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What’s behind N.Korean criticism of US’ Ukraine support?

Pyongyang appears to seek to officialize Russia support, but denies weapons transactions

Jan. 29, 2023 - 15:44 By Ji Da-gyum

A soldier walks past a line of M1 Abrams tanks, Nov. 29, 2016, at Fort Carson in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The Biden administration on Wednesday announced its plans to provide Ukraine with 31 M1 Abrams tanks, which the required number to equip an entire Ukraine tank battalion. (File Photo - The Gazette via AP)
North Korea on Sunday denounced the US’ decision to provide advanced battle tanks to Ukraine once again, while denying Washington’s accusation it was supplying weapons to Russia, which it labeled as a “grave provocation” that must be responded to.

Kwon Jong-gun, director general of the Department of US Affairs of North Korea’s Foreign Ministry, condemned the US plans to “supply offensive armed weapons such as main battle tanks to Ukraine at any cost while ignoring legitimate concerns and criticisms from the international community” in a Korean-language press statement.

Kwon dismissed the US provision of weapons to Ukraine as a “crime against humanity aimed at keeping international situations unstable.”

Kwon also rejected the US’ previous announcement on North Korea’s delivery of infantry rockets and missiles to the Wagner Group, the Russian private military company led by a Putin associate, sending a “clear warning” once again against the US.

“The attempt to tarnish our image by making up things that do not even exist is a grave provocation that can never be acceptable and must be responded to,” Kwon said.

“The US should keep in mind that it will face really undesirable results if it continues to spread self-fabricated, groundless rumors targeting us.”

Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said the “essence of the statement is to deliver messages to the US while defining the alleged weapons transactions between North Korea and Russia as a grave provocation against North Korea.”

“The statement expressed North Korea’s determination to directly take tit-for-tat action if the US continues to damage the country’s image.”

Kwon’s statement came less than two days after Kim Yo-jong, the powerful sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, “strongly condemned” the US supply of 31 M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine in a press statement released late Friday night.

Kim accused the US of “expanding the proxy war to destroy Russia,” claiming that the weapons provisions showed the “sinister intention by the US to achieve its hegemonic ends.” But Kim remained silent on the US accusation of North Korea’s supply of weapons to Russia.

Jung Dae-jin, a professor at Halla University in Wonju, Gangwon Province, pointed out that Kwon’s statement showed North Korea’s “two-pronged approach of reiterating its intent to coordinate with Russia that was stated in Kim Yo-jong’s statement, but denying the alleged direct supply of weapons to Russia.”

“North Korea sees that provision of weapons is a military action that could lay a heavy burden on North Korea’s foreign policy, unlike the act of diplomacy of expressing solidarity with Russia,” Jung told The Korea Herald. “Therefore, North Korea’s intent is not to needlessly get dragged into such controversies regardless of whether or not it actually has provided weapons.”

Yang explained that Kwon’s statement seeks to “turn the tide of public opinion that the absence of remarks on weapons transactions between North Korea and Russia in Kim Yo-jong’s statement is North Korea’s acknowledgment.”

But Yang said that Kwon generally reaffirmed Kim’s press statement, which essentially highlighted the close ties between Russia and North Korea and North Korea’s determination to coordinate with Russia. 

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby says that declassified satellite images displayed during a White House press briefing back up U.S. claims that North Korea delivered arms to Russia for use in its ongoing war in Ukraine, Friday, Jan. 20, 2023, in Washington. (Photo - AP)

In the statement, Kim Yo-jong also underscored that North Korea will “always stand in the same trench with the Russian army and people who have been fighting to defend the country’s dignity, honor, sovereignty and security.”

Experts said the rare statement by Kim -- who has been in charge of sending messages to South Korea and the US as a mouthpiece of the North Korean leader -- showed North Korea’s focused attention on developments of Russia’s 11-month grinding war on Ukraine and its ramifications for the peninsula.

Hong Min, director of the North Korean Research Division at the government-funded Korea Institute for National Unification, said Kim’s pronouncement has a different significance, given that North Korea had issued statements on the Russia-Ukraine war through other senior officials at foreign and defense ministries.

“Kim Yo-jong’s statement seeks to show how she -- who is Kim Jong-un’s closest aide and handles inter-Korean relations and foreign policy -- has perceived the war in Ukraine. Therefore, the statement intends to officialize and externally publicize North Korea’s support and cooperation with Russia,” Hong said.

“There is a possibility that North Korea could flagrantly provide military aid to Russia in the future depending on the progress of the war between Ukraine and Russia, although the country would not officially confirm it.”

Hong pointed out that Kim’s statement also suggested “North Korea’s intention to ratchet up diplomatic support for Russia and enhance its presence and role in terms of confronting the US on the Korean Peninsula” in line with developments of the war in Ukraine.

Jung from Halla University explained that Kim Yo-jong’s remarks should be understood in the context of the North Korean leader’s perception of international relations. During the latest year-end party plenum, Kim Jong-un said the “structure of international relations has been clearly shifting into a ‘new cold war’ system and the trend toward multipolarity has been accelerated.”

Jung viewed that North Korea “seeks to strive to create an international environment favorable” to the country.

“Kim’s statement is part of North Korea’s overall strategy for foreign policy that aims to make the new cold war structure a fait accompli and to seek coordination with China and Russia in the structures of confrontation against the US and West to have the upper hand by piggybacking on China and Russia.”