Pyongyang’s Ballistic Missiles are Now in Moscow’s Hands

Instead of fireworks, several unmarked ballistic missiles lit up the sky in eastern Ukraine to welcome the New Year. 

Dmytro Chubenko carefully examined a missile fragment after firefighters finished extinguishing the wreckage in Kharkiv, Ukraine where Russia attacked from Dec. 30, 2023, to Jan. 2, 2024. Chubenko, an investigator of the Kharkiv prosecutor’s office, wiped away the fragment’s debris for identification purposes only to reveal neither Cyrillic nor Latin script, but Korean characters.

On January 4, U.S. National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby alerted the world of the war’s “significant and concerning escalation” as he declassified intelligence that North Korean-made missiles were indeed fired by Russia, killing dozens and injuring hundreds. The 7,500-pound rockets with 1,100-pound warheads, identified as North Korean KN-23s and KN-25s, are similar to Russia’s Iskander ballistic missile. It is hardly ‘superpower’ weaponry; American Patriot PAC-2s routinely destroy Iskanders, but there are currently only three of those batteries in Ukraine, leaving much of the country vulnerable to Kim Jong Un’s latest business venture. The Democratic Republic of Korea’s leader announced the next day, on January 5, that the country is preparing for a “military showdown” as he promises to boost the production of various missile launch vehicles—even though North Korea denies it sold arms to Russia at all.

This friendly business transaction has once more awakened NATO and its partners, as various UN Security Council Resolutions were violated overnight by Russia, one of the P5 powers. Since 2006, North Korea has been sanctioned by United Nations Security Council legislation to encourage its denuclearization. The integrity of such sanctions has now been called into question. Resolutions such as UNSCR 1718, 1874, and 2270 prohibit all UN Member States from procuring arms from North Korea and forbid North Korea from exporting arms or related materials. This isn’t Moscow’s first instance of sidestepping the UN Security Council, nor its first time using non-Russian weaponry against Ukraine. Throughout the last 23 months, hundreds of Iranian drones have wreaked havoc across Ukrainian territory on behalf of Russia.

US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield stated in her press release that all UN members must “implement legally binding measures under Security Council Resolutions and should uphold—not undermine—the global nonproliferation regime,” which begs the question: what happens when Russia undermines this once-assumed ‘international law’? Nothing, for now, seems to be the resounding answer. 

The UN is not a global government, nor a legislative body, and has no mandate to enact international laws. Other than fellow Member States simply gaining awareness of Moscow’s defiance, the consequences of violating the unanimously agreed-upon resolutions meant to isolate Pyongyang have yet to be seen. Since enforcement options of UN Security Council Resolutions (UNSCR) do not involve the use of armed force, under Article 41, keeping militant and authoritarian regimes at bay with exclusively soft power is rather difficult. When Lebanon’s Hezbollah rejected UNSCR 1701, nothing happened. When the Arab League ignored UNSCR 242, shoulders shrugged. Though the International Court of Justice is seen as the “principal judicial authority” on interpreting resolutions and overseeing their international and domestic implications, the UNSCRs seem to be treated as an old stop sign to run through as if nobody is watching. This time, however, the West isn’t looking the other way. 

Not only can the Kremlin target critical Ukrainian infrastructure, but it can also target former Soviet states and central Asian nations with its new ballistic missile capacity. The close collaboration in Pyongyang and Moscow’s relationship invites a new dynamic to the war; it has become a continental affair. North Korea has the potential to test its operational might against Western weaponry, enabling Kim Jong Un’s military-industrial complex to work with more real-world data. Increased friendliness between Russia, Iran, and North Korea embraces a fear-mongering security threat to countries from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean.

With elections in nearly 50 countries this year, a united and strong front must rise. The United States, European Union, and Indian elections will be extremely important for defending Ukraine, preventing war in the Pacific theater, and maintaining a global liberal order. The new administrations must fortify the integrity of democratic institutions like the UN Security Council, stand up collectively to brutish authoritarianism, and honor their word in the process. 

Faith Austin is from Carmel, Indiana, studying International Comparative Studies and Russian

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