The Democratic People’s of Korea (DPRK) has recently become the most serious security challenge facing the new presidential administrations of the Republic of Korea (ROK) and the United States. In the past several months, the DPRK has engaged in more provocative actions than any other point in its tumultuous history. These actions have included wild threats, the testing of a variety of ballistic missiles, and the possible testing of a hydrogen bomb. While sanctions impeded North Korean nuclear development, they have not halted it entirely. Diplomatic overtures have resulted only in broken promises and violations. Additionally, China’s support for existing sanctions has been lacklustre and, were there to be stronger support from Beijing, Russian firms appear to be prepared to replace the Chinese businesses that would potentially leave the DPRK. Other alternatives, such as redeploying nuclear weapons to South Korea, are both controversial and potentially counterproductive.
A focus of the South Korean and U.S. diplomacy has been to appeal to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Russian Federation to pressurise North Korea into curtailing its threatening activities and accept the legitimacy of ROK and U.S. countermeasures. The latter effort has proven especially problematic. Beijing and Moscow perceive the strengthening of the ROK-U.S. military alliance and greater U.S. military deployments in north-east Asia as threatening. Both states have called for a moratorium on large-scale U.S.-ROK military exercises and a renewal of negotiations with the DPRK with only limited preconditions, a position unacceptable to both Seoul and Washington.
Importantly, the growing Sino-Russian defense partnership has complicated ROK-U.S. military planning, diverted U.S. and Japanese resources from concentrating against North Korea, and worsened the regional security environment by stimulating regional arms races. South Korea and the United States are striving to counter the growing North Korean threat, but the strengthening Chinese-Russian security alignment complicates their response. Further, the Sino-Russian relationship prompts Seoul and Washington to avoid actions that would drive Beijing and Moscow closer together in defense of Pyongyang. China and Russia’s vigorous opposition to the deployment of advanced U.S. missile defenses in South Korea has illuminated their perception of increased ROK-U.S. military ties as a potential threat. This shared opposition has brought both nations closer together in de facto support of North Korea.. As one South Korean analyst noted, increasing Sino-Russian security ties heighten great power competition for global military superiority, a factor ROK defense planners and their foreign allies will increasingly need to consider, even as they face an unprecedented antagonist in North Korea.
Growing North Korean Challenge
Both defensive and offensive considerations drive the DPRKs nuclear weapons program. The regime aims to use nuclear weapons as a shield to prevent U.S. military intervention while the regime engages in provocative behavior at the regional level. North Korea maintains the fourth-largest military in the world, with more than a million personnel. While it possesses a credibly large arsenal of conventional weapons, it is North Korea’s willingness to use them that makes the country such a dangerous actor. Both the DPRK’s 2010 sinking of the ROK Cheonan warship and its shelling of civilians on the Yeonpyong Island demonstrates that the DPRK is willing to use conventional capabilities in provocative ways. The DPRK is also in the process of developing asymmetric capabilities such as weapons of mass destruction (WMD), special forces capable of infiltrating ROK territory through underground tunnels and midget submarines, and cyber weapons that exploit ROK and U.S. information security vulnerabilities.
North Korea’s most threatening capability is its nuclear weapons program, and recent years have seen a significant increase in North Korea nuclear and missile capabilities. Since 2006, North Korea has conducted half a dozen nuclear tests, with the most recent test, in September 2017, estimated to have produced a yield of more than 100 kilotons. Experts believe that North Korea currently has enough fissile material and weapons to produce dozens of nuclear weapons. In addition to its nuclear weapons program, North Korea has the world’s third largest chemical weapons arsenal and possibly, an expansive biological weapons program. Furthermore, North Korea has also acquired a large number and variety of ballistic missiles with varying ranges, some of which are capable of delivering nuclear, chemical, and other unconventional warheads. The country already possesses hundreds of short and medium-range ballistic missiles that could strike anywhere in South Korea and is striving to acquire mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that could potentially target the continental United States. The DPRK has already threatened the horizontal proliferation of WMD materials, ballistic missile, and other dangerous technologies to regimes of proliferation concern or malicious non-state actors lie terrorist groups for financial gain. Considerable evidence exists that the DPRK has assisted Syria, Libya, and other countries in developing WMD-related technologies and their means of delivery. The DPRK regime also presents an immediate threat to its own people. Despite socioeconomic changes, the Kim regime continues to use human rights abuses as a mechanism to keep the public in check. The regime is unlikely to abandon its nuclear weapons arsenal or change its other policies anytime soon.
Emerging Sino-Russian Defense Axis
China and Russia have become each other’s most important defense partner. The two countries have established a far-reaching military partnership that encompasses arms sales, joint exercises, defense dialogues, and other bilateral and multilateral activities. It is a relationship that radiates beyond common ideologies now. Their shared interests range from avoiding bilateral armed conflicts, to managing security along their border regions, to balancing U.S. military power in Eurasia. In June 2017, PRC National Defense Minister Chang Wanquan noted that, “under the personal leadership of our national leaders, the level of mutual trust and interaction between the Chinese and Russian armed forces has steadily increased.” The 2001 Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation Between the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation was one of the foundational documents in the Sino-Russian defense partnership. This treaty is valid for a duration of 20 years and will be automatically extended if neither party notifies the other its intention to terminate the treaty one year prior to expiration. This document has provided a flexible legal framework for the steady growth of bilateral defense ties and, while the text does not include a mutual defense clause, it does include non-aggression and mutual consultations clauses.
The Russian defense budget for 2016 amounted to approximately $61 billion, or 4.5 percent of GDP, which has allowed Moscow to enjoy an increased level of military preparedness. The enhanced readiness of the Russian military has been highlighted by recent actions in the Eastern Military District (EMD). The Kremlin has assigned roughly 65,000 military personnel to the EMD, including four combined-arms armies of varying sizes and capabilities, as well as smaller elements. The Air Force has based two fighter regiments, a fighter/ground attack regiment, two ground attack regiments, one intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) regiment, and several squadrons devoted to transport in the EMD. Their equipment consists of Su-30SM, Su-30M-2 and Su-35S fighter planes; Mi-8AMTSH and Ka-52 helicopters; S-300, S-400, and Tor-M2U anti-air systems; and other elements of the 3rd Air Force and Air Defense Command. The Russian Pacific Fleet, the second largest of the Russian Navy’s four fleets, has also benefited from the increased defense budget and includes roughly 50 warships, two-dozen submarines (including some strategic ballistic-missile submarines), and several nuclear-powered icebreakers. While many of the current ships are not fully operational or up to date, Russia has received new strategic ballistic-missile submarines and small surface vessels in the past few years. These smaller units have engaged in frequent exercises, similar to other Russian military districts, improving readiness and enhancing inter-service cooperation. In 2013, 2014, and 2016, the EMD conducted a series of extensive military exercises at a level last utilized during the Cold War. The mid-July 2013 drill included approximately 160,000 personnel, 1,000 tanks, 130 warplanes, and 70 warships.
From Seoul’s perspective, improved Chinese and Russian military capabilities in the vicinity of the Korean Peninsula can be used for benign purposessuch as combating pirates or rendering humanitarian assistance/disaster relief. However, China’s and Russia’s growing military power and mutual defense ties have contributed to their more assertive policies in northeast Asia and increased support of the DPRK. Additionally, Sino-Russian security ties have been partially driven by their two governments’ similar foreign-policy outlooks and their mutual striving for regional spheres-of-influence, including in north-east Asia. Though China and Russia are not formal military allies, the Sino-Russian defense dialogue has evolved in recent years to become more institutionalized and integrated.
In the future, Chinese-Russian defense cooperation will likely continue to grow, both as a result of the established network of Sino-Russian institutions and connections and due to their lack of plausible alternative defense partners. This cooperation offers mutual benefits to Moscow and Beijing, and their lack of alternative great power security partners enhances the likelihood of cooperation in the near term. In fact, China has already contracted to procure billions of dollars’ worth of Russian weapons in coming years.The U.S. Third Offset defense technology development strategy and the U.S. defense export reform process—and their ROK and Japanese equivalents—should include helping these countries overcome the challenges posed by the proliferation of A2/AD technologies. Holding expanded ROK-U.S. consultations and information exchanges about Sino-Russian arms sales, military exchanges, and other interactions, ideally with the inclusion of Japan, is also imperative.
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