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18.07.2022 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

DPRK Recognizes Donetsk and Lugansk


July 13, 2022  North Korea has officially recognized the independence of the DPR and LPR, becoming the third country in the world after Russia and Syria to do so. DPRK Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui sent her counterparts in the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics the following letters: “…the DPRK government has decided to recognize the independence of the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics and expressed its desire to develop interstate relations with these countries in the spirit of independence, peace and friendship”. In addition, a note on recognition of the DPR and LPR was handed to the Russian ambassador in Pyongyang.

To many who have not been following the situation, this decision will seem sudden, but it is not. Since the beginning of the special military operation in Ukraine, North Korea has openly supported Moscow’s course, unlike China, whose domestic policy line prohibits supporting secessionist sentiments in other countries, since Beijing would then have to answer the unpleasant question about “double standards” and policies towards Tibet and Xinjiang, which allegedly also aspire to independence.

On the very first day, the DPRK Foreign Ministry immediately pointed out that the US and NATO had forced Moscow to retaliate against the rise of Nazism in Ukraine and that the West’s aggressive stance was the culprit behind the heightened tensions around Ukraine.

On February 26, 2022, Ri Ji-song, a researcher at the Society for International Politics Study, published a statement on the website of the DPRK Foreign Ministry: “The US must not destroy the foundation of international peace and stability”, noting that “the root cause of the Ukrainian crisis also lies in the high-handedness and arbitrariness of the US which has held on solely to the unilateral sanction and pressure while pursuing only global hegemony and military supremacy”.

On February 28, a DPRK foreign ministry spokesperson responded to a question from KCNA, stressing that “the hotbed of events in Ukraine lies entirely in the hegemonic policies of the US and the West, which have resorted to arbitrary and high-handed behavior towards other countries”. According to him, the US and the West, ignoring Russia’s rational and just demands for legally binding security guarantees, stubbornly promoted NATO’s eastward expansion, which systematically eroded security in Europe. And it is not for those who turned Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya into ruins to talk about “respect for sovereignty” and “territorial integrity” in Ukraine.

When the UN passed a resolution condemning the Russian Federation on March 3, 2022, and the ROK joined the general chorus, only five countries voted against it: Russia, Belarus, DPRK, Syria and Eritrea. Moreover, speaking at the UN emergency special session on the crisis in Ukraine, DPRK representative to the UN Kim Song virtually repeated the above text, pointing out that “the main cause of the crisis in Ukraine is entirely due to the hegemonic policies pursued by the US and Western countries”.

When the UN General Assembly debated removing Russia from the UN Human Rights Council on April 7, 2022, North Korea also voted against removing Russia from the Human Rights Council, with Kim Song stating that reports of massacres in Russian-controlled territory during the special operation “are not based on real facts and objective evidence” and that the decision to remove Russia from the Human Rights Council was therefore “irresponsible” and “politically biased”.

On April 9, 2022, North Korea condemned the United States for turning the crisis around Ukraine into a human rights issue and imposing sanctions on Russia. The KCNA commentary stressed that the Ukrainian issue had suddenly become a human rights issue and was “one link in an intriguing psychological war aimed at distorting Russia’s external image and leading it further towards a “collapse of power”, all of which is the product of a carefully planned and calibrated political conspiracy”.  Moreover, “the Ukrainian crisis is an American crisis, and in the end it is the US that will be the loser”.

On April 11, the DPRK foreign minister also criticized the decision to suspend Russia’s membership in the UN Human Rights Council as an unjustifiable act aimed at achieving a biased and unilateral political objective without scientific basis or legal justification, and noted that “the UN and international organizations should not be reused as a means for the US to exert political pressure, threaten and blackmail unpleasant countries”.

On April 20, the material “What the event of the massacre in Bucha shows” was released, listing the arguments of the Russian side and concluding that “the US and the West are unscrupulous in their sleazy ways in order to achieve their nefarious goal of tarnishing Russia’s image and isolating it internationally”.

In general, the KCNA and the Rodong Sinmun newspaper have consistently printed material and commentary supporting the operation and harshly criticizing the US as the main instigator of the conflict.  Moreover, in the run-up to the recognition date, representatives of the pro-North Korean online media Bulgeunbyeol TV took part in a “Za pravdu press tour” and visited recently liberated towns, including Lisichansk. Their published materials also expressed overwhelming support for the “special military operation”.

It is clear that Ukraine responded by immediately severing diplomatic relations with the DPRK. In a statement posted on its website, the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said it strongly condemned North Korea’s decision to recognize “the so-called independence of the territories temporarily occupied by the Russian Federation in Donetsk and Lugansk regions of Ukraine”, adding that the country’s political and economic contacts with North Korea had already been suspended due to international sanctions imposed on Pyongyang. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy also said that Ukraine would react “very harshly at all levels” to the DPRK’s recognition of the DPR and LPR’s independence.

However, it should be understood that relations between Kiev and Pyongyang have been frozen for a very long time – there is no North Korean embassy in Ukraine and it is represented by the Russian embassy. That is why Kiev’s actions look very determined, but do not actually aggravate the international situation in any way.

Two other questions are more interesting. First, what will be Russia’s understanding of this North Korean initiative and what will the DPRK gain from it? Mercantile considerations are mostly ascribed to Pyongyang by liberal commentators, but it is widely expected that Russia will reciprocate such support to its ally. How? This is a good question, since Russia has yet to formally declare that it is officially dropping its support for the sanctions regime on the North amid a radically changed international environment. Accusations by the US and its allies that Russia is not complying with its obligations, or turning a blind eye to smuggling, are unknown to the author.

However, one can already recall how Moscow and Beijing vetoed a US draft sanctions resolution against the DPRK at the UN. This has never happened before and one can point out that such a move drew a line under the previous world order. And so increased diplomatic support and the delivery of humanitarian aid that does not violate sanctions are very likely.

As the Russian Chinese scholar Alexey Maslov points out, one of North Korea’s aims is to increase and intensify contacts with Russia; recognition of the republics’ independence could help the countries come closer together, but in the short term Russia will not drastically change its policy towards the DPRK. So there will be no direct benefit to either North Korea or the LPR and DPR for the foreseeable future.

Equally interesting is the question of what form North Korean support for the LDPR will take in addition to diplomatic recognition. Here too, different options are possible, and to delineate the boundaries, the author wants to recall a Ukrainian propaganda story that appeared long before the special military operation and was so silly and caricatured that it was scrubbed from the internet about half an hour after the news “appeared”.  It turns out, according to Kiev’s version, that under the guise of Buryats, North Korean special forces are allegedly fighting against the Ukrainian state. This explains both their successes, which are strikingly different, and their appalling cruelty, which manifests itself in the fact that the North Koreans ate all stray and domestic dogs in the territories they captured, with the latter being brutally slaughtered and cooked in the presence of their owners.

Perhaps we should expect such fakes to be resurrected, but it is far more likely that North Korea will limit itself to informational support, as it would be too difficult to organize even economic support. But be that as it may, Moscow will remember what Pyongyang has done.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.



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