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Can North Korea Sustain a War Economy – With Putin’s Help?

Six years on from the famous handshake between the leaders of North and South Korea, is a war still likely?

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, left, shakes hands with South Korean President Moon Jae-in over the military demarcation line at the border village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone, in April 2018. Photo: AP/Alamy

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In spring 2018, one handshake drew the eyes of the world to its most heavily fortified border. When South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un greeted each other across their nations’ border, it felt to many like a breakthrough. 

After months of heightening tensions and threats of nuclear fire and fury, steps towards a lasting peace between the two Koreas felt tangible. 

But a mere six years later, all progress towards peaceful unification appears to lie in tatters. North Korea is testing ballistic missiles once again. Its monument to peace is torn down. Its leader is beating the drums of war. 

In January, Kim Jong-un referred to South Korea as a “primary foe” – appearing to abandon the strides towards peace that seemed promising just a handful of years earlier.

Dr Sojin Lim, co-director of the International Institute of Korean Studies of the University of Central Lancashire, told Byline Times that Kim’s sabre-rattling is likely an attempt to bring his nation to international attention once again. 

“North Korea wants to keep the attention of the outside world,” she said. “Politically and internationally, we are living in a time of war and North Korea is capable of providing warheads and bullets to those counties under sanctions.”

Her comments were echoed by Dr Derek Kramer, of Sheffield University’s School of East Asian Studies, who said: “As we all know, 2024 is a year of elections. From Seoul to London, staying in the headlines means staying on the agenda.”

Arms Exports

North Korea is widely seen as one of the most isolated and repressive nations in the world, frequently scoring poorly on human rights indexes. 

Human Rights Watch’s 2023 report on the country described “increased ideological control” over the population amid the pandemic – with order maintained with threats of torture, execution, imprisonment and forced labour.

The country’s nuclear weapons programme has also drawn frequent international scrutiny.

Threats from Pyongyang to both South Korea and the United States have been routine since the Kim regime began to develop a nuclear arsenal in the mid-2000s. 

Despite an apparent détente following Kim Jong-un’s meetings with Moon Jae-in and Donald Trump in 2018, North Korea would soon resume missile testing by 2020. 

But Dr Lim said the country’s capacity to fight a conventional war is likely to be limited and that Kim Jong-un’s more recent missile tests are likely to be demonstrations for potential buyers. 

“To me, it looks like they are doing tests for buyers,” she told Byline Times. “They can’t even feed their own people. The public distribution system has totalled collapsed. People are starving.”

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Since Vladimir Putin’s full invasion of Ukraine in 2022, a growing export of arms from North Korea to Russia has been widely reported. 

The US claimed in October that North Korea had shipped more than 1,000 containers of military equipment to Russia for use in Ukraine.

“North Korea can provide cheap labour and bullets, that’s what Russia needs,” Dr Lim added. “But also politically, Russia needed to show that it has allies and is not alone in the world.”

Dr Robert Winstanley-Chesters, researcher at the University of Edinburgh, also raised scepticism about North Korea’s ability to fight a conventional war against its southern neighbour.

“North Korea’s economy is fragile historically, at times since 1945 it was destabilised by resource and labour shortages, and the management of larger projects was always complicated within its economic structures,” he said. “Its logistics including roads and railways are also underdeveloped and fragile, and it takes quite long periods of time to transport materials across the country.”

North Korea is believed to have one of the largest standing militaries in the world and has stepped up its testing of long-range missiles in recent years. However, it has often faced domestic food supply crises, which notably culminated in a mass famine in the 1990s.

“North Korea’s industry and army are reliant on oil imports,” Dr Kramer added. “Its farms are reliant on seasonal military labour. Without friends, fuel and food problems would quickly become acute.”

In addition to the economic hardship North Korea could face from fighting a war with its southern neighbour, Dr Lim believes Kim would also stand little to gain from launching a conflict.

“From the outside, there is no legitimate reason for North Korea to start a war at this moment,” she added. “Kim Jong-un stands to lose a lot more than he would gain. I don’t see any reason for the North to start the war. If Kim Jong-un died suddenly and someone irrational took the leadership, then maybe there could be war. But as long as the Kim family is there, I don’t think they will want to lose what they have.”

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