August 28, 2023

And the Truth Shall Set You Free

By Nick Miller

August 28, 2023

Nick Miller is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Edinburgh. His doctoral work examines how the U.S. Intelligence Community analyzed North Korean and Chinese politics during the Cold War. He previously served as a defense analyst for the U.S. Air Force, managing a variety of East Asian security issues.

As the war in Ukraine drags on, the United States has stated that Russia has been looking for resources from North Korea, including weapons and ammunition, in return for providing food and commodities to Pyongyang. While the food situation is reportedly at its worst since Kim Jong-un came to power, there have not been clear signs of a serious famine.[1]


The Biden administration’s policy of openly disseminating intelligence to U.S. allies and the public regarding the war in Ukraine should be maintained to keep everyone aware of the atrocities occurring in Ukraine. This also helps shine a much-needed light on the actions that the North Korean regime continues to take to support Russia, thus violating numerous UN sanctions that have already been imposed.




In March, the U.S. Treasury Department announced sanctions against a Slovakian individual who was attempting to broker arms deals between Russia and North Korea in exchange for new commercial aircraft and raw materials, for the purpose of replacing weapons and munitions spent in Ukraine.[2] From November to December 2022, the United States exposed how North Korea has been covertly funneling weapons via the Middle East and Africa to support Russia.[3],[4] North Korean state media, KCNA, stated that it had “never exported weapons or ammunitions to Russia” and did not plan to export any, according to an unnamed vice director general of the General Bureau of Equipment in the Ministry of National Defense.[5] Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Vassily Nebenzia, also dismissed the reports.[6]




There have been reports that North Korea is potentially sending construction workers to Russian-occupied Eastern Ukraine. While this reporting is doubted by some experts, this step would further strengthen Russian-North Korean ties, which have languished after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Lim Soo-ho of South Korea’s Institute for National Security Strategy stated that Russia had utilized North Korean constructions workers in the past due to their low cost. It is also a common strategy for North Korea to export its labor as a way for the regime to generate hard currency, but this activity was targeted in 2017 under UN Security Resolution 2397. Workers were estimated to provide between $200-500 million a year for the North Korean regime. Only a small portion is ever seen by the individual workers, who are under the scrutiny of the Ministry of State Security.[7]  


According to an October 2021 Daily NK report, North Korea prepared to finalize the selection of 800-1,000 workers to the Donbas region in November. An unnamed source stated that North Korea, China, and Russia had agreed that sending North Korean workers did not violate existing sanctions.[8] There have been unconfirmed reports that the move was delayed due to not wanting to send people to a “danger zone.”[9]


What is to be done and adapted for future use? 


Intelligence assessments are almost always kept classified, but the Biden administration has publicly disclosed them to spotlight and shame Russia. It quickly declassified and disseminated intelligence to key allies to highlight a range of issues, including Iranian arms support to Russia and atrocities committed by the Wagner Group. A similar policy should be adapted and utilized as a future tool of U.S. statecraft with respect to North Korea.[10] 


Even after the War in Ukraine reaches a conclusion, this strategy needs to continue and be adapted by future administrations to assist the North Korean people, with the goal of weakening the figures and bureaucratic structures that enable the oppression of the North Korean people. 


Some areas that the Biden administration could investigate include:


Prison Labor Complex. This includes the networks that enable the construction and operation of prison camps, as well as the distribution and export of items produced at these camps. Such networks could be targeted through sanctions by the United States, its allies, and the United Nations.


Food Security. While North Korea has not experienced a second “Arduous March,” it is reportedly experiencing a serious food shortage. Any food that is secured by the regime from the outside world will not go to the people who need it most, but rather, most likely, to elites and the Korean People’s Army.[11] If and when food aid is sent to North Korea, any diversion of this aid could be disclosed in the same way that North Korea’s ship-to-ship fuel transfers have been reported.


Oil Shipments. While China has denied facilitating North Korean oil shipments, China is still a core facilitator for the weakening of UN sanction enforcement and the current sanctions have not ended North Korea’s ability to finance and advance its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.[12], [13] According to Cho Bong-hyun of IBK Bank in Seoul, the targeting of oil supplies could paralyze the North Korean economy. However, the biggest obstacle to a full-on oil embargo is China’s veto power in the UN Security Council, since China does not want to manage the impact of a North Korean collapse on its border.[14], [15] In an 2020 annual report to the UN Security Council, it was noted that China’s shipping industry was instrumental in facilitating the coal and oil trade by North Korea in “defiance of UN sanctions.”[16]


While China continues to facilitate North Korean trade and weaken sanctions enforcement, the United States must take a tougher stance on China. China’s continued support ensures the Kim family’s security and continued control over the country. Severing that resource will be essential in creating meaningful change, as it deprives the regime of the means to fuel its weapons programs.



Focusing on these three issues will erode the North Korean regime’s ability to obtain and utilize resources at the expense of the people. By adapting the Ukrainian plan to North Korea, the United States can expose Pyongyang’s actions and counter its assertions. Truth must be told through information campaigns aimed at the people of North Korea. It is critical to push back against disinformation campaigns that come out of North Korea or China. By exposing Pyongyang’s policies and practices and the individuals responsible for implementing them, the United States and its allies can help bring a brighter future for the North Korean people. 

[1] “U.S. says Russia looking to North Korea for weapons needed for Ukraine War,” Associated Press, March 30, 2023. 

[2] U.S. Department of the Treasury, “Treasury Sanctions Facilitator for Attempted Arms Deals Between North Korea and Russia,” March 30, 2023.

[3] David Brunnstrom and Idrees Ali, “White House Says North Korea supplying Russia with artillery shells,” Reuters, November 3, 2022.

[4] George Wright, “North Korea sold arms to Russia’s Wagner group, US says,” BBC News, December 22, 2022.

[5] Joori Roh, “N.Korea says it has never supplied weapons or ammunition to Russia – KCNA,” Reuters, September 21, 2022.

[6] Trever Hunnicutt and David Brunnstrom, “U.S.: Russia could be about to buy ‘millions’ of North Korean shells, rockets,” Reuters, September 7, 2022.

[7] Kim Tong-hyung, “N. Korea may send workers to Russian occupied east Ukraine,” Associated Press, September 1, 2022.

[8] Mun Dong-Hui, “N. Korea finalises selection of workers to join reconstruction efforts in Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine,” Daily NK, October 21, 2022.

[9] Mun Dong-Hui, “Pyongyang delays sending of workers to Eastern Ukraine due to security concerns,” Daily NK, February 1, 2023.

[10] Julian E. Barnes and Adam Entous, “How the U.S. Adopted a New Intelligence Playbook to Expose Russia’s War Plans,” The New York Times, February 23, 2023.

[11] Human Rights Watch, “A Matter of Survival: The North Korean Government’s Control of Food and the Risk of Hunger,” May 3, 2006.

[12] “China Denies Involvement in Illicit Oil Shipments to North Korea,” VOA News, December 29, 2017.

[13] “North Korea: South seizes ship amid row over illegal oil transfer,” BBC News, December 29, 2017.

[14] Stella Cooper, Christoph Koetti, and Muyi Xiao, “5 Takeaways From Investigating Covert Oil Deliveries to North Korea,” The New York Times, March 22, 2021.

[15] Tony Monroe and Jane Chung, “For North Korea, cutting off oil supplies would be devastating,” Reuters, April 13, 2017.

[16] “North Korea defies sanctions with China’s help, UN Panel says,” The Guardian, April 18, 2020.