Why North Korea’s Meddling in Ukraine Matters
The country has recognized the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic as independent states.
On July 14 North Korea recognized as independent states the Donetsk Peoples’ Republic (DNR) and the Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR). North Korea is the third country to offer official recognition to these Russian proxies, after Syria and Russia itself.
“So what?” one might say. An impoverished Soviet proxy makes some positive diplomatic noises about a neo-Soviet proxy in order to anger its bitter enemy the U.S. Does this matter at any level other than the fact that online Stalinists on Twitter will praise the move?
Alexander Matsegora, the “Russian ambassador to the DNR,” hailed the gesture in an interview with the major Russian newspaper Izvestia, and said that the prospects for cooperation between North Korea and the DNR and LNR were “quite extensive.” The interviewer responded that it is difficult to imagine how a poor country under international sanctions like North Korea could help the DNR and LNR, or how they could help North Korea. Matsegora responded that there were three major ways North Korea and the Donbas “republics” could help each other:
“You are not correct. There are prospects for cooperation between the DPRK [North Korea] and the Donbass republics. … Firstly, North Korean builders, who are highly qualified, hardworking and ready-to-work in the most difficult conditions, will be a very serious help in solving the problems of restoring the social, infrastructural, and industrial facilities that were destroyed by the retreating Ukronazis.”
Matsegora is not totally imagining things here. Siberia has hosted North Korean work camps since the Cold War, often handling logging. (There is a fantastic Vice documentary from 2016 about tracking these camps down in Russia.) According to the U.S. State Department, Russia acted like it stopped this after the passage of U.N. Security Council resolutions barring most economic relations with North Korea, but Russia continues to issue “tourist visas” to thousands of North Koreans every year, who probably continue to work inside Russia.
Getting a slot at one of these camps is considered a plum high-paid job for the Korean laborers, and based on available reporting (like the Vice documentary) the laborers in these camps are strictly segregated and controlled by their political officers, making sure they don’t bring any kind of contamination back to “pure” North Korea. Camps like these for construction workers might be a cost-effective form of labor for Russia’s rebuilding projects in occupied Donbas, with less worry about Russians returning home and telling their friends how awful conditions are there. Mariupol is so devastated that the only skilled labor that might be willing to work there would be from North Korea.
Matsegora goes on:
“Secondly, practically all the DPRK factories dealing with ferrous and non-ferrous metallurgy, in transport engineering and the electric power industry were built with Soviet technical assistance, using equipment produced by the Slavyansk and Kramatorsk heavy engineering plants and other enterprises located in the Donbas that are still in operation. Korean partners are very interested in spare parts and units manufactured there.”
This actually makes sense as an export market for the Soviet-era industries of Donetsk, which the DNR’s leadership seems determined to hang on to. These factories will not receive any western assistance to re-tool for export (and will probably be sanctioned anyway), and Russia will have enough trouble keeping their own factories humming. North Korea is an obvious export market for outdated Soviet products, possibly along with other basket-case former-Soviet territories like Cuba and Belarus.
Finally, Matsegora touches on commodities—coal from Donbas, for example, might be unsellable on the world market because of sanctions, so why not sell it to a country that is already cut off from the world? North Korea, Matsegora says, could sell manganese to the factories in Donbas in return.
And what else can North Korea swap other than manganese? Well, North Korea has some other exports, like methamphetamines and weapons. The DNR could be a useful cutout for Russian criminal/state networks—if you catch some Russian company trading with a sanctioned North Korean company in contravention of U.N. sanctions they could say: Oh no, that’s a company based in Luhansk, not a Russian one! And as for the uses North Korean weapons could have, keep in mind that Putin’s plans for the Donetsk and Luhansk Peoples’ Republics are not clear and could be in flux. There is a good chance, in my opinion, that Putin and his co-thugs are planning on integrating these regions into Russia in some fashion, or that they will be corralled into a kind of anti-Ukraine proxy state to govern many of the parts of Ukraine that Russia manages to hold.
There is also the possibility that the DNR and LNR will be kept as “independent” “rogue” proxy states that can do Russia’s bidding in Eastern Europe (even as Russia annexes other bits of Ukraine), and become a kind of North Korea in Eastern Europe. (This would not be inconsistent with the anti-Ukraine proxy state possibility.) During the Cold War, North Korea kept the U.S. and our allies off balance in Asia. It was a Soviet proxy that was capable of anything—attacking U.S. ships at sea without provocation, axe-murdering U.S. soldiers, even of conducting terrorist attacks on civil aviation. This kind of stuff hampered the U.S. from focusing better on its main Cold War adversaries in Asia, Communist China and the USSR. Today North Korea continues to play an important role in making sure the leaders of Japan, South Korea, and the U.S. are kept from focusing on China. Instead, they constantly seek the “help” of China to reign in their North Korean friends, and beg China to help them reopen negotiations when they are shut off.
One can imagine a similar scenario in Eastern Europe, perhaps with a DNR and LNR surrounded by a Russian “buffer zone” or Russian “peacekeeping” troops to prevent any direct Ukrainian interference. In addition to terrorism and sabotage, the DNR and LNR and other proxies could “purchase” North Korean conventional rockets and then use them to threaten Ukraine or even other countries in Europe. Is Ukraine in a cease-fire with Russia? DNR rockets could slam into Kyiv whenever Putin has a mind to teach the Ukrainians a lesson, but it would not be Russia violating a ceasefire or even a Russian proxy using Russian weapons—it is the DNR using North Korean weapons! (And if Ukraine tries to retaliate, the Kremlin would call it an invitation to a renewed war with Russia.) If Russia eventually gives up its blockade of Ukraine (after negotiations or a unilateral ceasefire) then cheap North Korean/Iranian-style submarines “launched from Mariupol” (but serviced in Sevastopol) could mine the approaches to Ukrainian-controlled harbors and attack the Ukrainian navy or shipping bound for Ukraine, a proxy blockade.
It is very possible that all this talk from Russia, the DNR, and North Korea is just talk, and these scenarios might sound a bit out-there, but after Putin used a nerve agent in Salisbury, after the Russian sabotage campaign within NATO, after Russia’s full-blown invasion of Ukraine, after the rape of Bucha, after so many crazy things, we can no longer call any of these North Korean/Donbas scenarios far-fetched. We need to think creatively about how Russia might replicate the success of other rogue states in successfully attacking other U.S allies. These scenarios should also be a warning to Europe: Once North Korea (or a Donbas version of North Korea) gets involved in your neighborhood there will not be smooth sailing. Even if an armistice happens between Russia and Ukraine, if Donetsk and Luhansk are still under Russia’s control then the possibility for major destabilizing activity and death is still there. Things will probably not just shift back to normal.