When it comes to North Korea, the U.S. approach under Trump is to speak loudly and carry a big stick. After Pyongyang announced it has an operational ICBM missile capable of reaching Alaska or Hawaii, the U.S. indicated it will act “very strongly” and do “severe things” to North Korea in retaliation. To bolster this, the U.S. military has put on a show of force on Guam in conjunction with the South Korean military for all the world to see. Two U.S. bombers went through practice drills off Guam to perform the live-fire maneuvers they would use to neutralize an ICBM missile launcher and its attendant facilities.
This comes on the heels of the country’s latest test and some revelations regarding their nuclear capabilities. According to The Washington Post, North Korea is yet another country with a troubling agenda that finds itself squarely between U.S. and Russian interests, and it might not be as closed off as they seem. Yesterday President Trump was able to broker a Syrian ceasefire deal with Vladimir Putin at the G20 Summit. That’s also where a lot of North Korea’s early missiles came from.
In the 1980s, Syria and Egypt were more than happy to sell their old Soviet missiles to North Korea. That gave them functional examples to study and work off—and to make things even easier, the engineers that North Korea found to do the work were Soviet rocket scientists looking for work as the USSR crumbled. North Korea has also found a revenue stream, and allies, by wheeling and dealing with some of Russia’s other friends and allies. North Korea was able to swap its Soviet-style missiles to Iran for their war with Iraq and Pakistan in the 1980s in exchange for nuclear technology.
That would mean North Korea’s current missile program is firmly rooted in Russian technology, Russian engineers, and, quite possibly, Russian materials. A lot of what Pyongyang uses to build its missiles is acquired on the black and grey markets piece by piece. But they may have some more legitimate sources, too. Back in April, Reuters reported that Russian military hardware was being transported into North Korea, and in May a new ferry service started up to carry both passengers and cargo between Vladivostok and Rajin. Kim Jong-un has even brokered labor immigration deals with Russia to help bring in additional revenue to the impoverished North Korean state.
That may be one reason that, while sanctions have certainly hurt North Korea, Pyongyang continues to manage expensive programs like its military despite the poverty of its citizenry. It’s unclear if new sanctions being considered by the U.S., Japan, and South Korea would really put a damper on North Korea’s ambitions when it has friends like Russia and China. President Trump, South Korean President Moon, and Japanese PM Abe have agreed to apply “maximum pressure” before they resort the kind of military force the U.S. just demonstrated in Guam. Whatever course of action these allies take, it seems unlikely Russia will relinquish its few longstanding friendships just because of a handshake with President Trump.