History Wars

Why Russia likely won’t use North Korean troops in Ukraine

north korean leader with putin

North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (right), April 2019.

It’s no secret Russia is taking extraordinary casualties in the war in Ukraine. As of this writing, the Ukraine Ministry of Defence estimates it eliminated more than 162,500 Russian personnel in the war. The Russian military’s staggering losses led to the forced conscription of hundreds of thousands of Russian military age males, but many Western experts think it may not be enough to move the needle in the war. 

Russia has turned to other pariah states for help in getting the supplies, weapons, and technology it needs to stay competitive in the war. Drones from Iran, soldiers from the infamous Wagner Group, and even ammunition from North Korea. Its personnel losses have led many to believe that it might start accepting an influx of fresh troops from North Korea, whose ground force is among the largest in the world. 

Despite the fact that Russia needs the manpower and North Korea needs the cash (and other goods), this outcome is extremely unlikely. 

North Korea, as expected, blasted Western efforts to support the Ukrainian Armed Forces against the Russian invasion. It doubled down on that rhetoric when the U.S. and Germany agreed to send main battle tanks to the Ukrainians. 

“I have no doubt that any weapons that the United States and the West are proud of will burn to dust and turn into scrap metal in the face of the relentless combat spirit and might of the heroic army and people of Russia,” Kim Jong Un’s sister Kim Yo Jong said to North Korean state media, adding that Pyongyang would “always stand in the same trench with the army and the people of Russia.”

North Korea might be in Russia’s trench symbolically, but not necessarily in a literal sense. The Hermit Kingdom is happy to rent its people out as forced labor around the world, even in dangerous places, like Angola, Myanmar, and Ethiopia. There, they do some of the world’s most dangerous work: mining, construction, logging, the list goes on. 

While it is true that North Korea offered to send a thousand laborers to Donbas after Russia wins the war, the idea that it offered to send 100,000 troops to help win it is debatable. The idea was introduced by a pundit on Russian state television, not an official announcement from the governments of either country. 

tanks would be used against North Korea troops in Ukraine
Ukrainian tanks during the 2022 Kharkiv counteroffensive.

Combat troops or even laborers working in a combat zone like Ukraine might be a bridge too far for both sides. For the North Koreans, who are perpetually short of foreign currency due to the massive number of international sanctions placed on the regime at any time, its labor force might be expendable, but it is still a valuable asset. Sending hundreds of them into a combat zone to be killed (or worse for Pyongyang, liberated by Ukrainians) isn’t good business. 

For the Russians, an influx of combat troops, even North Korean commandos, might seem like a good idea on paper, but when it comes to North Korea, the paper doesn’t always match the reality. In 2016, Russia and Syria reportedly used North Korean troops in the Syrian Civil War on the side of President Bashar al-Asad. 

2016 wasn’t the first appearance of a North Korean in Syria, either. The DPRK sent teams of logistical experts to Syria as early as 2013, two years before Russia’s official intervention in the Middle Eastern country. When North Korean combat troops arrived in 2016, their presence did not change the situation on the ground. 

Neither Syria nor North Korea had any means of actually getting the troops to the Middle East. This means they were moved by Russia, fed by Russia, and armed by Russia. After all that, the combat effectiveness of the North Korean force was questionable. They were reportedly used in neighborhoods surrounding the capital of Damascus

While this might free up security forces for use elsewhere, the investment of time and resources to move and supply them could have been better used elsewhere. This is an investment that Russia just can’t afford in Ukraine.