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Defense & Security
China, USA and Iran Flags

Iran’s Strategies in Response To Changes in US-China Relations

by Sara Bazoobandi

Bazoobandi, S. Iran’s Strategies in Response to Changes in US-China Relations. Middle East Policy. 2024;31:120–132. Abstract The dynamics of the relationship between the United States and China have been shifting. This has prompted changes in strategic calculus and policy adoption by the friends and foes of each side. Iran, given its decades-long links with China, has made several. First, it has deepened its ties with the Asian power beyond collaboration in business and trade. Second, it has revised its policies in the Gulf region to be a part of what it sees as China's network of influence, hoping to better position itself in a multilateral global order. Third, it has been seeking opportunities to project power through showing off its military capabilities in Ukraine. This article examines these strategic responses and concludes that Iran has been pursuing an agenda in line with the world vision of its senior leaders. The end goal for Tehran is to gain more power and relevance in the global strategic calculus. This analysis is part of a special issue examining the responses of Gulf countries to rising Sino-American competition, edited by Andrea Ghiselli, Anoushiravan Ehteshami, and Enrico Fardella. Over the past decade, the relationship between China and United States has been going through fundamental changes.1 “Engagement, cooperation, and convergence,” previous pillars of the ties between the world's largest economic powerhouses, have been replaced by the trade war between Beijing and Washington.2 These changes have influenced strategic choices made by states around the world, including Iran. The country has increased its commercial ties with China, which has been instrumental in Tehran's efforts to circumvent US sanctions and maintain the regime's financial bloodline. As a result, China has remained Iran's largest trade partner for more than a decade.3 The Islamic Republic perceives the changes in US-China relations as a sign of US decline and foresees the end of unipolarity in the global system. This has emboldened Tehran's attempt to pursue three main strategies: deepen its ties with China, revise its policies in the Gulf region, and project power through showing off its military capabilities in Ukraine. This article analyzes Tehran's strategic calculus in pursuing these strategies. It aims to provide a holistic understanding of Iran's vision for a multipolar world system that the country's senior leaders sense as increasingly viable. The article starts with a brief review of the expansion and strengthening of Iran-China ties, which has undoubtedly been crucial in Iran's economic survival. This section underscores that in addition to economic hardship, the changing dynamics between Beijing and Washington, combined with Iran's ideological framework of the “new world order” and the regional struggle over the balance of power, have influenced Iran's relations with China. In 2022, Iran's supreme leader, its most senior political figure, stated: “The world is on the threshold of a new world order” in which “the United States is becoming weaker day by day.”4 The analysis indicates that Iran sees this as the starting point for the emergence of a multipolar order, in which the global clout of non-Western powers such as China and Russia is on the rise. By expanding and strengthening its ties with China, Iran is aiming to align itself with the leading global powers that are both deemed to be trustworthy by the senior political leaders and expected to emerge as stronger than the United States. The second section focuses on the impact of US-China relations on Iran's strategy toward the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. China has been visibly increasing its involvement in the Gulf region. Trade and investment levels have been rising, and both sides have indicated their intentions to boost their strategic partnership. The United States has for several decades played the role of the security guarantor of the Arab nations in the Gulf. Given Iran's perception of America's weakening, navigating these regional dynamics, particularly the strengthening of GCC-China ties, has influenced Tehran's strategy in the region. The article argues that Iran is seeking to improve ties with the GCC, in line with its strategy of expanding relations with China as a non-Western power in an emerging global multipolar system. For example, the consolidation of the ties between China and the GCC has motivated Iran to shift its hostile approach toward some member states, particularly Saudi Arabia. This section provides an overview of the Gulf-China partnership in light of changing relations between Washington and Beijing. It aims to provide a better understanding of how Iran's strategies have been shaped by its perception of the shifting dynamics among the Western and non-Western powers in this region. Next, the article investigates the impact of US-China relations on the ties between Tehran and Moscow, given the perception of Iran's senior leaders of American decline and their determination to gain more significance in the global order. Russia and China's mutual desire to redefine the normative principles of the international order has strengthened their cooperation in various areas, including military, energy, and finance.5 Their interest in pushing against the US-led, liberal global system has motivated them to form networks of partnership with like-minded states across the world.6 They have used international platforms and frameworks to promote their visions and constrain the West.7 Unlike the Western powers, both China and Russia seem to have been able to navigate Iran's complex and ideology-oriented political system.8 As a result, Tehran has been inspired to pursue strategies that share Moscow and Beijing's vision for the world order, and to seek to establish itself as a more powerful global player.9 The final section examines the influence of the visions and ideologies of Iran's political leaders on the country's strategic direction. It argues that Iran's quest for power projection is its main response to the changing US-China relationship. This shift has prompted Iran's leaders to seek ways to pursue the “resistance strategy” beyond its traditional realm of influence in its immediate neighboring region. As part of this, Russia's war in Ukraine has offered Iran the opportunity to project power through military collaboration. This article concludes that Iran's strategic response to the changing relationship between Beijing and Washington is based on anticipation of the decline of US hegemony and aimed at claiming a powerful position in the new world order. Iran's aspiration to increase its relevance and strength in the global and regional strategic calculus is reflected in official government documents that highlight the regime's vision. “The Islamic Iranian Progress Model” and the declaration of “The Second Phase of the Revolution” by Iran's supreme leader provide an outline of the regime's vision, which includes economic and political independence from the West and resistance against global imperialism.10 Against this backdrop, the analysis concludes that this ideological framework, built around the notion of American decline and the emergence of a new global order, has been Iran's main strategic response to the changes between the superpowers and the most effective driving force for Tehran's policies toward China, the GCC, and Russia. The study uses qualitative analysis to trace the processes of policy formation, considering states’ visions and ideologies, as well as regional and global events. It employs a variety of sources, including academic literature, news articles, and government websites. CHINA-IRAN RELATIONS: AN OVERVIEW The need to build and strengthen links with the world's strongest non-Western economic powerhouse, particularly in times of harsh US-led economic sanctions, has driven Iran's relations with China. Other factors have influenced the development of non-economic aspects of Tehran-Beijing ties, including the changing dynamics between Beijing and Washington, domestic ideological frameworks, global and regional balance-of-power struggles, and domestic dissent. Iran's relations with China began before the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Despite the country's “no East, no West” slogan that marked its policies in the early years after the revolution, the regime has consistently maintained its ties with China.11 The presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was a significant period for the bilateral relationship, and it was considered the starting point of Iran's “Asianization” era. During that period, Tehran accelerated its nuclear program and reactivated the anti-West narrative.12 Since then, China has wavered between promoting a diplomatic solution to Iran's nuclear file, supporting a decision by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 2006 to refer the file to the United Nations Security Council, and helping Iran in its efforts to circumvent sanctions. The two countries began a nuclear-cooperation agreement in the early 1990s, which quickly ended under US pressure. In 2006, China agreed with IAEA's decision to refer Iran's file to the Security Council. This was a turning point in the decades-long nuclear dispute. Between 2006 and 2010, China agreed to Security Council resolutions that led to increasing economic pressure on Iran through international sanctions. Despite that, during the Ahmadinejad presidency, bilateral trade between Iran and China increased from $10 billion to $43 billion. This was a clear signal of their cooperation to bypass the sanctions, which at times had negative consequences for China and for globally recognized Chinese businesses, such as Huawei. Such strengthening of Iran's relations with the East (non-Western great powers) was largely influenced by the personal views and foreign-relations goals of the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.13 In recent years, he has openly driven the strategy of strengthening ties with China, publicly declaring Beijing a trustworthy partner and explicitly stating that the Islamic Republic will never forget its support in bypassing the sanctions.14 Following Khamenei's guidance for closer ties with China, President Ebrahim Raisi has in recent years described “the friendship” between the two countries as based on mutual respect and trust.15 Such political language indicates a long-lasting and perhaps all-encompassing commitment to maintain and expand ties with China. In response, the Iranian regime has received Beijing's support beyond the bypassing of sanctions. For example, despite the concern raised by other regional players, particularly GCC members, China supported terminating the arms embargo on Iran in 2020.16 This, in theory, allows Iran to purchase weapons and upgrade its military armaments.17 A year later, in March 2021, the two countries announced a comprehensive strategic partnership aimed at strengthening bilateral relations in energy and the economy, as well as cybersecurity and the military.18 Not much detail is available on the agreement, which Khamenei described as a wise decision, and its implementation.19 China has been Iran's most important trade partner for more than a decade.20 Before the US withdrawal from the nuclear agreement in 2018, Tehran had hoped to benefit more from freer trade and investment by both the Asian power and Europe. In 2015, Iranian officials announced plans to rebuild relations with Europe and expand ties with China.21 However, the calculus changed with President Donald Trump's decision to impose a maximum pressure campaign on Iran. Despite European and Asian leaders’ initial disagreement with the US decision, European firms quickly responded by ceasing business with Iran.22 The Chinese banking system also limited the scope of its operations with the country.23 This has posed a major challenge to all aspects of bilateral trade and investment. Undoubtedly, the Chinese business and economic collaboration promised by the framework of the comprehensive strategic partnership was affected by American pressure. Considering its location, Iran has the potential to be a valuable element of Chinese economic initiatives like the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).24 Hacked documents obtained from the Centre for Strategic Studies, a research entity within the Office of the President of Iran, revealed that Raisi has officially ordered the Foreign Ministry to facilitate economic collaborations with China.25 This reflects the government's desire to turn Iran into a key player in the “Chinese value chain.”26 This expansion of economic ties with China has been challenged by the Western sanctions.27 Consequently, Iran has not been successful in attracting Chinese investment, either in the BRI or other projects. The pressure eased under the Biden administration, which restored some sanctions waivers.28 Iran's oil exports to China, through subterranean methods, have continued to flow relatively steadily. This has benefited both sides, maintaining Iran's vital revenue stream and helping facilitate the import of Chinese goods and services in return for discounted energy.29 Collaboration between Iran and China has expanded into areas such as technological exchange. Beijing's cooperation model is more favorable toward Tehran in comparison to those of the Western governments, as it does not impose values on partners.30 While Western companies have been reluctant to engage with Iran due to sanctions, China has offered technological assistance. This has been, in part, facilitated by China's strategy to develop its technological and scientific industries, civil-military integration, and dual-use technologies through the export of products and standards.31 Iran has also been pursuing strategies to expand its scientific and technological capabilities, driven by the views of its senior political leaders. In his 2006 Persian New Year speech, Khamenei stated, “Knowledge is authority, it is equal to power; whoever finds it can rule; a nation that finds it can rule; a nation that cannot [build its scientific and technological capacities] must prepare itself to be ruled by others.”32 This clearly indicates Iran's motivation and intention. Khamenei has frequently encouraged the country's policy makers to promote strategies that support the “jihad of knowledge.”33 This phrase has gained significance in Iran's strategic planning in recent years, driving the country's efforts to advance its defense and military capacities. Technological assistance in fields such as artificial intelligence (AI) and cybersecurity has been a major area of collaboration between China and Iran.34 For example, the Chinese firm Tiandy, one of the world's leading video-surveillance companies, has been reportedly working with the Iranian government.35 Rising domestic dissent over the past few years may have played a role in advancing this technological collaboration. There is very little public information about the nature of such cooperation. However, technologies accessed through collaboration with Chinese companies have helped Iran spy on its citizens, crack down on protests, and monitor dissidents.36 Trade and business partnerships have dominated the bilateral relationship.37 China has cooperated with Iran to get around sanctions while taking advantage of discounted energy prices.38 At the same time, the two countries have been expanding into other areas, such as technology. The regime in Tehran, heavily influenced by the supreme leader, sees China as the main challenge to US hegemony and is determined to consolidate its ties with Beijing while trying to maximize its power in the global system. The next section explores the changing relationships between Iran and the GCC, analyzing the impact of US-China relations on Tehran's strategies toward its neighbors. US-CHINA RELATIONS AND IRAN'S STRATEGIES IN THE GULF Senior Iranian politicians have frequently stated that they foresee a new international order to replace the US-led unipolar system.39 As the previous section demonstrated, such anticipation has motivated Tehran to maintain close ties with Beijing. This section investigates how Iran's vision of a new world order has prompted the strategy of normalization with the GCC. It examines the regime's understanding of the future Chinese and American roles in the region and how this impacts Tehran's strategy toward its southern neighbors. In the years before the 2023 Iran-Saudi agreement that re-established diplomatic ties between the two countries, the dynamics between Iran and the GCC were predominantly based on “intra-regional threat perceptions and intense mutual securitisation.”40 The deal brokered by China seems to have shifted this formulation. One factor that played a significant role in changing Iran's policies was the advancement of the China-GCC relationship. In 2021, Beijing officials described this as a part of building a “synergy” between the “new development paradigm in China” and “major development strategies” in the region.41 Such statements may well have been perceived by Tehran as indicating Beijing's increasing strategic influence and its pushing back against US involvement in the security structure of the region. This has motivated Iran to be a part of what it sees as a newly emerging realm of influence for China. Further, the normalization of diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia is anticipated to pave the way for a much needed, yet challenging, “tripartite peace deal between Iran, Saudi Arabia and Houthis”42 that can address one of the most pressing security concerns across the GCC. Iran has long desired a new security structure forged by eradicating US influence and presence. In 2019, the Iranian government proposed the “Hormuz Peace Endeavor” (HOPE), a security-cooperation initiative that would include all of the Gulf's littoral states.43 Motivated by Iran's long-held aspiration to undermine US hegemony, it was presented during the GCC's internal crisis with Qatar, which coincided with the initial stage of the US-China trade war.44 During the long-running hostilities between the GCC and Yemen's Houthi rebels, Washington was not able to offer any meaningful solutions. The Saudi government, disappointed by this inability to protect its security, therefore welcomed the Chinese-backed rapprochement with Iran. As for Tehran, this shift toward Riyadh demonstrates how the perception of US decline and Chinese rise influenced its strategic calculus in relation to the GCC countries. Iran's decision to normalize with the GCC came at a time when policy makers anticipated an increase in China's regional power and saw it as helping fulfill their strategic vision. Collaborations between the GCC and China have convinced Tehran that Beijing is determined to increase its engagement with the region. Iran assumes this will be to the detriment of the United States. Against that backdrop, the Islamic Republic is also motivated to be a member of the newly emerging realm of influence. Over many decades, the GCC countries have had warm relations with the United States, leading to a strong American military presence in the region that has excluded Iran from a position of influence in the Gulf. Iran sees an expansion of China-GCC cooperation as an opportunity to enter China's realm of influence that will, according to its senior leaders, end the US-led global system. Whether Iran's assessment of China's intentions for expanding ties with the GCC is accurate can be debated. Nevertheless, Tehran perceives China's ties with the region to be aimed at creating a new area of influence, one hospitable to its own vision. Moreover, Iran has for a long time perceived high strategic value in its economic ties with China and is hoping to improve such relations with both China and the GCC.45 The Iran-Saudi deal is estimated to boost bilateral trade to $2 billion, and Iran's drive to improve relations with the GCC could similarly be motivated by the prospect of economic gain.46 To highlight the impact of China-US relations on Iran's strategies in the Gulf, it is important to review the development of Beijing's relations with the GCC countries. The most significant aspect has been business and trade cooperation. China has been a net oil importer since 1993.47 The country's reliance on foreign energy has played a crucial role in its policies toward the Gulf's oil-exporting countries. Bilateral trade between China and the GCC increased from $182 billion in 2014 to about $229 billion in 2021, making China the region's largest trading partner.48 This volume has been substantially larger than that of China-Iran trade (about $16 billion in 2022).49 While energy demand has been a key element of bilateral trades with the GCC, business relations have been expanding into other areas, such as infrastructure investment and the exchange of technology, goods, and services. Iran has undoubtedly been envious of this cooperation between China and its southern neighbors. This has induced Tehran's efforts toward normalization in the hope of benefiting from collaboration with both Beijing and the GCC. This is manifested in the comprehensive strategic partnership and other forms of collaboration examined in the previous section. Chinese political leaders have adopted an effective narrative in describing their strategy for engagement with the GCC, emphasizing “equality between countries regardless of their size” and support for their “independent sovereignty.”50 This is aimed at persuading local leaders to see expanding ties with Beijing as “an opportunity to enrich the strategic substance” of the relationships.51 Such a narrative has undoubtedly been well received by Tehran, as it advances multilateralism. Saudi Arabia, until recently considered Iran's most obvious regional rival, has been one of China's most important partners and largest recipient of its investment in the region.52 Tehran sees normalization with a former foe—one becoming an even closer partner of China's—as both strengthening anti-US collaboration in the region and winning for itself a place in a network of partnerships based on equality and independence, as expressed in the Chinese narrative. Being part of such a network will help Tehran position itself better in a multilateral global order. Ultimately, Iran is pursuing its agenda in line with the world vision of its senior leaders, the goal of which is to gain more power and relevance in the global strategic calculus. For decades, the United States was considered a close ally of some of the regional powers. By brokering a deal between Tehran and Riyadh, China has undertaken a role that the United States and Europe have failed to play in recent years. Iran-Saudi normalization came at a time when European policy makers, who have been seeking to facilitate a regional dialogue, failed to achieve any tangible results between Tehran and Riyadh. Indeed, Iran has become skeptical of the EU's potential in resolving regional issues, particularly in the aftermath of Trump's withdrawal from the nuclear deal.53 The Iran-Saudi rapprochement highlighted China's mediation capacity and boosted the country's status among regional leaders. By welcoming Beijing's intervention, Iran sought to demonstrate that the United States and its Western allies can no longer shape regional dynamics. Iran has envisioned a multipolar world order and aspires to play a role in achieving this in the Gulf region. Beijing seems to have successfully managed to convince the regime in Tehran, along with the leaders of the Arab Gulf countries, of its capacity and willingness to support their aspirations. While the Western world has failed to maintain the regional leaders’ trust, China has gained it. These developments have been motivated by the changing relations between Beijing and Washington, which Tehran sees as signaling China's deep strategic influence in the region. Further, it serves Iran's belief in the decline of US power, particularly in the Gulf. THE US-CHINA RIVALRY AND IRAN'S POWER PROJECTION This section analyzes the effects of the changing dynamics between the United States and China on Iran's power-projection strategies. Tehran's perception of the decline of American global power, particularly in the Gulf, has driven Iran to restore ties with its main regional competitor, Saudi Arabia. Regardless of the future of normalization between Tehran and Riyadh, China's mediation indicates Tehran's anticipation of the strategic role the Asian power will play in the Gulf. It has also influenced Iran's power-projection strategies, particularly beyond its traditional realm of influence. Senior Iranian leaders have long seen realism as the main pillar of their relationship with China and Russia.54 More recently, however, Iran has pursued a policy of “looking East,” largely aimed at strengthening relations with those two powers. In 2019, Iran, Russia, and China conducted a naval exercise in the Indian Ocean symbolizing their commitment to breaking down American global unilateralism.55 Undoubtedly, the aims, motives, and extent of the relations among these countries varies. However, the common denominator is their anti-hegemonic sentiments, which have gained significance with the shift in dynamics of US-China relations. The Russian war in Ukraine has provided Iran a chance to project power, demonstrate its military capability, and remain relevant in the international calculus given the changing world order.56 This section argues that anti-hegemonic principles shared among Russian, Chinese, and Iranian political leaders play a significant role in strengthening their relationships, and the Ukraine war is a great opportunity for Iran to pursue its world vision and power-projection aspirations. Russia's overarching global strategy has been focused increasingly on challenging a unipolar system dominated by the United States.57 This has resonated with political ideologies in Tehran and China.58 Iran's supreme leader, who exerts a strong influence over the country's strategic policy making, has frequently emphasized maintaining and expanding “strategic depth” as one of the country's fundamental strategies.59 Moreover, he has expressed his anticipation of a “new world order” and accentuated the significance of “Geography of Resistance.”60 This ideology reflects Tehran's desire for influence in global and regional systems and has played a crucial role in driving the country's power-projection aspirations. Khamenei's use of theological concepts like jihad and resistance indicates his strong anti-hegemonic and anti-West views.61 He sees the West's policies as continuing the historical clash over identity and destiny between the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds. According to this view, Iran is located at the heart of the geography of resistance and is the main powerhouse of the Muslim world.62 Therefore, joining non-Western security and economic initiatives will help Tehran gain a more powerful global position to advance its strategic agenda. The Ukraine war presented Iran with new arenas in which to project power.63 The synergy between the Russian vision, manifested by its invasion, and that of Iran is perceived in Tehran as promising for the new global order. Iran's delivery of hundreds of Shahed-136 drones to Russia has been a clear signal of its determination to collaborate with powers that share its perception.64 In an order in which US power is challenged by China, Iran aspires to advance its ambitions, demonstrate its military capabilities, and gain relevance outside of its traditional realm of influence. The perceptions of Iran's political leaders and their visions for Iran's position in the world system are a driving force behind their strategic decisions.65 Their anticipation of the decline of the West, particularly the United States, is the crucial foundation. Historically, Iran's strategy of building a “Resistance Axis” has been used to project power through “a mix of strategic alliance, security community, and ideational network”66 in the Middle East and North Africa region. The war in Ukraine presented a new arena for this. CONCLUSION The relationship between the United States and China has been going through fundamental changes, prompting strategic responses by Iran on various fronts. Tehran believes American global power is declining while China's is rising. This interpretation has dominated Iran's policies and its envisioned regional and global roles. The senior political leaders in Tehran have been advocating for what they refer to as “the new world order.” This is a multipolar system in which the West, specifically the United States, no longer dominates. Iranian officials perceive the war in Ukraine and the October 7 attacks on Israel as powerful blows to the Americans. Khamenei has referred to the Hamas attacks as the starting point for the formation of a new map in the Middle East based on “de-Americanization.”67 Iran has welcomed these crises and supports the aggressors, with rhetoric based on the notion of resistance to the Western oppression of the Muslim world.68 Iran's understanding of the changing China-US relationship has prompted three strategies. First, the country has been seeking to deepen its ties with the Asian power. The relationship between Iran and China has been formed mainly around trade and business collaborations that have been strengthened by Tehran's efforts to circumvent sanctions. Iran sees China as the main challenge to US hegemony and a key player in fulfilling its envisioned world order. It is therefore determined to consolidate ties with Beijing, along with implementing strategies that can establish a more powerful position for Iran in the global system. Second, Iran has revised its policies in the hope that it can help contribute and be a part of what Tehran perceives as China's new realm of influence in the Gulf region. Iran's envisioned multipolar world system drives its aspirations of making itself more relevant and influential in the regional strategic calculus. Tehran interprets China's engagement in the Gulf as not negating its desired role in the emerging multipolar world. Third, Iran has been seeking to project power by aiding Russia in Ukraine, thus showing off its military capabilities, and forging an anti-Israeli front. These conflicts have presented Iran with new arenas to project influence, within and beyond its traditional regional realm. Tehran understands the synergy between the Russian vision and its own as the most promising for materializing a new global order. This analysis of how the changing US-China relationship is perceived in Tehran is crucial to understanding its strategic calculus and policy choices. In Iran's view, a new global order is emerging because of these shifting dynamics. As US power declines, Iran is seeking every opportunity to emerge as a powerful global player. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS Open access funding enabled and organized by Projekt DEAL. REFERENCES 1 An earlier version of this article was first presented at “The Persian Gulf and the US-China Rivalry,” a roundtable held in Rome on July 6, 2023. That event and this special issue have been sponsored by the ChinaMed Project of the TOChina Hub and the HH Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammad al-Sabah Programme at Durham University. 2 Evan S. 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Wald, “10 Companies Leaving Iran As Trump’s Sanctions Close In,” Forbes, 2018, 23 Jonathan Fulton, “The China-Iran Comprehensive Strategic Partnership: A Tale of Two Regional Security Complexes,” Asian Affairs 53, no. 1 (2022): 145–63, 24 Mohmad Waseem Malla, “China’s Approach to the Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry,” Middle East Policy 29 (2022): 25–40, 25 Radio Farda, “افشای سند «محرمانه» مرکز زیرنظر ریاست‌جمهوری؛ ایران به «کارخانه غرب آسیا» چین تبدیل شود [Leaking a ‘confidential’ document produced by the Presidential Office; Iran should become China's ‘West Asia Factory’],” 2023, 26 Radio Farda, “Leaking a ‘confidential’ document.” 27 Yo Hong, “China-Iran Deal Complements the BRI, but Faces Iranian Domestic Opposition and US Sanctions,” Think China, 2021, 28 Humeyra Pamuk, “U.S. Restores Sanctions Waiver to Iran with Nuclear Talks in Final Phase,” Reuters, 2022, 29 Shirzad Azad, “Bargain and Barter: China’s Oil Trade with Iran,” Middle East Policy 30, no. 1 (2023): 23–35, 30 Anoushiravan Ehteshami, “Asianisation of Asia: Chinese-Iranian Relations in Perspective,” Asian Affairs 53, no. 1(2022): 8–27, 31 Meia Nouwens and Helena Legarda, “China’s Pursuit of Advanced Dual-Use Technologies,” IISS, 2018, 32 Seyed Ali Khamenei, “کارکردهای قدرت علمی در اندیشه‌ مقام معظم رهبری [Application of power of knowledge in the Supreme Leader's thoughts],” Islamic Revolution Documents Center, 2006, 33 Sara Bazoobandi, “Populism, Jihad, and Economic Resistance: Studying the Political Discourse of Iran’s Supreme Leader,” Digest of Middle East Studies, 2023, 1–19, 34 Mohammad Eslami, Nasim Sadat Mousavi, and Muhammed Can, “Sino-Iranian Cooperation in Artificial Intelligence: A Potential Countering Against the US Hegemony,” in The Palgrave Handbook of Globalization with Chinese Characteristics: The Case of the Belt and Road Initiative, ed. Paulo Afonso B. Duarte, Francisco Jose B.S. Leandro, and Enrique Martinez Galan (Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan, 2023), 543–62. 35 Tate Ryan-Mosley, “This Huge Chinese Company Is Selling Video Surveillance Systems to Iran,” MIT Technology Review, 2021, 36 Steve Stecklow, “Special Report: Chinese Firm Helps Iran Spy on Citizens,” Reuters, 2012, 37 Anoush Ehteshami, Niv Horesh, and Ruike Xu, “Chinese-Iranian Mutual Strategic Perceptions,” The China Journal 79 (2018): 1–20, 38 Bloomberg, “China Gorges On Cheap, Sanctioned Oil From Iran, Venezuela,” 2022, 39 Mashregh News, “ماجرای «نظم نوین جهانی» مورد اشاره رهبر انقلاب چه بود؟ [What Did the Supreme Leader Mean by ‘New World Order’?],” 2022, 40 Benjamin Houghton, “China’s Balancing Strategy Between Saudi Arabia and Iran: The View from Riyadh,”Asian Affairs 53, no. 1 (2022): 124–44, 41 Sabena Siddiqui, “Can China Balance Ties with Iran and the GCC?” Al-Monitor, 2021, 42 Betul Dogan Akkas, “The Complexities of a Houthi-Saudi Deal and Its Impact on Yemen’s Future,” Gulf International Forum, 2023, 43 Nicole Grajewski, “Iran’s Hormuz Peace Endeavor and the Future of Persian Gulf Security,” European Leadership Network, 2020, 44 Fajgelbaum et al., “US-China Trade War.” 45 Iranian Students’ News Agency, “روابط ایران و چین و پیامدهای استراتژیک آن [Iran-China Relations and Their Strategic Consequences],” ISNA.IR, 2021, 46 Javad Heiran-nia, “مزایای اقتصادی بهبود رابطه ایران و عربستان [The Economic Benefits of Improving Relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia],” Donya-e-Eghtesad, 2023. 47 Kadir Temiz, Chinese Foreign Policy Toward the Middle East (London and New York: Routledge, 2022). 48 GCC STAT, “China-GCC Economic Relations,” 2021, 49 Financial Tribune, “China Remains Iran’s Largest Trade Partner for Ten Consecutive Years,” 2023, 50 Xi Jinping, “Keynote Speech by President of China at the China-GCC Summit,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, 2022,; Flavius Caba-Maria, “China and the Wave of Globalization Focusing on the Middle East,” in Duarte, Leandro, and Galan, Palgrave Handbook of Globalization with Chinese Characteristics, 563–74. 51 Xi, “Keynote Speech.” 52 Ishtiaq Ahmad, “Saudi Arabia and China Linked by Shared Interests, a Promising Future,” Arab News, 2022, 53 Jane Darby Menton, “What Most People Get Wrong About the Iran Nuclear Deal,” Foreign Policy, 2023, 54 Nicole Grajewski, “An Illusory Entente: The Myth of a Russia-China-Iran ‘Axis,’” Asian Affairs 53, no. 1 (2022): 164–83, 55 Reuters, “Russia, China, Iran Start Joint Naval Drills in Indian Ocean,” 2019, 56 Arash Saeedi Rad, “افول هژمونی ایالات‌متحده آمریکا و نظم جدیدجهانی [Decline of the United States’ hegemony and the new world order],” American Studies Center, 2023, 57 Martin A. Smith, “Russia and Multipolarity since the End of the Cold War,” East European Politics 29, no. 1 (2013): 36–51,; Eugene Rumer, “The Primakov (Not Gerasimov) Doctrine in Action,” Carnagie Endowment for International Peace, 2019,; Jolanta Darczewska and Pitor Zochowski, “Active Measures: Russia’s Key Export,” Centre for Eastern Studies, 2017, 58 Tasnim News, “امام خامنه‌ای: امروز جهان در آستانه یک نظم جدید است/ آمریکا در همه چیز از بیست سال قبل ضعیف‌تر شده است [Imam Khamenei: today, the world is beginning a new world order/ America is weaker in every respect than 20 years ago],” Tasnim News, 2022,; Pang Ruizhi, “China Wants a Multipolar World Order. Can the World Agree?” Think China, 2020, 59 Sara Bazoobandi, Jens Heibach, and Thomas Richter, “Iran's Foreign Policy Making: Consensus Building or Power Struggle?” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, March 16, 2023, 1–24,; Hamshahri Online, “عمق استراتژیک ایران [Iran's strategic depth],” 2019, 60 Al-Monitor, “Khamenei Urges Iranians to Prepare”;, “بیانات در دیدار مجمع عالی فرماندهان سپاه,” October 2, 2019, 61 Bazoobandi, “Populism, Jihad, and Economic Resistance”; Bazoobandi, “Re-Revolutionising Iran.” 62 Karim Sadjadpour, “Reading Khamenei: The World View of Iran’s Most Powerful Leader,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2008, 63 Robbie Gramer and Amy Mackinnon, “Iran and Russia Are Closer Than Ever Before,” Foreign Policy, 2023, 64 David Brennan, “Shahed-136: The Iranian Drones Aiding Russia’s Assault on Ukraine,” Newsweek, 2022, 65 Yahia H. Zoubir, “Algeria and China: Shifts in Political and Military Relations,” Global Policy 14, no. 1 (2023): 58–68, 66 Edward Wastnidge and Simon Mabon, “The Resistance Axis and Regional Order in the Middle East: Nomos, Space, and Normative Alternatives,” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, 2023, 67, “Khamenei's Speech on meeting with Basij Forces [بیانات در دیدار بسیجیان],” 2023, 68 Sara Bazoobandi, “Iran Confident Israel-Hamas Conflict Can Advance Its Geostrategic Position,” Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, 2023,

Defense & Security
Online crime scene with a finger print left on backlit keyboard with North Korea flag on it

Cyber actors: North Korea

by Lukas Joselewitsch

How cyber operations support the state system. ' North Korean units are primarily concentrating on political and economic espionage and the procurement of foreign currency. Disruptive attacks are currently rather unlikely. ' The funds generated are primarily used for the political and economic stabilization of the state and the expansion of nuclear and conventional military capabilities. ' To date, around three to six billion US dollars (excluding unreported cases) have been gained through the use of cyber resources. ' The activities can be countered by detecting and publicizing North Korean procedures as well as reconnaissance of potential target institutions. ' North Korean units act opportunistically and flexibly. It is to be expected that the attacks will continue despite countermeasures. At present, there is no significant threat to Germany. In recent years, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) has increasingly instrumentalized cyber and information space to implement its state policy agenda, exploiting the entire spectrum of possible operational targets: Sabotage and disruption, signaling, political espionage, economic espionage, foreign currency procurement and propaganda. According to Kim Jong-un, cyberattacks function alongside nuclear weapons as an "all-purpose sword" to achieve the regime's goals. Goals and Impact DPRK units have repeatedly launched disruptive attacks to sabotage and disrupt enemy systems in order to force political concessions from South Korea and the US or as an instrument of political signaling: so far unsuccessful. Notable examples in this context were various operations against IT systems in South Korea, such as Operation Dark Seoul1 and Ten Days of Rain, which led to widespread disruption in the country. No comparable activities were observed after 2014; it can be assumed that offensive cyber activities had little impact as a means of coercive diplomacy. It can therefore be assumed that any operations outside of a military scenario will not be carried out by the DPRK for the time being. So far, political espionage has primarily been directed against South Korean civilian and public institutions as well as international organizations and foreign individuals. The aim of the operations is to obtain strategically and security policy-relevant information. In recent years, for example, there has been an attack against eleven UN Security Council members in order to obtain information on sanctions resolutions.2 International think tanks and journalists have also been compromised in order to obtain information on foreign assessments of the DPRK's situation.3 The aforementioned activities continue and are flexibly adapted to the regime's political interests. It cannot be assumed that North Korea will refrain from political espionage. With regard to economically motivated espionage activities, the DPRK carries out operations to generate information on economically relevant sectors. In the past, the main target was international defense companies with the aim of gaining technical information for the development of modern weapons systems, including nuclear weapons.4 However, during the Covid-19 pandemic from 2020 to 2022, the state also attacked vaccine manufacturers abroad to enable the DPRK's self-sufficient vaccine production. Economic espionage is similar to political espionage in its calculations and is geared towards the strategic goals of the state leadership. It is to be expected that the DPRK will carry out more attacks against satellite technology companies in the future in order to underpin recent efforts to produce space-based weapons and reconnaissance systems. Financially motivated attacks to obtain foreign currency have been observed since around 2011. Initially, the actors' approach was primarily aimed at low-threshold targets such as gaming platforms. From 2015, however, there was an increase in the quality and quantity of activities. The DPRK attracted international attention with complex attack campaigns against financial institutions: Compromising the international SWIFT payment system and attacking the ATM payout mechanism, as well as the WannaCry global ransomware campaign.5 The attacks against the financial sector generated approximately two billion US dollars, and the ransomware activities led to the encryption of 230,000 systems in 150 countries. In response to the operations, the DPRK's approach was exposed by internationally cooperating cyber security institutions and appropriate protection mechanisms were provided. As a result, the lucrativeness of the attacks was significantly reduced and the DPRK had to realign its strategy. Since then, attackers have increasingly focused on non-governmental cryptocurrency platforms, which are still proving to be a profitable and preferred target. These platforms often have low security standards and attract less public attention than a bank if they are compromised. As part of the operations, the DPRK hackers gain access to digital bank accounts and transfer the cryptocurrency to a North Korean wallet. The currency is then laundered through various mechanisms and converted into fiat currency. Since 2015, the DPRK has been able to generate an estimated three to six billion US dollars in this way. However, it can be assumed that the number of unreported cases is much higher. In 2020, 1.7 billion US dollars are said to have been gained through malicious attacks. Apart from the use of the WannaCry malware,6 no financially motivated attacks against German targets are known. Motives The DPRK does not have an official cyber doctrine that provides insight into the strategic calculations of the state leadership. However, the regime's motives can be deduced from the political situation of the state, the specifics of cyberspace and the official state goals. Pyongyang sees itself as immanently threatened by the US military presence and alliance with South Korea. This is a key driver for the execution of disruptive attacks. In the event of a military conflict, cyber means can be used as an instrument of asymmetric warfare. In peacetime, cyberspace is used by the regime to carry out attacks against other states without risking escalation with conventional weapons systems. This strategy of "a thousand pinpricks" serves to demonstrate power, generate urgently needed financial resources and legitimize the state leadership in both domestic and foreign policy terms. Due to economic insufficiency, international sanctions and a high demand for imported goods, the North Korean state is dependent on foreign currency to maintain its internal economy, finance luxury goods for the elite and further expand its nuclear and conventional armaments capabilities. The regime has been using clandestine and illegal methods to obtain foreign currency since 1970. In this context, cyberattacks now appear to be the most lucrative instrument for counteracting the economic deficit. On the one hand, this can be attributed to the decline in conventional methods. For example, counterfeit money production, smuggling and modern slavery of North Korean citizens abroad have been intensively combated by the international community.7 In addition, a correlation can be seen between the increased investment in the nuclear weapons program and the rising quantity and quality of cyber operations. Procurement tactics in cyberspace are difficult to prevent due to the opacity and immateriality of the domain. Actors can operate undetected and largely unpunished as well as plausibly deny accusations. Furthermore, the cost-benefit ratio is in the attackers' favor. Active countermeasures (such as hackbacks) against the DPRK are largely ineffective, as North Korea offers hardly any attack surface due to its low level of digitalization. It is suspected that the USA has occasionally disrupted North Korea's attack infrastructure, but without any discernible success. To gain a theoretical insight into the state's motivation, the Songun Doctrine (military first), which has determined the regime's political actions since 2009, is essential. The doctrine prioritizes the nation's readiness to defend itself in the face of perceived threats. State resources are primarily invested in the DPRK's defense apparatus, with the nuclear weapons program at its core. The basic idea behind the Songun Doctrine is the interaction between a strong military and economic prosperity. According to the doctrine, a strong arms industry should generate sufficient financial resources through exports of military equipment and at the same time guarantee the territorial integrity of the state. The country's elites, which also include the cyber units, are officially primarily active in the defense sector. It is therefore in line with the doctrine that the majority of investments and industrial espionage operations serve to promote the military. Organization The organization of the North Korean cyber groups cannot be clearly determined due to various contradictory statements. However, it is known that the cyber units are subordinate to the Korean People's Army, whose commander-in-chief is the "Supreme Leader" Kim Jong-un. The majority of the known actors are said to be based in Bureau 121 of the General Bureau of Reconnaissance (RGB) military intelligence service. The units assigned here include the Lazarus Group, Bluenorrof and Kimsuky.8 It is also possible that parts of the cyber apparatus are subordinate to the Ministry of State Security. Of central importance alongside the RGB is Bureau 39, which is said to be responsible for the conventional generation of financial resources. Due to the common objectives of the organizations, it can be assumed that there is operational cooperation. Recently, a change in the organization and responsibilities of the actors has been observed. While in the past the groupings operated independently of each other, a merging of the units has been evident since 2022. There has been an exchange of responsibilities and instruments between the players, which suggests a changed (division of labor), more efficient and resource-saving cooperation. The training and further education of the units takes place both at universities in the DPRK and in China.9 A key feature of the North Korean cyber organization is the strategic deployment of units disguised as IT specialists abroad. The actors operate from their respective locations, which makes attribution more difficult and reduces state costs. Outlook The North Korean regime will continue to pursue operations in cyberspace in order to achieve state objectives and will probably do so even more in the future. Financially motivated operations and espionage in particular are now an essential instrument of state policy. The fundamental motives are also anchored in the DPRK's doctrinal system. The country's missile and nuclear program requires high levels of investment and technical information. At the same time, the state is increasingly under pressure due to its economic problems. It is therefore difficult to predict how the regime's volatile and impulsive policies will develop in the future. If attacks on digital accounts, crypto marketplaces or digital financial flows continue to prove lucrative, it cannot be assumed that Pyongyang will abandon the procurement of foreign currency through targeted cyber operations. Cooperation between DPRK units and political allies such as Russia, China or Iran has not been observed at times. Inter-state cooperation in cyberspace requires a high degree of coordination and operational integration, which is rather unlikely given the regime's current political interests. The DPRK's activities in cyberspace have not yet posed any particular threat to the Federal Republic of Germany. However, even the slightest erosion of the current tense diplomatic relations between the DPRK, South Korea and the USA could have devastating consequences for the global security situation. In 2019, the United Nations already initiated corresponding steps such as intensified sanctions, public naming and shaming and increased transnational cooperation in order to curb the impact of the attacks and their political effects.10 It is likely that fluctuating cryptocurrency prices or increased platform security measures could counteract the attacks. The security authorities have so far concentrated on the detection and publication of North Korean TTPs (Tactics, Techniques and Procedures). This approach and the wide dissemination of attacker-related information has sometimes proven to be the most effective means of mitigating attacks. However, due to the great importance for state doctrine and finances, it can be assumed that the DPRK will adapt its methods and look for new ways. It is therefore currently important to monitor the approach, strengthen the resilience of the attack targets and prevent the procurement methods in the digital and kinetic space as best as possible with international partners. At present, DPRK actors are only of limited relevance to Germany. Few significant attacks against regional targets have been observed to date. There is currently no indication of a future operational prioritization for Germany. More about this: 1 2 Vgl. 3 Vgl. 4 Ein Beispiel hierfür ist der Angriff gegen einen russischen Produzenten von ballistischen Raketen. 5 In 2017 erfolgte eine massive Ransomwarekampagne unter dem Namen WannaCry, bei der Systeme verschlüsselt und lediglich gegen eine Lösegeldsumme von 300 US-Dollar wieder entschlüsselt wurden. 6 Die sich selbst replizierende Ransomware infizierte 2017 Teile der deutschen IT und richtete merklichen Schaden an. Es ist davon auszugehen, dass die DVRK die Kontrolle über die rapide Distribution verloren hatte und die Angriffe gegen Deutschland Spill-Over-Effekte waren. 7 VN Dokumente: S/2019/691; S/2022/668; S/RES/2397. 8 Lazarus und Bluenoroff sollen für komplexe finanziell motivierte Operationen und Kimsuky für politische und wirtschaftliche Spionage zuständig sein. Zudem wurde Lazarus für unterschiedliche disruptive Angriffe verantwortlich gemacht. 9 Universitäten in China sind u. a. das „Harbin Institute of Technology“. 10 VN Dokumente: S/2019/691 S/2022/668; S/RES/2397. ISBN 978-3-98574-215-8 © 2024 The Author(s). This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited. The terms on which this article has been published allow the posting of the Accepted Manuscript in a repository by the author(s) or with their consent.

Defense & Security
Group of Chinese army soldiers in uniform lining up in Tiananmen

China’s Military Buildup: the Biggest Since 1945?

by Greg Austin

The Australian government asserts that China’s military buildup is the largest of any country in post-war history. Their threat perception is overblown. The Australian government claims that China has made the biggest military buildup of any country since 1945. The statement is contained in the 2023 Strategic Review: “China’s military build-up is now the largest and most ambitious of any country since the end of the Second World War.” The claim has been repeated in several media interviews by the Defence Minister Richard Marles in Australia and overseas. Such claims are hard to pin down since analysing them throws up different possible methods for assessing a buildup, let alone its ambition. Nevertheless, on the basis of a normal interpretation of “biggest military buildup” since 1945, the dubious honour falls to the USSR in the 23-year period from 1962 (the Cuban missile crisis) to 1985 when it was engaged in global confrontation with the United States and military confrontation with China on their mutual border. If we compare the surge we saw in the USSR in that 23-year period with the surge in China’s buildup in a similar time span, between 2000-2023, the conclusion is stark. China’s build up is not only smaller in terms of comparative growth rates in key categories of military capability (nuclear warheads, intercontinental missiles, submarines, and principal surface combatants), but the end point in numbers arrived by China at the end of its 23-year buildup are far smaller than those achieved by the USSR in 1985. For example, the USSR had 40,000 nuclear warheads in 1985 and China in 2023 has only 500. The USSR in 1985 had ten times the number of intercontinental and sea-launched nuclear ballistic missiles as China does today. China is currently engaged in a modernisation and likely expansion of its forces in coming years, but the comparison over 23 years between China (2002-2025) and the Soviet period (1962-1985) would not change significantly. For the time being, however, the claim by the Australian government would not appear to be borne out by the facts. There is another contender to join the ranks ahead of China in the record for the biggest military buildup since 1945, and that is the United States in the 23 years from 1949 to 1972. This period began just after the start of the Cold War in 1948, the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty in 1949, and the victory of Communist Forces in the Chinese Civil War in the same year. In that period, the US fought two major local wars: in Korea and in Vietnam. The end point of this period is marked by détente between the US and both the USSR and China, and the US-Soviet strategic arms limitation agreements. Table 1 below offers a comparison of numbers for selected categories of military platforms and for nuclear warheads at the end point of the three different buildups over the selected 23-year periods. The data shows that China cannot claim to have the biggest military buildup since 1945, and that it sits well behind the USSR and the US in that effort. Table 1: Platform numbers at the end-point of the buildup US 1972, USSR 1985, CHINA 2023. Source*     US 1972 USSR 1985 PRC 2023 ICBM 1,000 1,396 350 SLBM  656 983 72 N-Warheads  26,516 ~40,000 ~500 Strategic Submarines (SSB or SSBN)  41 70 6 Attack Submarines (SSK and SSN)  94 206 53 Aircraft Carriers  17 3 2 Principal Surface Combatants  242 280 97 Bomber ACFT  455 847 500 Tactical Combat ACFT  7,560 6,300 2,394 Tanks  9,434 52,600 4,200 Artillery  6,318 39,000 7,600   The government’s intent in using the phrase “biggest military buildup” in connection with China is to imply it is the biggest military or strategic threat that Australia and its allies have faced since 1945. This implication is reinforced by the equally questionable claim by the prime minister and many officials over several years that Australia faces its most challenging strategic environment since 1945. This proposition is as easily contradicted by the facts as the claim about biggest military buildup, as analysed in my critique in the journal of the International Institute of Strategic Studies, under the title, “Australia’s Drums of War” published in 2021. China poses clear threats to Australian strategic and military interests, but the pace and scale of its military buildup have only been modest compared with the two historical examples cited. The categories selected for Table 1 relate primarily to China’s capability to project power well beyond its coastal areas and beyond Taiwan. That set of categories used is one often seen in comparisons of national military capabilities in the broad. In contrast, there are categories of platforms where the buildup has been more rapid and consequential, such as in dual-use (conventional or nuclear) intermediate range ballistic missiles (IRBM) and smaller ships (corvettes) and patrol craft. Yet these capabilities relate almost entirely to coastal areas or near sea areas, especially for localised contingencies involving Taiwan and/or Japan. The rapid expansion of these lighter and smaller maritime forces and the large number of IRBMs for localised contingencies is what Australia and its allies need to address. In particular, the expansion of the number of smaller patrol craft would be a particularly powerful enabler for unconventional scenarios of strategic pressure by China on Taiwan. It is doubtful that the exaggeration of China’s general military buildup is helpful in achieving that focus. China has good options for irregular operations and subversion against Taiwan that it will almost certainly take before risking a major military confrontation with the US and its allies. *Data is not fully consistent in different sources. For China, the data in Table 1 is based on the US Dept of Defence, “Military and Security Developments in the People’s Republic of China,” October, 2023. Data for the USSR is based on Department of Defense, “Soviet Military Power 1986,” 1986. Data for the US is based on several official US documents. These include ‘The Joint Chiefs of Staff and National Military Policy 1969-72,” 2013; Naval History and Heritage Command, “US Ship Force Levels 1886-Present,” undated; US Dept of State, “Transparency in the US Nuclear Weapons Stockpile,” undated; and Congressional Research Service, “US/Soviet Military Balance Statistical Trends’ 1970-1980,” October 1981. The author has also consulted IISS, “The Military Balance 1973,” 1973. Note that the census date for these various sources is not always clear but the author has assumed them to refer to platform holdings during the year indicated in Table 1 even if the publication date is the year following.

Defense & Security
Bomb with the Flag of North Korea

Nuclear tensions on the Korean Peninsula set to worsen in 2024

by Alistair Burnett

2024 looks set to be an even more perilous year than 2023 on the Korean Peninsula as nuclear threat and counter threat have escalated even further since the beginning of January. On New Year’s Day, South Korea’s defence ministry repeated previous threats to destroy the North Korean “regime” if it uses nuclear weapons. This was a response to North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un’s speech the day before in which he told his military to prepare for possible war. Since then, Kim has said he has given up on the idea of peaceful reunification with South Korea designating it a hostile state and again warned of possible war. In the past week alone, Kim has called for a change in the constitution to designate Seoul as Pyongyang’s “primary foe” and a confidence building military agreement with the South agreed in 2018 has started to fall apart as the South Korean armed forces resumed frontline aerial surveillance in the wake of North Korean artillery exercises near a South Korean island on the maritime border between the two states. The expected change in the constitution of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea’s official name) follows an amendment last year that enshrined nuclear weapons in it. This week has also seen the North testing what it says is a solid-fuelled hypersonic missile and an underwater nuclear drone in response to what some observers say is the largest ever joint naval exercise between South Korea, the United States and Japan. Analysts believe Pyongyang is developing both so-called strategic and tactical nuclear weapons in order to deter the US which is committed to use nuclear weapons in South Korea’s defence. North Korea has been testing more and more advanced ballistic missiles and warheads, some with the range to reach the US and has also said it is developing ship-launched cruise missiles, while the Americans have been mounting repeated shows of force including military exercises using nuclear-capable aircraft and the visit of a nuclear-armed submarine to South Korea. Last year, the US and South Korea agreed to increase their cooperation on the planning for the use of nuclear weapons following earlier statements by South Korean President, Yoon Suk Yeol, that suggested Seoul might develop its own nuclear weapons. Yoon has since cooled talk of acquiring nuclear weapons, but the debate continues in policy circles. Another escalatory move has been increasing military cooperation between the US, South Korea, and Japan, which also endorses the use of American nuclear weapons in its defence. In the light of this, some analysts see the Korean Peninsula as the most dangerous nuclear flashpoint in a world that currently has no shortage of conflict involving nuclear-armed states in Ukraine and Gaza. Alicia Sanders-Zakre, ICAN’s Policy and Research Coordinator, called for restraint on all sides: “Inflammatory nuclear rhetoric and threats, accompanied by military exercises and weapons tests, ramp up tensions and bring us closer to the brink of catastrophe. All nuclear-armed states, including North Korea and the US, as well as those allied on nuclear policies, such as Japan and South Korea, need to take urgent steps to de-escalate tensions and to break free from the dangerous doctrine of nuclear deterrence. Joining the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons is a crucial step to delegitimise nuclear deterrence and eliminate nuclear weapons.” North Korea uses the same justification for its actions as the US, and the other declared nuclear-armed states. Just like Washington, Pyongyang says it is committed to disarmament, but argues the security threats it faces mean it needs nuclear weapons to deter its enemies. The doctrine of deterrence is based on the threat to use nuclear weapons with all the catastrophic consequences that would entail for the whole world. As the states parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) declared at their recent meeting in New York: “the renewed advocacy, insistence on and attempts to justify nuclear deterrence as a legitimate security doctrine gives false credence to the value of nuclear weapons for national security and dangerously increases the risk of horizontal and vertical nuclear proliferation.” The TPNW is growing in strength and has just welcomed its 70th state party while a further 27 countries are signatories. These states recognise that the total elimination of nuclear weapons is a global imperative and they are showing responsible leadership by championing the treaty as the best way to end the existential threat posed by nuclear weapons.

Defense & Security
Map of the Korean Peninsula

Precarious Year Ahead for the Korean Peninsula

by Bruce Klingner

SUMMARY The Korean Peninsula seems always to be on the knife edge of calamity. North Korea’s growing nuclear arsenal, its more threatening language, and the potential for more provocative and aggressive actions are a volatile combination. Overreacting to Pyongyang’s inflammatory threatening language is dangerous, but so is dismissing potential signals of a resumption of deadly tactical attacks. Indications are that this year will be even busier for Korea watchers who long ago learned to keep both a pot of coffee and a bottle of scotch nearby to deal with the inevitable crises. KEY TAKEAWAYS 1. North Korea’s growing nuclear arsenal, its more threatening language, and the potential for more provocative and aggressive actions are a volatile combination. 2. Overreacting to Pyongyang’s inflammatory threatening language is dangerous, but so is dismissing potential signals of a resumption of deadly tactical attacks. 3. Reducing the potential for invasion while increasing transparency with respect to military forces can reduce the potential for miscalculation and a military clash. It appears that 2024 is going to be a year for greater North Korean provocations, heightened tensions, and increased potential for tactical military clashes along the inter-Korean border. Pyongyang’s rhetoric and military posture have become more threatening, and the regime recently abandoned a military tension-reduction agreement with Seoul. That said, Pyongyang is unlikely to start a major war with South Korea and the United States deliberately. In other words, put your helmets on, but there’s no need to get under the desk just yet. More Bombastic and Threatening Rhetoric During major speeches in December 2023 and January, North Korean “Supreme Leader” Kim Jong-un described the Korean Peninsula as being “on the brink of a nuclear war” and called on his military to accelerate preparations for “a great event to suppress the whole territory of South Korea by mobilizing all physical means and forces including nuclear forces.”1 Kim warned that North Korea “does not want war, but we also have no intention of avoiding it” and that a “physical clash can be caused and escalated even by a slight accidental factor in the area along the Military Demarcation Line.”2 Kim Yo-jong, Kim Jong-un’s powerful sister, declared similarly that “the safety catch of [the] trigger of the Korean People's Army (KPA) had already been slipped” and that Pyongyang “will launch an immediate military strike if the enemy makes even a slight provocation.”3 Kim Jong-un also abandoned decades of North Korean policy seeking reconciliation and reunification with South Korea, instead describing inter-Korean relations as now being between “two hostile and belligerent states.”4 This declaration is particularly noteworthy because Kim is implicitly criticizing the unification policy of both his grandfather Kim Il-sung and his father Kim Jong-il. Such blasphemous remarks coming from anyone else would have immediate and dire consequences. To emphasize the new policy, Kim disbanded all government agencies devoted to relations with South Korea and demolished the massive monument to Korean unification that had been commissioned by his father Kim Jong-il, describing it as an “eyesore.”5 North Korea backed up its diatribes with artillery fire along the naval boundary off the west coast of the Korean Peninsula. Pyongyang fired a total of 350 shells during three consecutive days in early January, and South Korea responded by firing 400 artillery rounds. While all shells remained on each country’s side of the disputed Northern Limit Line that delineates the de facto maritime border between the two Koreas, they did land in the former buffer zone created by the 2018 inter-Korean Comprehensive Military Agreement. That bilateral risk-reduction accord had proscribed artillery fire and military drills near the border area. Pyongyang’s nullification of the agreement in November 2023 will return armed North and South Korean troops back to closer contact. Seoul announced that it would resume army, navy, and Marine Corps live-fire artillery drills and regiment-level field maneuvers within five kilometers of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).6 North Korea’s belligerent declarations, along with escalating provocations, may be intended to influence both the April 10 South Korean National Assembly election and the November U.S. presidential election. However, such actions would more likely affirm pre-existing progressive and conservative views rather than they would to induce any voters to change sides. Inexorably Growing Military Threat North Korea has been on a multi-year binge of testing and deploying improved nuclear-capable systems that can target South Korea, Japan, and the continental United States. Most recently, Pyongyang successfully launched a solid-fueled ICBM, a solid-fueled intermediate-range missile with a hypersonic maneuverable warhead, its first military reconnaissance satellite, submarine-launched cruise missiles, and an underwater nuclear-capable drone. Knowing that he is backed in the U.N. Security Council by China and Russia could embolden Kim Jong-un to pursue even more provocative behavior. In the past, Beijing and Moscow were willing to impose U.N. resolutions and sanctions after North Korean ICBM and nuclear tests, but both countries now block new international actions in response to Pyongyang’s repeated violations of previous U.N. resolutions. North Korea could conduct its long-awaited seventh nuclear test—either of a new generation of tactical battlefield nuclear weapons or of Kim’s promised “super large” weapon. In its last nuclear test in 2017, Pyongyang exploded a hydrogen bomb at least 10 times as powerful as the 1945 atomic weapons used against Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The regime could also launch an ICBM over Japan and demonstrate multiple-warhead or re-entry vehicle capabilities. To date, all ICBM launches have been on a nearly vertical lofted trajectory to avoid flying over other countries. North Korean provocations are expected to increase in the run-up to the annual U.S.–South Korean large-scale military exercises in March. Trilateral Axis of Authoritarianism Pyongyang’s recently strengthened relationship with Moscow is another cause for concern. In return for shipping over a million artillery shells and rockets to Russia for Moscow to use in its attacks on Ukraine, North Korea is likely to receive some military technology. While some experts believe that this could include nuclear warhead, re-entry vehicle, or ICBM technology, Moscow is less likely to provide those “crown jewels” than it is to provide lower-level conventional weapon technology. However, any Russian assistance to improve North Korean weapons is worrisome to the U.S. and its allies. Both China and North Korea responded to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by increasing their economic and military support to Moscow. There is growing apprehension of the risk of horizontal escalation in which Beijing or Pyongyang could take advantage of the global focus on crises in Ukraine and the Middle East to initiate their own coercive or military actions against Taiwan or South Korea. Clashes but Not War Some experts speculate that the situation on the Korean Peninsula is the most dangerous it has been since the 1950 North Korean invasion of the south and that Kim Jong-un has already made the strategic decision to go to war.7 However, despite its menacing posturing, Pyongyang would not have sent massive amounts of artillery shells and rockets as well as dozens of its new KN-23 missiles to Russia if it were contemplating starting a war with South Korea. Nor has any buildup of North Korea military forces along the inter-Korean border been detected. More probable is another tactical-level military clash along the DMZ or maritime Northern Limit Line. South Korean officials privately comment that they cannot rule out another deadly North Korean attack such as the 2010 sinking of the South Korean naval ship Cheonan and shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, which cumulatively killed 50 South Koreans. Danger of Stumbling Into Major Conflict Both Koreas have been more vocal in their vows to strike preemptively if they perceive—or misperceive—the other side as preparing for an attack. In 2022, North Korea revised its nuclear law and disturbingly lowered the threshold for its use of nuclear weapons. The regime is developing smaller tactical nuclear warheads for deployment to forward-based units, and their proximity to allied forces across the DMZ could lead to a “use it or lose it” strategy for its vulnerable nuclear arsenal during the early stages of a conflict. South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol has shown a greater willingness to respond firmly to North Korean threats than his predecessor did. He directed enhancement of South Korea’s preemptive attack capabilities and declared, “Should North Korea make a provocation, we will punish it many times over.”8 He told his military to “immediately respond and retaliate before reporting to [higher authorities and] sternly and swiftly smash the enemy’s intentions to stage provocations on the spot.”9 The danger of miscalculated military action is real, even at a tactical level. In 2015, Seoul announced that North Korea had fired 13 artillery shells into South Korea and it had responded with 39 shells into the North. However, a subsequent investigation by United Nations Command revealed that there had been no North Korean military attack. Instead, South Korean counter-battery radar had misinterpreted a nearby lightning storm as inbound artillery fire. Luckily, North Korea did not respond to the unprovoked South Korean action. What Washington Should Do Washington must walk a fine line between maintaining a strong military posture to deter and if necessary respond to North Korean military actions while also minimizing the risk of inadvertent escalation into a strategic war. With this in mind, the U.S. should: • Enhance trilateral security cooperation. The U.S., along with South Korea and Japan, should continue ongoing efforts to increase coordination among their three militaries. South Korean President Yoon acknowledged the importance of Tokyo’s role in a Korean contingency, including the seven U.N. Command bases in Japan. During their August 2023 Camp David summit, the three leaders pledged even more extensive trilateral military exercises, real-time exchange of information on North Korean missile launches, and increased cooperation on ballistic missile defense. The leaders’ commitment to consult and coordinate responses to common security threats was a major step forward in trilateral military cooperation but stopped far short of formal alliance. The three countries should continue and expand the scope of the trilateral combined military exercises that resumed in 2022 after a four-year hiatus. The wide-ranging exercises reversed the degradation in allied deterrence and defense capabilities as did the resumption of U.S. rotational deployment of strategic nuclear-capable assets to the Korean theater of operations. • Ensure that military exercises are strong but constrained in location. The U.S. and its allies should be aware that any large-scale unannounced combined military operations close to North Korea’s borders run the risk of being misinterpreted by Pyongyang as preparations for an allied attack. Therefore, while maintaining high levels of military training, the exercises should be announced beforehand and not conducted close to North Korean forces along the DMZ. Washington should also counsel Seoul against highly escalatory responses to North Korean actions. However, appearing too heavy-handed in trying to curtail a South Korean response to a tactical-level attack risks undermining ongoing U.S. efforts to reassure Seoul of America’s commitment to its defense. After both 2010 North Korean attacks, South Korean officials privately complained that the U.S. had “sat on its ally” and prevented a South Korean retaliation. More recently, North Korea’s growing ability to hit the American homeland with nuclear weapons caused South Koreans to doubt the viability of the U.S. as an ally and led to greater domestic advocacy for an indigenous nuclear weapon program. • Push for risk-reduction talks. There seems to be little potential for a diplomatic off-ramp on the road to crisis with North Korea. Since late 2019, the regime has rejected all U.S. and South Korean entreaties for dialogue on any topic, including provision of humanitarian aid. Nor does Pyongyang’s cancelling the inter-Korean Comprehensive Military Agreement bode well for negotiations. However, the proximity of several militaries to each other, rising suspicions, and mutual threats of preemptive attacks are a recipe for disaster. Washington and Seoul should call on Pyongyang to discuss potential risk-reduction and military confidence-building measures similar to those in the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty and the accompanying Vienna Document of Confidence and Security Building Measures. Reducing the potential for either side to conduct a sudden-start invasion while increasing transparency with respect to military forces can lower tensions by reducing the potential for miscalculation leading to a military clash. Conclusion The Korean Peninsula seems always to be on the knife edge of calamity, but North Korea’s growing nuclear arsenal, its more threatening language, and the potential for more provocative and aggressive actions are a volatile combination. Overreacting to Pyongyang’s inflammatory threatening language is dangerous, but so is dismissing potential signals of a resumption of deadly tactical attacks. Indications are that this year will be even busier for Korea watchers who long ago learned to keep both a pot of coffee and a bottle of scotch nearby to deal with the inevitable crises.   References: 1- Korea Central News Agency, “Report on 9th Enlarged Plenum of 8th WPK Central Committee,” KCNA Watch, December 31, 2023, (accessed February 5, 2024). 2- Ibid. and Brad Lendon and Gawon Bae, “North Korea’s Kim Vows to Dismantle Father’s Unification Arch as He Declares South Korea ‘Principal Enemy,’” CNN, January 16, 2024, (accessed February 5, 2024). 3- Reuters, “North Korea Vows Military Strike If Any Provocation, Fires Artillery Rounds,” January 7, 2024, (accessed February 5, 2024). 4- Korea Central News Agency, “Report on 9th Enlarged Plenum of 8th WPK Central Committee.” 5- Lendon and Bae, “North Korea’s Kim Vows to Dismantle Father’s Unification Arch as He Declares South Korea ‘Principal Enemy.’” 6- Chae Yun-hwan, “Military Set to Resume Drills Halted Under 2018 Inter-Korean Accord Buffer Zones,” Yonhap News Agency, January 9, 2024,,artillery%20firing%2C%20officials%20said%20Tuesday (accessed February 5, 2024). 7- Robert L. Carlin and Siegfried S. Hecker, “Is Kim Jong Un Preparing for War?” Henry L. Stimson Center, 38 North, January 11, 2024, / (accessed February 5, 2024). 8- Sarah Kim, “After North Declares ‘Hostile’ Relations, Yoon Vows to ‘Punish’ Regime in Case of a Provocation,” Korea Joongang Daily, updated January 18, 2024, (accessed February 5, 2024). 9- Hyung-Jin Kim, “North Korea’s Kim Vows to Bolster War Readiness to Repel US-Led Confrontations,” Associated Press, updated December 28, 2023, (accessed February 5, 2024).

Defense & Security
 COSCO Shipping vessel in the Red Sea.

China's powerlessness in the Red Sea

by Johann C. Fuhrmann

Houthi attacks pose a strategic dilemma for Beijing. Washington has asked Beijing for support to curb attacks by Yemen's Houthi rebels on merchant ships in the Red Sea, the Financial Times reported on Wednesday, citing US government circles. China's own interest in de-escalation and securing trade and supply chains appears to be obvious. However, why China is holding back in the conflict, even though it is economically heavily dependent on exports, raises questions. Despite displeasure: Beijing's restraint The Yemeni Houthi militia has been attacking ships and thus supply chains in the Red Sea since mid-November last year, presenting the Beijing leadership with a strategic dilemma: as an exporting nation, China is dependent on secure trade routes, while at the same time the People's Republic is striving to establish itself as a force for peace and order in the region. For the Chinese leadership, this means walking a political tightrope with an uncertain outcome. There is no question that the current attacks by the Houthi militia on merchant ships in the Red Sea are a thorn in China's side. Mao Ning, the spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, recently appealed to the Houthi militia to stop attacking ships in the Red Sea. The Houthi militia sees itself as part of the "Axis of Resistance" against Israel, which also includes the radical Islamic group Hamas. On 12 and 13 January 2024, the United States and the United Kingdom, with the support of Australia, Bahrain, Canada and the Netherlands, launched a series of attacks against the Houthi in Yemen with airstrikes and cruise missiles in response to the terrorist organization's attacks. Around 60 percent of Chinese exports to Europe pass through the Suez Canal, which connects the Red Sea with the Mediterranean. "The attacks have tripled container prices for Red Sea passages and extended transit times by many days when bypassing the Houthi route. At the end of December, Chinese car manufacturer Geely warned of delays in the delivery of its electric cars due to the 'situation' in the Red Sea," reports Beijing-based FAZ correspondent Jochen Stahnke.[2] The crisis has long since reached the port of Piraeus in Greece, in which the Chinese state shipping company COSCO holds a 67 percent stake. Due to supply bottlenecks for Chinese batteries, according to rbb information, even production at the Tesla plant in Grünheide, Brandenburg, will have to largely cease at the end of the month[3]. The disruption to supply chains is hitting the Chinese economy at an extremely unfavorable time. The People's Republic is in the midst of a real estate crisis, is struggling with high youth unemployment and faces the threat of deflation. In the face of these challenges, the Chinese economy is relying heavily on exports. A recent example of this is the announcement by Chinese car manufacturer SAIC to acquire 14 transport ships. Apparently, dissatisfaction with the current developments in the Red Sea has also reached the Chinese Ministry of Commerce. Mei Xinyu from the Chinese Academy for Economic Cooperation, a think tank linked to the Ministry of Commerce, underlines this in a blog post with the words: "There is one thing that the Huthi rebels and their supporters need to understand: The biggest user of the Suez Canal route is none other than China."[4] It is striking that the Beijing Foreign Ministry's call for de-escalation in the Red Sea followed a statement by the Houthi that there would be no future attacks on Russian and Chinese ships. Nevertheless, China's trade also relies on ships sailing under different flags. According to media reports, some ships even use radio signals to pretend to be Chinese, even though they do not originate from China - for fear of attack. The Beijing press praises this practice as a success of Chinese "soft power". Shen Yi, a professor at Fudan University, explained this to the Global Times, saying: "The Houthi militias have no interest in attacking Chinese ships. The reason is simple: China makes fair comments and takes fair actions on issues in the Middle East. China has no special interests in the region and is only committed to peace, security and stability in the region."[5] However, no mention is made of the extent to which the escalation is damaging the core interests of the Chinese economy. Meanwhile, the political leadership in Beijing is keeping a surprisingly low profile with regard to the conflict. What is striking, however, is that Chinese state propaganda blames the USA and Israel in particular for the escalation of violence and presents the People's Republic as a guarantor of peace. In this context, the Global Times emphasizes: "China's justice lies in not taking sides or being biased. China does not support the use of force by the Huthi in the Red Sea to disrupt trade routes. At the same time, however, it criticizes the biased approach and double standards of the US in the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as the use of force to counter violence."[6] The question remains, however, how China's efforts to appear neutral can be explained, especially in light of the fact that the conflict in the Red Sea is severely disrupting the People's Republic's trade interests. China's strategic dilemma The US request to China to provide support in the fight against the Houthi rebels has so far met with no response in Beijing. There is no indication that China has any interest in participating in the US-led military mission - on the contrary. There is also no indication that Beijing is trying to influence the Huthi through diplomatic channels. This at least seems possible, as the Houthis maintain close ties with Iran, with which China has good relations. The reluctance of the government in Beijing can be attributed to a variety of reasons. China is a major trading partner of Iran, which in turn supports the Houthi rebels. China sources around a tenth of its crude oil needs from the mullahs, and Beijing avoids angering Tehran by turning against the Houthis. There also appears to be no demand on Iran to influence the Huthi. Moreover, Beijing has explicitly sided with the Palestinians in the Gaza war. Paul Nantulya from the National Defense University in Washington believes that the competition between China and the US also plays a role: "Participation in a US military operation would be seen as 'capitulation to US interests' and 'humiliation of China' by the Chinese political and military establishment," Nantulya told the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post.[7] China also sees itself as an advocate of the "Global South", the so-called developing and emerging countries. In the Middle East conflict, this attitude is manifested in China's solidarity with the Palestinians. This support is in line with China's general orientation as an advocate for countries outside the Western sphere of influence, particularly in Latin America, Africa and the Arab world as a whole. In doing so, China is positioning itself against what Beijing perceives as the "imperialist" United States and its allies. There is no question that Israel is perceived in this context primarily as a "US ally" and an "imperialist power" in the Middle East, despite its previously good relations with the People's Republic. In his article for the Frankfurter Rundschau, Sven Hauberg adds another dimension to these observations. He quotes May-Britt Stumbaum, an Asia expert at the Center for Intelligence and Security (CISS) at the University of the Federal Armed Forces in Munich, who explains: "I think China is keeping out of it because they have very little operational experience and there is a great risk that they will embarrass themselves." Stumbaum emphasizes that China may be acting cautiously for this reason, so as not to reveal its actual military capabilities. "Nobody should know how strong the Chinese military really is. But that would no longer work if China took part in missions and openly showed its weaknesses."[8] Outlook: China as a regulatory power - has Beijing run out of steam? It is currently still extremely convenient for China's leadership to criticize US military attacks as warmongering, while securing maritime trade routes is actually also in Beijing's interests. At present, China is leaving it to other states to defend its own interests in the region. The key question, however, is how long this cost-benefit calculation can last from Beijing's perspective. The disruption of supply chains in international trade is currently hitting China, which is in a precarious economic situation, at a sensitive point. The situation is not comparable to Putin's war of aggression against Ukraine. Here, China has at least managed to benefit economically, as China's exports to Russia have risen sharply. At the same time, the People's Republic is benefiting from cheap energy supplies from Russia, which has recently made Moscow the most important crude oil supplier for Beijing, overtaking Saudi Arabia. China's hopes of becoming a regulatory power in the Middle East and curbing the influence of the USA in the region have suffered a setback. Just under a year ago, Beijing undoubtedly pulled off a surprise diplomatic coup: Through China's mediation, an unexpected agreement was reached between Iran and its arch-enemy Saudi Arabia in April 2023, which included the resumption of regular diplomatic relations and the exchange of ambassadors. However, the Chinese dream of gaining international recognition as a factor of influence and stability in the Middle East seems to be coming to an early end these days in view of China's impotence in the Red Sea. References: [1] Financial Times 2024: US urges China to help curb Red Sea attacks by Iran-backed Houthis, abrufbar unter:, letzter Zugriff: 25.01.2024. [2] Stahnke, Jochen 2024: Wie China mit den Huthi-Angriffen im Roten Meer umgeht, in:, abrufbar unter:, 25.01.2024. [3] rbb24: Tesla muss Ende Januar Fertigung wegen Lücken in Lieferketten stoppen, abrufbar unter:, letzter Zugriff: 25.01.2024. [4] Mei, Xinyu 2024: Huthi-Spiel mit dem Feuer, in chinesischer Sprache abrufbar unter:, letzter Zugriff: 25.01.2024. [5] Global Times 2024: US escalates Red Sea tensions, while China voices fairness, Ausgabe: 17. Januar 2024, S. 5. [6] Global Times 2024. [7] Siehe hierzu den lesenswerten Beitrag: Hauberg, Sven 2024: Suezkanal ist wichtige Handelsroute – doch China hält sich im Kampf gegen die Huthi-Rebellen auffallend zurück, Frankfurter Rundschau, abrufbar unter:, letzter Zugriff: 25.01.2024. [8] Hauberg, Sven 2024.

Defense & Security
Successful North and South Korean satellite launches

A tale of two satellites: ISR on the Korean Peninsula

by Timothy Wright

Successful North and South Korean satellite launches underscore both countries’ ambitions to possess an independent space-based intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capability to support their respective deterrence postures. Paradoxically, better ISR capabilities may also improve stability on the Korean Peninsula. Within two weeks, North and South Korea have each successfully launched their first military geospatial imaging satellites. Although the information-gathering capabilities of North Korea’s satellite are probably inferior to South Korea’s, Pyongyang will likely improve this over time, possibly with Russian assistance. Space-based systems will increase Pyongyang and Seoul’s capability to hold each other’s territory at risk, but paradoxically may also improve stability. Targeting tactics Space-based intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) systems play an important role in the so-called ‘kill-chain’ through which militaries detect, track and engage targets with precision-strike systems. Pyongyang and Seoul possess large arsenals of precision-guided ballistic and land-attack cruise missiles, but their respective ISR capabilities to inform targeting decisions are less mature by comparison. North Korea has developed several types of uninhabited aerial vehicles (UAVs) for ISR purposes, but sensor, endurance and communications constraints limit their utility, and they are vulnerable to South Korean and United States air defences. South Korea has more advanced ISR capabilities, but it has historically relied on United States space-based assets for its geospatial imagery needs.    North Korea said that it developed a space-based ISR capability to provide its armed forces with ‘real-time information’ to improve its ‘war deterrent’. Following the successful launch of the Malligyong-1 satellite on 21 November, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said that it provided North Korea with ‘eyes’ to complement its ‘fist’. To underline this point, North Korean state media claimed the satellite imaged Andersen Air Force Base on Guam and other ‘ major targets in the enemy region’ that North Korea could target in a conflict, without releasing imagery. Similarly, South Korea said that it is developing its space-based ISR capabilities to enhance the effectiveness of its so-called 3K deterrence architecture. It envisages South Korean forces detecting and targeting North Korean missile launchers and command-and-control in the event of an imminent or unforeseen North Korean missile launch. Both countries have made clear their recent launches are merely a first step to building out a space-based ISR layer. North Korea has said that it will launch an unspecified number of satellites in the future. Seoul plans to follow the 1 December launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the deployment of four synthetic-aperture radar satellites by 2025, giving it an all-weather capability. Launch implications Although North Korea’s launch is an achievement for Pyongyang after earlier launch failures, the satellite’s likely poor image quality might provide limited initial returns. After a prior North Korean launch of a military-satellite similar to the Malligyong-1 failed, South Korean and US investigators judged, based on recovered parts, that the payload had ‘no military use’, suggesting its sensors and communication equipment were of poor quality. Even so, the successful launch on 21 November provides Pyongyang with an independent capability that will likely mature through domestic refinement, illicit acquisitions and potentially foreign assistance. South Korea claims that Russia provided unspecified input on the Chollima-1 satellite-launch vehicle (SLV) following two failed launch attempts earlier this year. Russian President Vladimir Putin also apparently pledged to provide support for North Korea’s space programme during a September meeting with Kim at the Vostochny Cosmodrome, possibly as repayment for much-needed ammunition to support Moscow’s war in Ukraine. Because SLVs incorporate dual-use components and technologies that can also be used in ballistic missiles, Pyongyang’s satellite launch was condemned by France, the United Kingdom and the US as destabilising and a violation of multiple United Nations Security Council Resolutions related to North Korea’s sanctioned ballistic missile programme. The Chollima-1 SLV’s first-stage rocket motor, for instance, is derived from the Soviet-designed RD-250 engine that has powered several different North Korean intercontinental ballistic missiles, such as the Hwasong-14, Hwasong-15 and Hwasong-17. An advancement in North Korea’s SLV capabilities will undoubtedly have some benefits for its ballistic missile programme. Although Pyongyang regularly tests ballistic missiles, it is unlikely to have used this launch to disguise testing military capabilities related to its missile programme. South Korea’s military space programme also has received some external assistance. The country launched its satellite on a SpaceX Falcon 9 SLV from the US government’s Vandenberg Space Force Base. Future satellite launches might continue to use US technology alongside South Korea’s burgeoning SLV capability. Supporting stability Perhaps paradoxically, Pyongyang and Seoul’s new space-based ISR capabilities may have some unexpected stability benefits by reducing mutual fears of pre-emption. In a crisis, a lack of information may exacerbate pre-emption fears and could trigger escalation. South Korea’s deterrence doctrine is based on Seoul’s fear that North Korea may pre-emptively use conventional or nuclear weapons against it. North Korea is arguably concerned about South Korea’s analogous precision-strike capabilities, evidenced by recent changes to its nuclear doctrine to delegate launch authority if Kim were killed. Although space-based ISR will allow North and South Korea to target each other more effectively in a conflict, their new capabilities might also be useful in a crisis by providing Pyongyang and Seoul with greater situational awareness that could reduce the risk of inadvertent escalation.

Defense & Security
Kim Jong Un’s Latest Threats of War

What to Make of Kim Jong Un’s Latest Threats of War

by Patrick M. Cronin

Why is Pyongyang ringing in the new year with warmongering? North Korea’s official newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, is predicting a year of living dangerously, marked by the “highest risk of confrontation.” Addressing an end-of-year party plenum, Kim Jong Un cautioned that “war can break out at any time.” He added, however, that foreign military confrontation would be met by “a deadly blow to thoroughly annihilate” the enemy and subjugate “the whole territory of South Korea.”  Kim’s dire forecast is a matter of concern, but not because deterrence is likely to fail. The North Korean leader wants others to fear the prospect of war, which is why he (once again) threatened that the Korean peninsula is “on the precipice of nuclear war.” But Kim wants to sharpen his “treasured sword,” not fall on it.  North Korea may be viewed as preternaturally bellicose, but menacing discourse is not harmless prattle. The sharp rhetoric emanating from the Kim regime masks serious internal and external goals that impinge on vital U.S. national interests and regional security. For starters, Kim needs to justify his fixation on military spending. Clearly, three military parades, 44 missiles, and 64 flights a year are difficult to sustain. The notion that U.S. and allied military exercises are making the thought of war on the peninsula “realistic” is propaganda. Even so, Kim’s pledge to launch three more military spy satellites in the coming months is realistic, if also suggestive of one of the concrete benefits of adopting Russia as North Korea’s primary defense partner. North Korea’s anemic economy cannot support additional military spending. The ambitious five-year defense modernization plan Kim unveiled three years ago is perpetuating the country’s impoverishment. Pyongyang’s boast of a 40% increase in the country’s gross domestic product last year masks a fragile and sanctioned economy, overly dependent on China, which accounts for 90% of North Korean exports. While North Korean exports to China rebounded to about $300 million in 2023, a shocking 57% of that total came from exports of wigs, false beards, eyebrows and eyelashes. A weak and vulnerable economy is precisely why the North Korean regime places a higher priority on cyber theft than it does on legal trade. When you can raise more than $2 billion from hacking, who needs to maintain so many foreign diplomatic outposts in Africa? So, U.S. and South Korean authorities must step up their game if they are to prevent cyber heists like the one on Orbit Chain on New Year’s Eve that probably netted North Koreans $81.5 million in cryptocurrency.  Kim Jong Un also is relying on cooperation with like-minded partners to compensate for his diplomatic failures with South Korea and the United States. Having strengthened ties with Russia by providing additional ammunition for Moscow’s war of aggression — and North Korean mortar and rocket shells are increasingly visible on the Ukrainian battlefield — Kim is in a position to leverage relations with Beijing.  China’s Xi Jinping, locked in a fierce competition with the United States, appears eager to lend an extra hand to help North Korea. Xi’s New Year’s Day greeting to Kim said that “the new situation in the new era” further underscores the need to take “a strategic and long-term perspective” on China-North Korea relations. North Korea’s diplomatic outreach to Russia and China not only is a counterpoise to growing trilateral relations among the United States, Japan and South Korea but also a useful means of undermining Seoul as it begins a two-year stint as a nonpermanent member of the United Nations Security Council.  Setting a belligerent tone to commence the year is also Pyongyang’s way of trying to subvert South Korea’s democratic government. There was no subtlety in labeling South Korea “a hemiplegic malformation and colonial subordinate state.” Furthermore, as South Koreans mark the centennial of the birth of former president Kim Dae-jung, the Kim regime might be engaging in wishful thinking that progressives will rise in protest against the conservative administration of Yoon Suk-yeol. Politics is as polarized as ever and South Korean police are reinforcing security after the stabbing of the leader of the main opposition political party and an online threat to kill the head of the ruling People Power Party. But Kim Jong Un must have an even greater fear of losing his totalitarian power than is suggested by state-controlled media. Burnishing Kim’s credentials as a benevolent father figure and feigning more democratic elections shows a need to appeal to popular support. Even more telling was the Jan. 1 airing on North Korea’s KCTV of the movie A Day and A Night, which highlights the real story of how a nurse uncovered a counter-revolutionary plot to overthrow the Kim Il Sung government. The point of the Pyongyang-produced movie is to ensure North Korean people are sufficiently motivated to protect their leader.  Finally, threatening conflict is a cost-effective way for the Kim regime to amplify America’s trending theme of dread about the fate of American democracy. The West has a rich supply of smart pessimists who regularly churn out frightening warnings. No doubt Kim also would like for us to unburden ourselves by accommodating a nuclear North Korea and removing U.S. troops from the peninsula.  Oh, to recall the “beautiful letters” that Kim Jong Un penned to then-President Donald Trump after their brief flirtation with peace in the summer of 2018. 

Defense & Security
Satellite in the space with the North Korean flag

North Korea’s Spy Satellite Launch Is One Giant (and Dangerous) Question Mark

by Bruce Klingner

Pyongyang successfully launched its first military reconnaissance satellite after two previous failures. North Korea has developed a robust missile arsenal but, until now, lacked a remote reconnaissance capability to identify, track, and attack U.S., South Korean, and Japanese military targets. The satellite’s capabilities, as well as whether it incorporated Russian technology, remain unknown. North Korea announced the satellite surveilled U.S. military bases in Guam and vowed to launch several additional reconnaissance satellites “in a short span of time.” South Korea responded by suspending portions of an inter-Korean military agreement meant to prevent military clashes along the DMZ, raising tensions on the peninsula even further. On November 21, Pyongyang conducted its third attempt at launching its Malligyong-1 military reconnaissance satellite onboard a Chollima-1 rocket. Previous launches in August 2023 failed to achieve orbit, but clearly, North Korea learned some valuable lessons. The South Korean navy salvaged some of the rocket and satellite debris from the ocean floor, enabling technical analysis, though the results have not been disclosed. Kim Jong-un declared the regime’s intention to develop a military reconnaissance satellite in his January 2021 directive to the regime’s defense industry. Other delineated military projects included a solid-fuel ICBM, tactical nuclear warheads, hypersonic gliding flight warheads, and a nuclear-powered submarine. >>> North Korea and Russia: How Far Could Their Partnership Go? North Korea reported an “important final-stage test” in December 2022 involving a mock satellite and subsequently released two poor-quality images of the Korean Peninsula. Experts denigrated the grainy, low-resolution images as being of far worse capability than commercially available imagery. Kim Yo-jong, the sister of North Korea’s leader, responded angrily that the test was to show the feasibility of the system rather than the eventual quality of the imagery. In April 2023, Kim underscored the importance of having “several reconnaissance satellites on different orbits [for] securing real-time information about the hostile forces’ military scenario and moves.” Ironically, North Korea’s most recent satellite launch occurred the same day the regime criticized South Korea and the United States for “recklessly” militarizing space, describing Seoul’s upcoming launch of its own reconnaissance satellite as an “extremely dangerous military provocation.” It is possible that Russia provided technology to improve North Korea’s satellite launch capabilities in return for Pyongyang’s shipments of massive amounts of artillery ammunition to Moscow. During Kim’s September 2023 trip to Vladivostok, President Vladimir Putin hinted at providing military and technological support to North Korea. Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned Russia was providing “technology and support” for North Korea’s military programs, though without elaborating on details. A South Korean military official told reporters that an 80-ton liquid fuel engine was transferred from Russia to North Korea even before the September summit. Russian engineers traveled to North Korea after the summit. More likely, however, North Korea’s long-planned launch occurred too quickly after the Kim-Putin summit to have incorporated new Russian technology. Pyongyang announced it had developed the satellite and launcher “by its own efforts and technologies.” Pyongyang has frequently failed initial tests of new missile systems before eventually succeeding. South Korea responded to the launch by partially suspending the 2018 Comprehensive Military Agreement, which then-President Moon Jae-in hailed as a major step in improving relations with Pyongyang. The accord established mutual risk reduction and confidence-building measures to reduce the potential for inadvertent military escalation. However, the Yoon Suk Yeol administration declared that North Korea repeatedly violated the agreement and criticized provisions of the deal, which curtailed allied reconnaissance and military training activities. The Yoon administration announced it would suspend Article 1, Clause 3 of the agreement and restore airborne reconnaissance operations along the DMZ. >>> Next-Generation Interceptor Needed in Greater Quantities to Stay Ahead of the North Korean Missile Threat Any North Korean launch using “ballistic missile technology” is a violation of numerous U.N. resolutions, regardless of whether it is depicted as a civilian space launch. While China and Russia will veto approval of any new U.N. resolutions, the United States should step up its enforcement of U.S. and U.N. sanctions and work systematically with the international community to target North Korean violators, as well as entities in Russia, China, and elsewhere that facilitate Pyongyang’s transgressions. The U.S. should also counter the growing North Korean military threat by strengthening security cooperation with allies South Korea and Japan, while encouraging these two allies to improve their bilateral cooperation. Last year, the U.S. resumed large-scale military exercises with South Korea and restarted rotational deployments of strategic assets, both after a four-year hiatus. Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo also restarted trilateral military exercises. These measures have augmented allied deterrence and defense capabilities. The three nations should consider a return to pre-2018 training levels as a minimum requirement for future training schedules. Given the escalating growth in North Korean nuclear and missile forces, Washington should confer with Seoul and Tokyo on a training regimen that includes all military services and goes beyond ballistic missile defense and anti-submarine exercises to include air and ground forces. The historic trilateral Camp David Summit in August paved the way for greater American-led military, economic, and technological cooperation against common security threats in the Indo-Pacific. The three leaders, however, will need to operationalize the extensive security agreements they reached as well as commit greater resources to offset advancing Chinese and North Korean military capabilities represented by this launch. This piece originally appeared in The National Interest

Defense & Security
Flags of North Korea and Russia

How North Korea Could Affect the War

by Can Kasapoğlu

As Kim Jong Un arrives in Russia for arms talks with Vladimir Putin, Hudson Institute Senior Fellow Can Kasapoglu offers a defense intelligence assessment of North Korea’s potential to affect Russia’s stumbling invasion campaign. Executive Summary Having failed to quickly conquer Ukraine, the Kremlin now pursues a war of attrition to wear down the will of Kyiv and NATO nations supporting the Ukrainian military. In this attritional fight, Russia enjoys a manpower advantage over Ukraine but faces setbacks in sustaining the necessary firepower. North Korea, which possesses an arsenal compatible with Soviet-Russian systems and the production capacity to augment it, could provide Moscow with the armaments it seeks. Pyongyang could also support Moscow in cyber warfare and training new recruits by dispatching its large special forces detachments. Russia and North Korea, along with Iran, represent an emerging axis that the West should take seriously as a global security threat. 1. North Korean Artillery Systems Could Replenish Moscow’s Stockpiles When it launched its invasion of Ukraine, Moscow anticipated a blitz intervention lasting a few weeks. Its military planners’ intelligence preparation of the battlefield (IPB) reflected this assessment. This is why Russian fighters were afforded generous provisions of artillery at the outset of the war. Available intelligence reports suggest that when the war began, each Russian battalion tactical group possessed up to two batteries of howitzers and a rocket battery. Subsequently, complete artillery brigades engaged Ukraine’s combat formations, unleashing overwhelming firepower at a high tempo to support the main axes of effort in a multifront war. At their heaviest, Russian artillery salvos regularly used 24,000 shells per day, and peaked on some days at 38,000 shells. As the campaign wore on and Russia’s initial intelligence estimates proved faulty, this rate dropped to 10,000 shells per day by the first quarter of 2023. At present, Russia’s artillery salvos utilize between 5,000 and 10,000 rounds daily. This change in fire patterns reflects Russia’s diminution of its own ammunition stockpiles. The Russian military used a total of 12 million artillery rounds in 2022. At its current rate of usage, it is on pace to use close to 7 million rounds in 2023. This means that the Russian military is using an average of 13,600 fewer shells per day this year than it used last year. This is troubling for Moscow since its defense industry can only produce 20,000 rounds per month of the Soviet-remnant 152mm-class weapons that dominate its artillery units. The overall artillery round production rate of the Russian industry falls somewhere between 2 million and 2.5 million shells per year. This is the void that Pyongyang could fill. Artillery and rockets are core assets of the Korean People’s Army (KPA). Open-source intelligence assessments estimate that the KPA operates some 14,000 to 20,000 artillery pieces of all kinds. At least 10,000 pieces of this stockpile are the 122mm-class rocket systems and 152mm-class artillery that are compatible with Russia’s heavily Soviet-era arsenal. Seventy percent of North Korea’s fire systems are forward deployed at high readiness, while some 4,000 are stored in underground networks. In any baseline wargaming scenario, KPA combat formations can volley up to 500,000 shells per hour at the outset of hostilities and sustain that operational tempo for several hours or opt for a prolonged conflict with a reduced artillery tempo of 10,000 shells per day. Worryingly, thirty percent of North Korea’s artillery and rocket deterrent is certified with chemical warfare agents, drawing upon up to 5,000 tons of Pyongyang’s stocks of chemical weapons. Initial assessments have suggested that the Kremlin is interested in North Korea’s 152mm-class artillery shells and its 122mm-class rockets, which the KPA uses as the mid-range artillery in the rear echelons of its combat formations. Pyongyang’s defense industries have been diligent in cloning artillery and rocket systems in these classes—with some added touches of their own. Their M-1974 Tokchon, for example, is simply the derivative of the Soviet 152mm-class D-20 howitzer and the ATS-59 tractor. The KPA operates thousands of 122mm-class MLRS and 152mm-class artillery, along with an enormous arsenal of ammunition certified for these weapons. Even more troublingly for Ukraine and its Western allies, North Korea could provide support to Russia that extends beyond 122mm- and 152mm-class solutions. The KPA’s longer-range fire-support systems—the 170mm Koksan self-propelled gun, with a range of some 60 kilometres, the M-1985/1991 truck-mounted 240mm-class rockets (which are highly mobile and destructive), and the 300mm-class heavy-rocket KN-09 (which has a range of 200 kilometres)—would be incredibly dangerous in Russian arsenals, especially when used in urban and semi-urban settings. Russia could seek to acquire these weapons systems. Should Kim Jong Un sign off on transferring some of these armaments to Moscow, it would not be his first rodeo. In December 2022, the White House revealed intelligence showing that Russia’s infamous Wagner network had received rockets from Pyongyang. 2. North Korean Tactical Ballistic Missiles Could Alter Battlefield Dynamics In a prolonged high-tempo conflict, Russia is running out of advanced tactical ballistic missiles. Its expenditure rate has long surpassed its production capacity of these key armaments. Here, too, North Korea could offer help to Moscow. Although it possesses fewer tactical ballistic missiles than artillery and rocket systems, the missiles it does possess could rain terror onto Ukraine’s population centers, even in small numbers. To grasp this issue, one needs to understand Russia’s missile warfare efforts in Ukraine. In January 2023, the Ukrainian Defense Ministry’s official tracking efforts determined that Russia had unleashed 750 SS-26 Iskander tactical ballistic missile salvos up to that point in the invasion. At that time, Ukrainian sources estimated that Russia had less than 120 Iskanders remaining in its stockpiles. Whether that figure was precise or exaggerated, Moscow, with a flagging production rate of only five Iskander tactical ballistic missiles per month, was quickly depleting its stocks of this vital weapon. Pyongyang could not supply the Russian military with thousands of ballistic missiles, as it could do with its stores of Soviet-compatible artillery and rockets. Nevertheless, transfers of a few hundred ballistic missiles remain within the realm of possibility. Short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) are the foundations of North Korea’s missile proliferation efforts. While Pyongyang has a large arsenal of liquid-propellant missiles possessing a Scud baseline, the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation prefer newer, solid-propellant missiles with better accuracy and shortened launch cycles, as these weapons stand a better chance against being hunted down by the Ukrainian military while causing more reliable damage. Unfortunately, Pyongyang also possesses stocks of these solid-fuelled, road-mobile tactical ballistic missiles. According to the US Defense Intelligence Agency, in one single military parade in October 2020, North Korea showcased 52 solid-propellant SRBMs on 6 different wheeled and tracked transporter erector launchers (TELs). In 2021, it was estimated that North Korea possesses some 600 solid-fuelled SRBM variants. Pyongyang’s next-generation tactical ballistic missile systems are menacing weapons. These assets feature a quasi-ballistic trajectory, improved accuracy (especially compared to other North Korean systems in the same range), and broad warhead configurations. All these features would support Russia’s missile warfare campaign. One of Pyongyang’s tactical ballistic missiles is the KN-23. The KN-23 is often portrayed as the North Korean version of the Russian SS-26 Iskander-M, as both projectiles follow a quasi-ballistic, depressed trajectory. The KN-23 is also capable of executing pull-up manoeuvres when homing in on a target. These features put extra stress on missile defense and make the KN-23 a hard-to-intercept threat. Moreover, in missile tests the KN-23 has demonstrated a range of 690 kilometres, with a flight apogee—the highest point in a rocket’s flight path—of 50 kilometres when carrying a lighter payload. It can also deliver a combat payload of one-half ton within a range of 450 kilometres. Should Russia acquire this weapon, it would bode ill for Ukraine’s air defense. Interestingly enough, the KN-23 was on display when Russia’s Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu paid a recent visit to North Korea. The Russians may also show interest in the KN-24, another quasi-ballistic missile endowed with a powerful warhead. Some writings suggest that the KN-24 is modelled after the American ATACMS. North Korea test-launched the missile in 2019 with a depressed trajectory, showcasing a range of 400 kilometres and an apogee of 48 kilometres, and, in another test, a range of 230 kilometres with an apogee of 30 kilometres. In March 2020, Pyongyang conducted another launch, unleashing two KN-24 missiles that registered a maximum range of 410 kilometres and an apogee of 50 kilometres. The 2020 test reportedly featured missiles that could perform pull-up manoeuvres. Available evidence shows that both the KN-23 and the KN-24 likely deliver two main combat payload configurations—either a unitary warhead with one half ton of high explosives, or a submunition option packed with hundreds of charges. These warheads have a lethality radius of between 50 and 100 meters that expands against soft targets hit by submunition variants. In comparison with North Korea’s legacy, Scud-derivative tactical ballistic missiles, the KN-23 and KN-24 enjoy favourable circular error probable (CEP) rates, indicating that the newer missiles are more accurate weapons than their aged forebears. 3. North Korea Could Assist Russia in More Unconventional Ways While artillery and rockets seem the likely focus of any assistance Pyongyang could provide to Russia, North Korea could also affect the conflict in more unconventional ways. The first of these is cyber warfare. Pyongyang has gradually built a notorious cyber warfare deterrent. In 2016, North Korean agents hacked South Korean Cyber Command, contaminating its intranet with malware, and stealing confidential data. North Korea’s hackers also hacked the Bangladesh Central Bank in 2016, pulling off a notable heist. Alarmingly, the hackers even used the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications (SWIFT) banking networks to do so. Pyongyang and Moscow had already established collaborative ties in cyberspace well before the invasion of Ukraine. The burgeoning security relationship between North Korea and Russia could push them to target the West in retaliation against sanctions. The second opportunity for unconventional cooperation between the two nations is in special forces and combat training. According to British Defense Intelligence, the Russian military is preparing to recruit 420,000 contract troops by the end of 2023. Understaffed and penurious non-commissioned officers’ corps with inadequate combat training have plagued the Russian military for decades. North Korea employs the largest special forces branch in the world, with some 200,000 servicemen. Thus, one cannot rule out the North Korean military dispatching training missions to help with Russia’s incoming waves of draftees. Plagued by skyrocketing armour losses in Ukraine, the Russian military has begun to put decades-old T-62 tanks onto the battlefield. To do so, Russia has pulled some 800 T-62s from Cold War–era storage and modernized them with 1PN96MT-02 thermal sights and reactive armour. While this upgrade package is less than glamorous, it is the only way to keep a museum piece in the fight. Herein lies another potential area for unconventional cooperation between Moscow and Pyongyang. North Korea has an arsenal of armour some 3,500 units strong, with large numbers of the T-62. Russia could seek to modernize North Korea’s T-62s to acceptable standards in an effort to buttress its own decrepit arsenal. 4. Battlefield Update Following the usual pattern of the conflict, the war zone has seen high-tempo clashes paradoxically married to a static battlefield geometry. There have been no major territorial changes over recent weeks. Marking a tactically important achievement, however, Ukraine’s counteroffensive has managed to incrementally widen and deepen the Robotyne bulge across Novopokrovka in the southwest and Verbove in the southeast. The Russian first lines of defense are stable and have continued to hold the line, stymieing Ukraine’s efforts to attain a breakthrough. Weapons systems assessments on several fronts in the south and northeast indicate that Ukraine is continuing to conduct first-person-view kamikaze drone strikes. Open-source defense intelligence suggests that the Ukrainian Armed Forces are cherry-picking advanced Russian assets, such as T-80BV main battle tanks and 240mm-class Tyulpan heavy mortars, to inflict maximum asymmetric destruction. Ukrainian special forces also conducted a raid in the Black Sea, recapturing the Boika Towers oil and gas drilling platforms situated between Snake Island and occupied Crimea. Regardless of whether the Ukrainian military can hold these facilities, its success in capturing them revealed major gaps in Russia’s real-time intelligence capabilities. Western military assistance programs for Ukraine have also begun to show some progress. The American military reportedly even asked for extra training sessions for the Ukrainian armour crews before combat deploying US-provided Abrams tanks, which Ukraine’s mechanized formations will probably start operating in a matter of weeks. It remains to be seen if they will be immediately sent to the front lines. Ukrainian combat pilots are also set to start their training on the F-16 aircraft, with optimistic and more conservative estimates of the training timeline for basic operational efficiency coming in at 3 months and 9 months. Notably, news stories now report the improving chances of ATACMS tactical ballistic missile transfers to Ukraine. Our previous writings have assessed how important it is for Ukraine to strike the Russian rear. The ATACMS could play a critical role in furthering this objective. In the northeast, the Russian military is conducting frontal assaults with no major progress in the direction of Kupiansk. US-transferred cluster munitions artillery shells reportedly made a difference in preventing Russian advances in this sector. On September 9 and 10, the Russian military unleashed a barrage of Iran-manufactured Shahed-131 and Shahed-136 loitering munitions to pound Kyiv. While Ukrainian air defense intercepted the bulk of these munitions, the volley marks the ability of the Russia-Iran axis to sustain large-scale drone salvos for over a year. Russia’s defense industries have made considerable progress in co-producing the Iranian Shahed-131 and Shahed-136 loitering munitions baselines at home, further enabling Moscow’s high-tempo drone warfare efforts.