Chun Yung-woo, a former South Korean national security adviser and chief negotiator for the six-party talks, downplayed recent speculations regarding Russia's potential deal to provide North Korea with advanced satellite and nuclear missile technologies.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and Russian President Vladimir Putin met last month in Vostochny, Amur region, marking their first summit in four years. Following their talks, there is speculation that North Korea might supply Russia, which is facing shortages of conventional weapons in its conflict with Ukraine, with artillery shells and anti-tank guided missiles. Russia could in return assist North Korea in developing military satellites and nuclear weapons.
Contrary to widespread concerns, Chun said in an interview with The Korea Herald that he believes it is unlikely that Russia provided North Korea with such critical technologies.
As for nuclear development, he asserted that North Korea’s advancements in nuclear missile technology have reached a point where reliance on Russian support is unnecessary.
"The North has achieved a level of 'minimum deterrence' against the US and the provision of new technologies wouldn't significantly alter its current capabilities," said Chun, who also served as the chief negotiator for the six-party talks on the North Korean nuclear program.
Even for spy satellite technology transfer, he downplayed fears, saying Russia could not have provided its cutting-edge technologies to the North in exchange for the regime's aging liquid-based missiles and ammunition stockpiles.
"Also, satellite technology cannot be acquired by simply being transferred by other nations," he said. "Even with significant purchases in acquiring the technologies from other nations, satellites can fail during testing. The North should test it by itself to make it its technology."
Instead of seeking such technologies, North Korea might have sought help to launch a satellite manufactured by its regime through Russia's rockets, which would not violate the United Nations Security Council resolutions, he said. Additionally, North Korea could be interested in information from Russia's GLONASS satellite system to monitor military trends in South Korea, the US and Japan.
However, Kim’s primary demand from Russia is not military technology, but rather “energy and food,” Chun said.
After the unsuccessful Hanoi summit between the US and North Korea, Kim announced a push for self-reliance to overcome economic challenges. However, with borders sealed for years due to the pandemic, markets suffered, people's lives were severely impacted, and dissatisfaction among residents grew. This left Kim highly concerned. “The North Korea-Russia meeting is a continuation of that sentiment.”
"North Korea urgently requires energy and food while Russia has a surplus," he said.
North Korea might also have sought Russia's assistance in alleviating its significant foreign currency deficit by employing North Korean workers -- including loggers and construction workers -- on a grand scale, Chun said.
The former top envoy noted that bilateral efforts to build close ties between North Korea and Russia are not new. Following Russia's invasion of Ukraine, North Korea “fully aligned” itself with Russia.
In March 2022, five nations — Belarus, North Korea, Eritrea, Syria and Russia — voted against a resolution condemning Russia's aggression. He said North Korea was the sole member state backing Russia's invasion aside from nations like Belarus and Syria, which rely heavily on Russia for their regime's survival.
North Korea needed Russia to forestall further UN Security Council sanctions and to push for the removal of existing sanctions as they pursued the development of strategic weapons, as announced in its eighth Party Congress.
"This served as assurance that Russia, being a permanent member of the UN Security Council, would use its veto power to block any action," he said.
Following the North Korea-Russia summit, multiple news media outlets reported that their border is seeing a sharp increase in rail traffic, likely a sign of North Korea supplying munitions to Russia.
Chun said if evidence of a North Korea-Russia arms deal emerges, it would provide a stronger rationale for South Korea to export arms to Ukraine.
Despite widespread international appeals for South Korea to supply lethal weapons to Ukraine, the country has held back, largely because of its relationship with Russia and potential implications for the North.
However, if North Korea and Russia are confirmed to have exchanged military arms, the political burden to voluntarily restrain the arms support will decline, he said.
As for growing tension between the two Koreas caused by the North’s continued provocations, he predicted that tension in inter-Korean relations would continue for the time being, and some level of tension and confrontation is inevitable.
"North Korea has focused on developing five major strategic weapons, a goal set at the eighth Party Congress a few years ago,” he said. “The country will continue to test missiles and launch satellites until the goal is achieved."
He notes that, as this occurs, relations between the US and North Korea, as well as inter-Korean relations, will likely stall, making dialogue impossible.
"Once North Korea develops its five major strategic weapons, it will initiate talks. It won't enter negotiations until it has clear leverage against the US,” he said.
Chun Yung-woo, who graduated with a degree in French literature from Busan University and holds a master's from Columbia University, has served as a diplomat for more than 30 years. He has held positions as South Korean ambassador to the United Kingdom and as deputy minister of foreign affairs and trade. Chun was South Korea's chief negotiator during the six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear program under former Roh Moo-hyun administration. He also was the national security advisor to former President Lee Myung-bak from October 2010 to February 2013. Currently, he leads the Korean Peninsula Future Forum and serves as a senior advisor at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies.
The Korea Herald publishes a series of interviews with South Korea’s former and current top diplomats who have played a central role in shaping the country’s foreign policies to confront the complexities of an increasingly contested international order while managing its historical relationships with allies and neighbors, for lasting peace beyond the Korean Peninsula. This is the second installment. -- Ed