The war in Ukraine may be drawing two of America’s biggest adversaries closer together.
North Korea earlier this month formally recognized the embattled Donetsk and Luhansk provinces in Ukraine as independent republics, joining Russia and its close ally Syria as the only governments in the world to accept those claims and, in the process, join the effort to rewrite Ukraine’s borders.
The geopolitical choices made by dictators Bashar Assad of Syria and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un carry little weight on the international stage, and so far no other nations — not even Russia’s closest regional partner, Belarus — have followed suit on Luhansk and Donetsk.
However, the decisions from Pyongyang and Damascus underscore a serious question that’s likely to confront the international order as the war in Ukraine drags on: Could more countries follow in the footsteps of North Korea and Syria by recognizing the independence of Ukraine’s eastern provinces, especially if Russia and its proxies cement their long-term grip over the theater through military force?
For those prospective Russian partners, the motivations would likely be both political and economic. In the case of North Korea, it appears increasingly likely that Moscow will allow North Korean workers into Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region to help rebuild infrastructure destroyed during the past five months of fighting. Such a move would prove a financial boon to Pyongyang, which, like Russia, labors under punitive economic sanctions.
At the same time, analysts say Mr. Kim saw an opportunity to deepen his country’s relationship with Russia at a crucial moment, and to thumb his nose at the U.S. and its allies.
“My sense is this may be low-hanging fruit for Kim,” said David Maxwell, a senior fellow at the think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “It ingratiates him with Russia and makes him seem on the team with Russia and China — part of ‘team revisionist/rogue powers.’”
“It also is something that will keep North Korea in the spotlight for a short time,” said Mr. Maxwell, who closely tracks North Korea and the region. “It will not cost him much. There is not much anyone could do to him. Due to China and Russia at the UN Security Council, no one will be able to impose any more sanctions on the regime.”
North Korea’s Foreign Ministry showed no signs of backing down, with a spokesperson last week ridiculing the European Union for protesting the recognition decision.
“As this decision is within the legitimate rights of a sovereign state, it does not stand to reason at all that the EU is making a nonsensical comment about it,” an unidentified official with Pyongyang’s Korea-Europe Association told the state-controlled KCNA news organization. “… The EU is not in a position to talk loudly about so-called violation of sovereignty and hostile act, given that it has followed the U.S. in its illegal and inhumane hostile policy towards [North Korea].”
North Korea’s recognition of Luhansk and Donetsk, now the epicenter of the Russia-Ukraine war, sparked a furious reaction from Kyiv. The Ukrainian government severed its diplomatic ties with Pyongyang and accused Russia of rallying the world’s worst actors to its cause.
Moscow has “no more allies in the world, except for countries that depend on it financially and politically,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said this week.
Russian officials said that Pyongyang would need formal approval from both Luhansk and Donetsk before sending in its reconstruction teams. But the Kremlin would have the final say, as the appointed leaders in both provinces are, effectively, tools of the Russian government.
The long-term benefits of such a partnership between Russia and North Korea shouldn’t be underestimated, Mr. Maxwell said.
“Perhaps Kim thinks he is setting the conditions for a future ‘business’ opportunity,” he said. “Perhaps even a deal for Ukraine wheat the Russians have begun to exploit,” which could then be used to partially address North Korea’s chronic food shortages.
On the surface, sweeping United Nations economic sanctions on North Korea would seem to limit Pyongyang’s ability to send workers into Ukraine. For example, UN resolution 2371, adopted in 2017 after North Korea’s last nuclear weapons test, “bans the hiring and paying of additional [North Korean] laborers used to generate foreign export earnings.”
That resolution was adopted unanimously by the five-member UN Security Council.
But Russia’s status as a permanent member of the Security Council could allow it to effectively block punishments for violating such a resolution. The Biden administration so far hasn’t taken a clear stance on the matter.
“I couldn’t speak to specific UN Security Council sanctions, but it certainly is an affront to the sovereignty of Ukraine,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said this week when asked about North Korean workers helping to rebuild the Donbas.
“The Donbas, eastern Ukraine, belongs to Ukraine and Ukraine alone,” Mr. Price said. “Decisions about who should be there, decisions about projects that should be ongoing there — those are decisions for the Ukrainian government, not for any other government.”
Some analysts say there’s unlikely to be a rush of nations looking to follow in the footsteps of North Korea and Syria. Major powers such as China appear unlikely, at least for now, to endanger their own economies by adopting Russia’s stance on Ukrainian borders and risking sanctions or other blowback.
“I think they’ll have to decide whether they want to do that or not in terms of what it might cost them,” said Jim Townsend, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for European and NATO policy during the Obama administration.
There’s also the possibility of unintended consequences. Should major world powers accept the independence of Luhansk and Donetsk, other provinces across the globe could demand their own freedom as well, creating multiple sets of internationally recognized borders and fueling chaos at the UN.
Russia and other states seethed when the U.S. and other countries recognized the breakaway Kosovo state when it formally declared independence from Serbia in 2008, warning it would set a bad precedent for other sovereign countries dealing with separatist movements. Russia and China do not recognize Kosovo as a sovereign nation, but neither do such countries as Spain, Mexico and South Africa.
“There are some internal governors, if you will, on this because a government might say that as soon as we acknowledge those two independents, ‘X province’ is going to declare that they’re independent too,” Mr. Townsend said.