By Katie Bo Lillis, CNN
(CNN) — North Korea watchers in Washington have fixated recently on Pyongyang’s abrupt destruction last month of a key monument dedicated to reunifying the Korean Peninsula — a move that some outside analysts view as a precursor to war with South Korea amid typically bellicose rhetoric from leader Kim Jong Un.
But US officials and North Korea analysts who spoke to CNN on the condition of anonymity say the uproar over the reunification arch obscures a far greater strategic threat: North Korea’s burgeoning partnership with Russia.
Intelligence officials in Washington are increasingly concerned about the growing ties between North Korea and Russia, and the long-term implications of what appears to be a new level of strategic partnership between the two nations, according to multiple officials familiar with the latest intelligence.
Russia has repeatedly fired North Korean-supplied short-range ballistic missiles at Ukrainian targets in recent weeks. In January, high-ranking North Korean and Russian diplomats met in Moscow in advance of what North Korean state media says is a forthcoming visit to Pyongyang by Russian President Vladimir Putin himself — his first in more than 20 years.
The Biden administration is concerned enough that national security adviser Jake Sullivan raised the issue with the Chinese foreign minister during a January meeting, a senior White House official told reporters late last month.
If North Korea is able to use a tighter relationship with Russia to loosen China’s influence, officials fear, that could remove what some believe has been an important handbrake on Pyongyang’s nuclear testing program.
“I think [Kim] is constantly looking for some kind of an edge,” a senior defense official said.
A senior administration official told reporters in late January, “We are deeply concerned about the recent testing of weapons. We are deeply concerned about the growing relationship between Russia and the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] and what that might mean for Mr. Kim’s intentions.”
Jeffrey Lewis, a North Korea expert and professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, said Pyongyang has long sought to balance Chinese influence over its affairs by pursuing dialogue with other nations — including the Soviet Union and, later, the United States. North Korea’s newly forged transactional partnership with Moscow is best understood as Kim seizing an opportunity to give himself maneuvering room with China, Lewis and others said.
Risks to the US
The risks that relationship poses to US interests are numerous, according to multiple analysts both inside and outside of government.
Although Lewis and others believe the US often overestimates the degree of control Beijing has over North Korea, it does have influence and seeks to ensure stability on the peninsula. But North Korea is “terrified that the Chinese are going to functionally take over the country, not with an army, but culturally and financially,” Lewis said. Russia is “a very natural alliance that allows them to reduce their dependency on China,” he said.
An infusion of Russian cash — and potentially Russian technology — in exchange for North Korean missiles could also jumpstart North Korea’s defense industrial base, allowing Pyongyang to update its stockpiles of conventional munitions and giving its economy a much-needed boost. That, in turn, could accelerate its missile development program.
Trade with Russia could also further weaken the sanctions regime the US has placed on North Korea, also accelerating its economy and potentially bolstering its arms development program.
And perhaps most alarmingly, North Korean missiles on the Russian battlefield could act as an advertisement for further sales to other rogue regimes.
“These are credible battlefield tools, and should North Korea succeed in selling these, it would enable them to build more and help in their domestic deployment — and, of course, have a snowball effect to find even more customers,” said Sydney Seiler, the national intelligence officer for North Korea at the National Intelligence Council until 2023.
Lewis, Seiler and others cautioned that none of these outcomes are foretold. As always with North Korea, deciphering how the hermit kingdom may respond is like reading chicken bones.
But within government, officials are watching the dynamic closely.
For weeks, a blog post on an influential North Korea watchers website written by two former analysts circulated within the US government. It warned that Pyongyang’s decision to abandon reunification was a clear signal that North Korea had made the “strategic decision to go to war.”
The problem, according to more than half a dozen US officials familiar with the latest US intelligence, was that the piece was wrong.
“I do not think [Kim] has made a strategic decision to conflict,” the senior defense official said. “I have not seen anything indicative of strategic conflict.”
Kim doesn’t seem to be preparing an attack
Five US officials told CNN the US has seen no signs Kim is preparing for a potential attack on South Korea, or a broader provocation involving nuclear weapons.
If anything, some analysts believe, North Korea’s public statements signal that North Korea is abandoning its reunification policy in pursuit of peace on the peninsula.
Kim’s “No. 1 priority is the sustainment of his regime,” the defense official said. “That’s not a shift — that’s been a strategic priority of his entire family since the Korean War.”
Lewis, Seiler and others said Kim is very consistent in publicly messaging his intentions. In speeches announcing the abandonment of reunification, Kim made clear that he was not seeking war with South Korea.
“Kim went out of his way to explicitly say that one implication of rejecting reunification was that he was also rejecting reunification by force — so the clear message was that North Korea would not initiate a war with South Korea,” Lewis said, adding that it was “the weirdest reassurance in history.”
That does not mean Pyongyang might not launch lower-level attacks short of all-out war, analysts said — something North Korea occasionally does for reasons that can be opaque to US intelligence.
Pyongyang often uses military exercises in the region conducted by the US, South Korea and Japan beginning this time of year as an opportunity to engage in what the US terms “provocative” actions.
“But it’s not war. We’re not headed to war,” Seiler said. “We are headed to what I think would be a higher-tension season, but if we stay the course, we’ll come out the other end OK.”
In 2010, North Korea shelled a South Korean island, and the two sides exchanged artillery fire that killed troops on both sides. But the conflict never escalated.
The senior defense official said that, for now, the US does not see any indicators that North Korea is preparing for anything like that, but noted, “I get paid to think about such possibilities.”
North Korea is also unlikely to step back from its missile development program — something that defense officials watch with alarm, even as they broadly believe Pyongyang views the program as defensive rather than offensive.
Officials still believe North Korea could be poised to carry out another nuclear test.
And Pyongyang has made notable improvements in the solid fuels used for shorter- and longer-range missiles. Because solid fuels can be stored in the field for weeks at a time, US officials are concerned the improved technology will allow North Korea to move its missiles around and hide them from foreign surveillance more easily.
“Their increasing and continual launching of missile tests — that I think is the most concerning part,” the senior defense official said. “I worry about errant missiles going off to potentially hit a populated area. Even if not deliberate, that’s an action that could be devastating.”
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