Ukrainian Lessons for the Pyongyang Elite

Recent events in Ukraine may not appear to bear
any relation to the security situation in Northeast Asia. However, while Ukraine’s historical background is by no means the same as that of
the Korean Peninsula, modern Ukraine is a living textbook of realist
international politics, and as such offers meaningful insights. North Korea will be keeping a close watch on developments
in Eastern Europe, for Ukraine’s choices, situated as it is between Russia and
the West, provide lessons to Pyongyang. It is important for us to take note
of the facts.

Ukraine has a long and problematic
relationship with Russia. In the latter half of the 19th century, one
of Catherine the Great’s goals in her westward expansion of the Russian Empire
was access to ice-free port facilities such as those on offer in Crimea. One underlying objective of Russia’s 1853 Crimean War against the Ottoman Empire
and its allies England and France was control of the same. Though Moscow lost
that war, it launched
the Russo-Turkish War a decade later with many of the same goals in mind.
England and the other powers only just managed to frustrate Russian expansionism
in the Mediterranean once more.

In the interval between these two conflagrations, pan-Slav
nationalism gained in political strength. Its adherents promoted Russia’s
unique culture and political system, and opposed Westernist reforms. They
believed that Russia had a specific system, customs, and religion; they were in
favour of Russian political conservatism, its authoritarianism and ethnocentric
nature. Russia exploited this pan-Slav sentiment as it sought to reach the
Mediterranean Sea, something against which England, France, and Austria were on
constant watch. Unsurprisingly, the Balkan region upon which this great game played out eventually came to be known
as the “powder keg of Europe.”

In the end, the 1917 Russian Revolution saw
the Crimean Peninsula incorporated into the USSR. The area, still the only
Ukrainian region where the majority of the population is Russian, faces the
Balkans to the west, while to the east stands Russia. To the north is Ukraine
proper. This geography is what makes Ukraine the most important country on Russia’s western flank.
Nikita Khrushchev returned the Crimean Peninsula to Ukraine in the 1950s, which was of course partly attributable to his Ukrainian ethnicity. Conversely, President Vladimir Putin
is not likely to permit Western Europe to hold sway over such a strategically
vital region.

North Korea surely has a particular
interest in Ukraine’s former nuclear capacity. Lest we should forget, the state of Ukraine was in
possession of the third highest number of nuclear weapons in the world until little
more than two decades ago, a fact that further corroborates the importance of
Ukraine to Russia. However, when the USSR was dissolved in 1991, Ukraine fell
under the auspices of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and, in 1994, Kiev
agreed to return all the nuclear weapons on its territory to Russia in exchange
for a promise of territorial security (the Budapest Memorandum on Security
Assurances) in a deal with the UN Security Council. 

This agreement is cited as
a successful example of international management of nuclear non-proliferation,
and represents the first application of a “Negative Security Assurance.” 
Prior to the post-Soviet era, “Positive
Security Assurances” had been the standard. This state of affairs originated
from a 1968 Security Council resolution that guaranteed UN military intervention
if a nuclear state attacked a non-nuclear state with nuclear weapons. This was widely
disputed, however, and individual countries continued to call for
case-by-case security guarantees. Therefore, in 1978 the UN Disarmament and
International Security Committee offered a guarantee that non-nuclear states would
never be attacked with nuclear weapons. However, non-nuclear states complained
that this was simply a declaration, and therefore lacked binding strength. The
first time that the guarantee was given greater enforceable weight was during the
disarming of Ukraine.

Despite the uncertainty surrounding the guarantee, why did Ukraine go
down the path of simply giving up its inherited nuclear capacity? One core
factor was the painful memory of the disaster at Chernobyl. Hundreds of
thousands of people had been directly affected by the explosion, which took place
on Ukrainian soil in 1986, and 25,000+ died. The
nuclear fallout from the stricken reactor polluted approximately 8% of Ukrainian land, not to mention
vast tracts of neighboring Belarus and elsewhere.

Thus, by 1996, Ukraine had been recognized as a
non-nuclear state, and received $460 million in economic assistance for its
trouble. However, that amount is dwarved by Ukraine’s existing liabilities.

This last point raises the issue of Ukraine’s
geostrategic value to surrounding powers. In November of 2013, President Putin
offered Kiev $15 billion in aid in response to Ukraine’s ongoing negotiations with
the EU. Pro-Russian President Yanukovich immediately accepted the offer and stopped
negotiations with the EU, and thereafter Ukraine dissolved into a battleground
between pro- and anti-Russian factions. In response to the Russian offer, the
EU put forward an aid plan worth 11 billion Euros, and the US also promised $1
billion. For its part, cash-rich China has invested or otherwise lent Ukraine more
than $8 billion dollars over the last four months alone. This is all economic
testament to Ukraine’s strategic location between Europe and Asia.

In sum, Ukraine has received a great deal more in
aid and assistance during the recent geostrategic conflict than it did for its act
of nuclear disarmament, because geostrategic complexity forces competing powers
to vie for Ukraine’s favor. On this point alone, North Korea is sure to
conclude that nuclear disarmament is not the route to the kind of economic
rewards that it seeks. Rather, the prudent path from their viewpoint might be
to keep on creating conflicted relations between regional powers, so that those powers
are forced to pay up for Pyongyang’s good will.

However, Ukraine possesses a militarily
strategic location and acts as a transit route for Russian natural gas exports.
North Korea has no such luck. Although Pyongyang possesses natural resources
that could in principle be exploited as a financial lever, the political risk of
doing so make it a tricky path. The Chinese-style special economic zone development
route has also failed. Therefore, won’t North Korea ultimately conclude that harsh
internal repression whilst increasing the value of its nuclear weapons is the
best path to take?

Pyongyang fears that a sudden political
collapse would occur if it were to emerge from its isolationism. They might well
believe that it is now too late to decouple the economy from politics in any case, as China
did in pursuing capitalism along with a one-party system from the late 1970s. Either way, North
Korea’s obsession with nuclear weapons will not soon go away.

* This is an abridged translation of a Guest Column that appeared on Daily NK on March 7th. It has been amended to reflect the changing situation in Ukraine. Opinions expressed in Guest Columns do not necessarily reflect those of Daily NK.

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