This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Russia has formally proposed to China and North Korea for a joint naval drill in July, South Korea’s spies said on Monday – a move that could further escalate tensions in East Asia.
“Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has made an official proposal for a trilateral naval drill to Kim Jong Un when he last visited North Korea,” Yoo Sang-beom, a lawmaker who was briefed by the nation’s spy agency, in the National Assembly, told reporters.
The assessment by South Korea’s National Intelligence Service followed Shoigu’s visit to Pyongyang two months ago, which has raised suspicions that the two nations were looking to enhance their military cooperation including arms trading that would support Russia’s war with Ukraine.
Washington issued a stern warning against North Korea last month regarding weapons transactions with Russia. The White House’s national security spokesperson John Kirby said the U.S. was concerned about potential arms deals between Russia and North Korea.
While Pyongyang’s recent provocations have strengthened trilateral security cooperation among the U.S., South Korea and Japan, both China and Russia are defending North Korea on the international stage, with the North reciprocating this backing.
The South Korean spies also saw North Korea’s missile launch Saturday as a response to the U.S.-South Korea joint drill, according to Yoo, hinting that authoritarian regimes in the world are seeking their own ways to counter military ties among democracies.
North Korea launched two cruise missiles carrying mock nuclear warheads towards the West Sea of the Korean peninsula. The missiles traveled about 1,500 kilometers (932 miles) for more than two hours, before detonating at an altitude of 150 meters, the official Korean Central News Agency said. While firing cruise missiles isn’t prohibited by the U.N., they present a significant threat to U.S. troops stationed in South Korea.
North Korea’s latest cruise missile launch marked only a partial success. The Intelligence Service confirmed that one of the two missiles launched on Saturday was unsuccessful. The partial success, however, hints at Pyongyang’s revamped strategy to integrate its conventional arsenal and tactical nuclear weapons to threaten allies.
“It seems clear that they are thinking of a short-term war, if there is any, merging their conventional arsenal with tactical nuclear weapons,” Yoo said, citing the assessment of South Korea’s spy agency.
He said the intelligence agents have emphasized North Korea’s inability to wage a long-term war, as the hermit state is strapped by an ongoing economic crisis.
North Korea had imposed strict COVID restrictions in early 2020, shutting down its borders, including that with its biggest trading partner, China. The North Korean economy contracted for the third straight year in 2022, according to the Bank of Korea. COVID restrictions, compounded by international sanctions, are widely seen to have further depressed the North’s struggling economy.
The South’s spies also reiterated the position that the agency has yet to draw any conclusion that Kim Ju Ae, Kim Jong Un’s daughter, will succeed her father as North Korea’s next leader.
Kim Ju Ae was seen accompanying her father during the North’s Navy Day last week. It was her first public appearance since May 16, when she showed up for an on-site inspection of a preparatory committee related to the North’s attempt to launch a military spy satellite.
The appearance was widely seen as a rare window of the regime’s motivations to familiarize the North Korean public with potential future leaders, a strategy that Pyongyang has employed for decades.