its first nuclear test in 2006, the new, intense global refocus on nuclear arms provides a fresh justification for its policy and adds to the burden of nonproliferation policymakers.

This new paradigm “makes it difficult to convince one insecure country to disarm without concessions from others,” Ms. Town said.

Moves by the world’s major nuclear powers are only fortifying North Korea’s resistance to global institutions and pressures.

“The idea of international norms only being relevant for certain countries puts the whole system in crisis,” she said. “The Russian invasion of Ukraine is an especially blatant violation of laws and the U.N. charter, as is the way it is conducting the war itself. … Israel has taken that to a whole other level with its blatant disregard for human life.”

Calling U.S. military support of Israel “indefensible,” Ms. Town added that U.S. criticisms of the International Criminal Court “constitute a threat to global governance as a whole.”

In May, the court charged suspects from both Hamas and Israel with committing war crimes in the conflict in and around the Gaza Strip. Neither Israel nor the U.S. are members of the Hague-based International Criminal Court, but a group of Republican senators, angry at the court’s stance against Israel, have threatened sanctions against the body’s justices and staffers.

“Damage done to international norms and laws in recent months is not ground that is easily recovered,” Ms. Town warned. “If big powers are violating international law, what reasons do smaller states have to ’Do as I say, not as I do’?”

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