The Russia-North Korea axis is a more serious threat than you may think

Learn more about Chris Walsh.
Chris Walsh
Director, Global Policy
George W. Bush Institute
Learn more about Joseph Kim.
Joseph Kim
Joseph Kim
Program Manager, Global Policy and Expert-in-Residence
George W. Bush Institute

The Russia-North Korea axis is buttressing efforts to undermine the liberal democratic order that has contributed to nearly 80 years of relative global peace. 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, after all, represents the very real struggle between democracy and authoritarianism that is playing out worldwide. And North Korea is ramping up efforts to supply Putin weapons. The bad guys are supporting each other and watching how the good guys respond. 

Washington and its allies can’t afford to sit on the sidelines as these authoritarian powers, and others, conspire against democratic nations. They must serve as a counterweight to such collaboration.   

Both U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the Foreign Minister of the Republic of Korea, Cho Tae-yul, have expressed deep concern over the recent transfer of arms between Russia and North Korea. 

And they should. North Korea’s Kim Jong Un has prioritized developing a strategic alliance with Vladimir Putin in recent years. But Russia (including as the Soviet Union) and North Korea have been allies since 1945. And it was typically a transactional relationship based on needs of the moment.  

That element of the relationship still exists. Putin has gained much-needed artillery. Satellite images indicate that North Korea has transferred more than 2.5 million rounds of artillery shells to Moscow since late December 2023.  

Kim, on the other hand, has access to critical resources such as food aid, military, and satellite technology, according to Shin Wonsik, South Korea’s Defense Minister. 

And now, this alliance is tied to brazen aggression against a U.S. ally in Ukraine, threatening another U.S. ally in South Korea, and supporting the systematic oppression of the North Korean people.  

Most immediately, Kim is reenergizing Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine and his ability to murder Ukrainian civilians. Despite being the third-largest military in the world, multiple news reports suggest that Putin is struggling to provide sufficient ammunition to his troops. North Korean military support is filling this gap. 

And Putin may be using his ever closer military ties with Kim to discourage South Korea’s support for Ukraine, according to NK News’ Andrei Lankov, an expert on both North Korea and Russia.  

As his theory implies, the Russian-North Korean alliance poses challenges to stability beyond Europe.   

Tolerating Putin and Kim’s aggression against Ukrainians sends a message to other autocrats that they, too, can challenge (and perhaps break) the free world’s resolve. For example, if democracies lose their will to support Ukraine against Putin, the Chinese Communist Party could be emboldened to attack Taiwan with the expectation of foundering opposition from the United States and its allies.  

That could end disastrously. The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) conducted a war game for a Chinese invasion of Taiwan with 24 simulations. While the study predicted that the United States and its regional allies could ward off the invasion in most scenarios, the costs would be significant with considerable losses of American lives and military assets.  

And North Korea itself poses a threat to the region. The regime has requested military assistance from Russia that includes fighter “aircraft, surface-to-air missiles, armored vehicles, and ballistic missile production equipment,” according to to Mira Rapp Hooper, Senior Director for East Asia and Oceania for the National Security Council  

By enhancing its offensive capabilities, Pyongyang positions itself to turn saber rattling into actual aggression. And, at least rhetorically, Kim isn’t masking his ambitions to challenge South Korea with force. During a recent visit to the South Korean border, he told his troops to be ready for a war against their neighbor. And earlier this year, Kim declared that his regime would no longer be pursuing peaceful reunification with South Korea.   

Washington and its allies can’t dismiss these episodes as being outside of America’s vital national interests. A cancer left untreated will metastasize. They must heed the lessons of 1938, when British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain foolishly declared “peace for our time” after conceding the Sudetenland to a rising Nazi Germany. 

This moment presents a golden opportunity for Congress to support Ukraine’s fight for freedom and democracy by authorizing funds for desperately needed weaponry, while simultaneously weakening a major geostrategic adversary in Russia. It would also demonstrate America’s resolve to its allies and the growing web of authoritarian countries committed to undermining democracies.  

This is the best way to maintain the democratic order that has yielded widespread peace and prosperity for our country without sacrificing American lives. 

Providing material support to Ukrainians now reduces the odds that Americans will later be forced into a multitheater conflict. And, perhaps more importantly, it would prevent the balance of global power shifting to tyrants who are committed to America’s downfall.