Ukraine War’s Impact on Korean Peninsula

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Munir Ahmed

For about a year – Russia has been fighting the US-NATO-supported war in Ukraine to defend the shrinking space for the Kremlin-leaning population of Ukraine. With $3.75 billion in new military assistance from the US in this first week of 2023, the total US military aid in eleven months of the war has crossed $50 billion. The United States has continued “to stand strongly behind Ukraine and our European allies and partners.” According to the US Department of State website, the fresh military assistance includes a $2.85 billion drawdown from stocks of the Department of Defense to be provided immediately to Ukraine and $225 million in Foreign Military Financing to build the long-term capacity and support modernization of Ukraine’s military. It also includes $682 million in Foreign Military Financing for European partners and allies to help incentivize and backfill donations of military equipment to Ukraine.
The Kiel Institute has tracked €108.8 billion from 46 countries in financial, humanitarian, and military aid, from 24 January to 20 November 2022. A group of nine European countries pledged a raft of new military aid for Ukraine, they said in a statement on Thursday 19 January 2023. The aid from countries including Estonia, Latvia, and Poland will include tens of stinger air defense systems, s-60 anti-aircraft guns, machine guns, and training, according to a statement. Another meeting of the US-led Ukraine Defence Contact Group in Ramstein (Germany) on Friday 20 January 2023, promised “to provide very significant military aid to Ukraine” to prepare the country for a longer war against Russia. They believe that “the war will be decided on the negotiation table, so it is urgently required to liberate the Russian-occupied territories of Ukraine.”
On the other hand, the US-led NATO and EU alliance in the Ukraine war keeps on blaming the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) for supplying artillery to Russia. The new intensifying conflict would have serious implications for the Korean Peninsula besides increasing the arms race between the South and the North. This would have a fallout on the Ukraine war too, lingering it on, and scaling and spreading it to other parts.
When North Korea conducted nuclear and ballistic missile tests in 2017, the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) unanimously supported imposing further sanctions against North Korea. However, China and Russia blocked the UNSC in January 2022 from imposing sanctions on five North Koreans who are involved in the North’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and ballistic missile developments. They will likely block any similar US push to impose sanctions on North Korea again in the coming months, even if it tests nuclear devices or ballistic missiles.
The new South Korean president Yoon Suk-yeol has promised an “audacious” plan to North Korea leaving open the door to dialogue, otherwise to “sternly deal the threat”. Yoon, a former prosecutor, won the election in March 2022 by the slimmest of margins and assumed office in May 2022. Predecessor Moon Jae-in pursued a policy of engagement with the North holding a summit with Kim in 2018. He also brokered two summits between Kim and then-United States President Donald Trump, before relations broke down in 2019. Denuclearisation talks have stalled ever since.
Feeling the Ukraine war fallout, North Korea launched at least 95 ballistic and other missiles in 2022 – more than any previous year – in an ongoing effort to use nuclear and missile brinkmanship in the face of punishing international sanctions. North Korea’s record year of missile testing is putting the world on edge. The country conducted four missile tests in 2020, doubling the number in 2021. In 2022, the isolated nation fired more missiles than any other year on record, at one point launching 23 missiles in a single day.
Chung Min Lee, a researcher at the US think tank Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, suggests that “facing growing geopolitical tensions from all sides, South Korea needs an overhaul of its national security protocol. The primacy of economic and technology-focused intelligence is gaining critical prominence after the global pandemic and growing supply chain vulnerabilities compounded by the war in Ukraine. Yet South Korea’s ability to forge a more comprehensive and bipartisan national security strategy is stymied severely by endemic political polarization that has only deepened in 2022.”
Under the leadership of the new president, South Korea is expected to have heightened defence cooperation despite suffering from a historic economic crunch, only if the opposition Democratic Party is convinced to change its previous strategy of keeping on engaging North Korea for peace in the region. The new Korean president also has severe reservations about China’s interventions in the Taiwan Strait.
In the given circumstances, the Ukraine war is likely to bring North Korea too into confrontation for closer security cooperation with Russia and China. The geopolitical and defence experts believe that the three may form an illiberal group that will set the security environment for North Korea to establish a new international identity.
Russian analysts say that “western countries manipulate the topic of arms supplies to the parties of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict from the DPRK and the Republic of Korea, thus destabilizing the situation on the Korean Peninsula. The US once again accused North Korea of secretly supplying Russia with artillery ammunition. Washington has provided no evidence of this. Similarly, there are no photos or video footage of shells or missiles with North Korean markings that have been identified in the course of hostilities in Ukraine.”
In fact, no international law offers any obstacles to the Russian Federation purchasing artillery ammunition from North Korea or any country. But officially, neither Russia nor North Korea has reported any agreements on the supply of weapons.
The DPRK (North Korea) Foreign Ministry specifically issued a clarification stating that “the country was not in any way involved in the conflict in Ukraine at this stage, but is ready to send North Korean specialists to participate in the reconstruction of war-ravaged Donbass.”
Contrarily, Washington is actively sending weapons to Ukraine from South Korea. The Czech newspaper Mlada Fronta DNES has reported “the Americans have paid for $2.9 billion worth of South Korean-made weapons to Kyiv. They are talking about anti-aircraft missile systems, including Shingung missile systems, and ammunition for them.”
Seems, the US is putting Seoul at a possible risk in the current conditions – the consequence of the Ukraine war on the Korean Peninsula while the Washington-leaning government is facing too many internal challenges. Same as throughout history. Following the US lead, South Korea (ROK) may aggravate its already strained relations with North Korea (DPRK).