Deep Dive: Russia’s Active Measures and North Korea

As unpredictable as North Korea may be, their actions are both rational and concerning when viewed in context of North Korea’s relationship with Russia and how it influences US policy.

The situation in North Korea has been a whirlwind of rhetoric over the last year.

First, we were worried that North Korea was going to start nuking American cities. We were talking about the possibility of war, the president was threatening “fire and fury.”

Then, in April of this year, the president announced that North Korea was willing to denuclearize. North Korean Chairman Kim Jong Un met with South Korean president Moon Jae-in. The United States and North Korea began plans for unprecedented talks between President Trump and Kim in June of 2018.

In another reversal in May, North Korea abruptly cancelled a subsequent set of planned talks with South Korea and threatened to pull out of the talks with the United States in June.

There’s a lot of politicking around what’s going on here. Some people think Kim Jong Un’s a madman. Others think he’s a genius. Then there are those who think President Trump’s a master diplomat and those that think that he’s a dotard.

These contradictory views are partly right, partly wrong, and missing the big picture. North Korea is not acting alone. Kim Jong Un has been working with Russia as part of the larger Russian active measures campaign. North Korea’s seeming erratic actions are undermining America’s influence in East Asia and influencing America’s politics at home.

This is divided into three sections. First, what are Russia’s active measures? Second, what are the influencers on North Korea’s activities? Finally, how has North Korea’s activity influenced American foreign policy?

What do we mean by “Active Measures”

Countries have meddled in competitors’ politics since the dawn of time. They send diplomats abroad and establish embassies to conduct political diplomacy. They occasionally send armies abroad to conduct more forceful diplomacy. Active measures are just a way of describing the non-overt manipulations that occur in the grey space between those two.

The American Intelligence Community announced their conclusion in January of 2017 that Russia had interfered in the 2016 Presidential Elections. At the time, the released reports did not evaluate the impact of that interference or whether or not any Americans had actively aided the Russian effort. The Mueller investigation has been looking at whether or not Americans aided in that.

One aspect of the active measures campaign involved massive networks of bots. Another aspect involved the hacking and release of confidential emails. These campaigns were meant to influence voters and policy makers into making decisions that would benefit Russia.

Historical Active Measures and Espionage

The United States has been studying Russia’s active measures techniques since the spread of Communism under the Soviet Union in the 1920s. A declassified 1981 State Department report categorized these techniques into the following categories:

  • Written or spoken disinformation
  • Efforts to control media in foreign countries
  • Use of Communist Parties and front organizations
  • Clandestine radio broadcasting
  • Blackmail, personal and economic
  • Political influence operations

A declassified 1987 FBI report to Congress indicated that the Russians were trying a variety of routes in the United States, including influencing religious, labor, and media organizations.

Aside from the active measures (for which it should be noted, we do not have a comprehensive study of their effectiveness), the Russians and their allies were extremely successful at traditional espionage. The Russians acquired moles in the CIA who were not discovered until years after the end of the Cold War. These moles included CIA agent Aldrich Ames and FBI counterintelligence Robert Hannsen. Russia’s ally, Cuba, acquired a mole in the DIA, analyst Ana Montes, arguably one of the most damaging moles in US history.

The 2016 Election

As far as the 2016 election goes, we are starting to form a picture of how Russia used information to influence the American discourse. We still do not know how large the Russian effort was. Facebook identified around 3,500 ads (promoted content) put out by Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA), which Congress recently published. Facebook also identified organic content published by the IRA which ended up reaching over 120 million Americans, although those posts have not been publicly released yet.

Not all of the active measures campaigns involved what could be characterized as ‘fake news’. There are enough differences of opinion in the country to merely amplify the differing opinions — e.g. with the abortion debate to amplify the difference between ‘the right to life’ or the ‘right to choose’, neither of which could be characterized as ‘fake’. In fact, researchers found that suspected Russian Twitter bots tended to selectively publicize mainstream media reports in order to divide populations.

That just covers the information aspect of the active measures campaigns. The Mueller investigation is looking into possible connections between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, resulting in indictments against 19 people so far.

Russia is also using political methods to influence tensions in the United States, with North Korea focal to Russia’s efforts. Russia is using North Korea to escalate and lower tensions in order to influence American policy; first in the Pacific and more recently in domestic American politics.

The Death that Sparked It

The most recent round of Russia’s active measures appears to have been provoked in 2011. Amidst the Arab spring, Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi was killed by a mob of rebels in Sirte, Libya. Gaddaffi’s death terrified authoritarian dictators around the world, creating the catalyst for a revolt against American influence.

The moral of the death of Gaddafi finds its roots in 2003, when Gaddafi agreed to give up his WMD development programs involving nuclear weapons, chemical weapons, and biological weapons. The Bush administration argued that Gaddafi did it to avoid getting invaded by the United States following the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Those involved in the negotiations argued that Gaddafi did it to get out of sanctions imposed by the US and the United Nations for supporting terrorism. At any rate, Gaddafi agreed to give up his WMD capabilities.

In 2011, the Arab spring produced revolts across North Africa, including in Libya. By March of 2011, NATO imposed a no-fly zone in Libya, preventing Gaddafi from using air power to fight the rebels. In October of 2011, Gaddafi was in a convoy which was bombed by an American drone and French aircraft, after which a waiting mob killed him after sodomizing him with a bayonet.

Taken from one perspective, the death of Gaddafi was justified. Gaddafi was an authoritarian dictator, responsible for countless human rights abuses. Taken from perspective of other authoritarian dictators around the world, Gaddafi’s death served as a warning for anyone that would deal with the United States.

Putin specifically blamed the United States for Gaddafi’s death and accused the United States of trying to create similar turmoil in Russia. Taken amidst an expansionist NATO to Russia’s west and America’s Pivot to Asia to Russia’s east, the United States was encircling Russia, putting Putin in a precarious position. It did not assuage Putin’s concerns when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in an interview, “We Came, We Saw, He Died,” a reference to Ceaser’s “Veni vidi vici” (I came, I saw, I conquered).

These events in Libya may turn out to have been one of the defining decisions in 21st century geo-politics. Russia subsequently threw its entire weight into ensuring that the United States would not be able to overthrow Putin the same way as Gaddafi. As part of this effort, Putin would use North Korea as a wedge in the Pacific to counter US foreign policy by dividing America’s allies in East Asia.

North Korea’s Influencers

On first look, China (as opposed to Russia) seems the most likely candidate for having the most influence over North Korea. This makes sense and many analysts have gone that route; if you look at North Korea on a globe, China’s the giant country right next door. China’s a rising powerhouse and they are definitely not our friends when it comes to foreign policy. They’re expanding their influence into Africa, building islands in the South China Sea, and spending billions to increase their influence throughout Asia via the ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative. But China hasn’t had influence over North Korea for almost half a decade.

It’s true that from the fall of the Soviet Union to 2013, China was North Korea’s only major ally. But in 2013, things changed — North Korea executed Kim Jong Un’s uncle Jang Song Thaek and then executed or imprisoned his pro-Chinese supporters.

Part of the significance of the Thaek purge has to do with North Korea’s “Juche” ideology (commonly translated as ‘self-sufficient’) which is essentially their concept of being independent. Under “Juche”, North Korea is not subservient to any other country. Thaek threatened North Korea’s independence by being a direct conduit of Chinese influence which could bypass Kim Jong Un.

Despite North Korea’s “Juche” ideology, since 2013, Russia has replaced China as calling the shots in North Korea. North Korea has listed Russia as their top ally ever since. Of course, North Korea’s relationship with Russia goes back to the Korean war in 1950. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union was a major North Korean benefactor alongside China. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia was unable to sustain its aid. China became the big dog for the next couple decades. That’s over now.

Russian-North Korea Relations Rebuilt

In the Pacific, one of Russia’s main efforts was to use North Korea as a lever to manipulate tensions. North Korea manipulated tensions for decades for its own purpose, but Russia used its historical expertise of manipulating to the west to amplify these tensions even further.

Even before Kim Jong Un took power, his father Kim Jong-il had started to rebuild North Korea- Russia ties. In August, 2011, Kim Jong-il visited Russia along with air force chief. In 2012, Russia relieved North Korea of 90% of their Cold War era debt, and in 2013 Russia cemented their influence with the purge of Jang Song Thaek and his supporters.

Russian military relations with North Korea continued through Kim Jong Un’s administration. It was not a secret — for instance, in 2014, The Guardian asked why Russia was so intent on redeveloping their ties with North Korea. By early 2015, North Korea and Russia declared a “year of friendship” along with a renewed alliance. Already, analysts predicted that Russia was trying to turn North Korea into a pawn in its international game. Later in 2015, North Korean and Russian military officials continued to hold talks in Pyongyang.

The Syrian Civil War

Part of Russia’s influence came from the Syrian Civil War. A Russian backed alliance, including the Syrian government and Iran, has been fighting against a coalition of rebels backed by western powers since 2011. North Korea is also part of this Russian alliance.

North Korea announced their support for Syria early in 2012. Around that time, intelligence officials linked Scud missiles being used by the Syrian regime to North Korea in addition to conventional weapons shipments. By November 2013, analysts assessed that North Korea was increasing its aid to Syria in contradiction to earlier assessments that North Korea would stay out.

These developments brought North Korea further into Russia’s sphere of influence, a month before North Korea purged the pro-Chinese factions from its government. The links between Syria and North Korea continued to develop, with odd events such as Syria creating a park named after Kim Il-Sung in 2015.

Of course, these relationships also pre-dated the Syrian Civil War. North Korea had even sold nuclear technology to the Syrian Government in 2007. That was a particularly interesting story, where the North Koreans starting building a reactor in a remote region of Syria, the Israelis bombed it, then the Israelis denied it for 10 years until finally admitting in 2018 that it did happen.

On top of the North Korea — Syria military relationship, North Korea has also had a long-standing relationship with Iran. A 2011 UN report indicated that North Korea and Iran were exchanging missile technology, likely through China. North Korea and Iran signed a science and technology research agreement in 2012. This relationship continued, with Iranian scientists observing North Korea’s missile tests.

This four-way alliance led by Russia provides a strong bond for North Korea which would take more than pleasant words for us to break.

How has North Korea influenced American policy?

Obama Years

During the Obama years, North Korea conducted a series of missile launches and nuclear tests. These were partly done for research and development and partly as provocations to draw a reaction from other countries.

One of the United States’ reactions to North Korea’s provocations has been an increasing split between Chinese and American interests. In response to North Korea’s missile launches, the United States pushed to deploy its high end anti-ballistic missile battery, the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system to South Korea. This worried China that the United States was trying to box China in. Eventually in 2016 the United States reached an agreement with South Korea to deploy the THAAD there. The perceived threat has allowed Russia to draw China, a traditional rival, into an alliance of necessity against American influence in Asia.

However, the flux in tensions surrounding North Korea’s launches also amplified the differences in priorities between the United States and our allies such as Japan and South Korea in the Pacific. In 2013 amidst high North Korean tensions, Russia began an unprecedented attempt at building military cooperation with Japan playing on Japanese fears of Korean tensions. Amidst lowered tensions, Russia worked on talks to build a pipeline and railway through North Korea into South Korea.

Trump Years

Under the Trump administration, the situation in North Korea has swung wildly from hot to cold.

Early in the Trump administration, Trump created a high visibility pissing contest with North Korea. In April 2017, Trump tweeted “China will properly deal with North Korea”. Whether he knew it or not, this rubbed salt in North Korea’s concept of “juche” by inferring that China could tell the North Koreans what to do, exacerbating the existing China-North Korea tensions.

Throughout the rest of 2017, tensions between the United States and North Korea appeared to escalate. Trump continuously threatened North Korea with war, for instance calling Kim Jong Un “Rocket Man” and threatening that “they won’t be around much longer!”

Come 2018, things suddenly changed.

Trump agreed to meet with the North Koreans after a clandestine meeting between CIA Director Mike Pompeo and Kim Jong Un. This created a chain of events that resulting in major changes to Trump’s cabinet. Trump fired his Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson. Using public pressure to confirm a Secretary of State for the upcoming summit with Kim Jong Un, Trump was able to fast-track Pompeo into being confirmed as Secretary of State. Trump also nominated the CIA deputy director, Gina Haspel, to Pompeo’s vacated position CIA director. If that confirmation goes through, Trump will be able to select a new CIA deputy director without Senate confirmation.

The apparent success of achieving North Korea talks also boosted Trump’s poll ratings. Conservatives clamored that Trump deserved the Nobel Prize, leading Trump to order a replica prize for his office.

But already, North Korea is again manipulating the tensions surrounding the talks by threatening to pull out from the talks. Some analysts have attributed this to North Korea’s past habits of agreeing to and then pulling out of deals.

While this recent behavior could just be the replaying of old methodology, North Korea’s actions need to be taken into context. The Senate Intelligence Committee just affirmed the Intelligence Community’s assessment that the Russians did meddle in the 2016 elections. Even Secretary Pompeo acknowledged that Russia is acting aggressively. These cannot be treated as independent chains of events.

We are dealing with a world-wide active measures campaign by Russia to prevent the United States from being able to overthrow Putin, instigated by the 2011 death of Gaddafi. Since 2012, Russia has established itself as North Korea’s primary benefactor, and is actively working alongside North Korea and their allies in the Syrian civil war. North Korea’s manipulations of tensions, as an ally of Russia, is just an extension of Russia’s active measures through political means.

The active measures seem to be working

Even before North Korea provided the justification for Trump’s cabinet shuffling, Trump was tweeting about these issues presenting a need to cooperate with Russia. “Getting along with Russia (and others) is a good thing,” Trump tweeted. “They can help solve problems with North Korea, Syria, Ukraine, ISIS, Iran and even the coming Arms Race.”

Well, of course Russia can help. They’re the ones that invaded Ukraine. They’re the ones supporting the Assad government in Syria. And they are the ones that are working with the North Koreans.

All of this is just Russia’s active measures. It’s the same sort of amplifying differences between populations that happened with the bots and ads during the election, except this is through a political medium. It is all just manipulation, where the reasons for their actions are loosely based on what they claim, if at all. This manipulation is working, eroding America’s alliances in East Asia and impacting domestic politics within the United States.

On top of all of that, there’s still the lingering question of whether or not the administration is merely reacting to North Korean maneuvering or if there’s a more sinister motivation at play. In time, the Mueller investigation will provide insight to that question.