Putin’s Visit to North Korea and China’s Balanced Diplomacy

Release Date : 2024-06-21

(Chou Wen-Feng, Assistant Professor, Graduate Institute of Strategic Studies, National Defense University)

Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived in Pyongyang for a visit at 2am on June 19. He was originally scheduled to start a two-day visit to North Kore on the 18th, but he stayed in the Sakha Republic in the Russian Far East until late in the night that delayed his departure and there was no grand welcome ceremony upon his arrival, only greeted by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and an interpreter in the airport. Putin then went directly to Kumsusan Guest House for a rest. Normally, the details of such state visit should be arranged in advance through diplomatic consultations. Did the Russia previously inform North Korea of Putin’s delay? Does it signify any special significance? It’s truly intriguing.

North Kore held an official welcome ceremony at Kim II Sung Square at 12:00 on June 19 and Putin wasn’t late this time. He met with Kim Jong Un alone for a talk right after the ceremony. Following the meeting, Kim expressed his full supports for Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine while Putin expressed appreciations for North Kora’s deep supports, stressing that both sides are trying to build a multipolar world order based on mutual respect and mutual benefits to realize justice and the rights of independence and to resolutely oppose obstructions from the “Western Bolck.” The most significant itinerary of Putin’s visit is to sign a “comprehensive strategic partnership agreement,” which includes the provision of mutual assistance in the event of aggression against either of the parties.

From the opened list of accompanying delegates of the Russian side, it reveals that both sides will continue cooperation in the fields of military, aerospace, and energy. Politically, this deepening relations will help Russia mitigate its international isolation by the West following its invasion in Ukraine and marks a significant boost for Kim. And in terms of material benefits, Russia could get supplies of munitions from North Korea in exchange for food, fuel and military technology assistance. 

More importantly, both Russia and North Korea share intention to build a trade settlement system beyond the Western control and intend to offer each other with diplomatic strategic alternative other than China. Both countries are under multi-international sanctions in particular, though China has maintained a close relation with Russia and made great efforts in keeping Russia’s military capabilities, it’s hard to directly provide Russia with urgently needed military supplies due to constraints on its reputation. North Korea, however, conveniently fills this gap. Unlike China’s reservation toward North Korean nuclear development, Russia vetoed UN Security Council’s resolution to extend sanctions monitoring on North Korea in March this year. It highlighted Russia’s intention to increase influence against the Western Block by aligning with North Korea.

Facing such development, China’s diplomatic moves appear very subtle. China is fully aware that it’s not the target of Russia and North Korea alliance despite the deepening relations between the two countries. Moreover, China is still the most important partner for both Russia and North Korea as North Korea deliberately embraced Russia to gain China’s attention. Moscow still wants to get support from Beijing and it’s a choice based on practical interests to align with North Korea; therefore, Russia will handle its relations with China and North Korea with cautions. Though China is also careful not to create the perception of an alliance among Beijing, Moscow, and Pyongyang, it does not oppose Russia and North Kore satisfying each other’s needs that might pose pressure on the West, thus enhancing North Korea’s capabilities and confidence to provoke the US, Japan and South Korea. And Russia will maintain its offense in Ukraine to continue containing the attention of the US and Europe. All these facts will create bigger maneuvering space in international politics for Beijing.

Hence, China’s current diplomatic strategy in response to the deepening relations between Russia and North Korea primarily rely on observation and partial balance. Its specific actions include a new round of consultations with Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs through the Asian Affairs Directorate mechanism in Beijing on June 17 prior to Putin’s visit to North Korea. And the first Deputy Minster-level diplomatic security dialogue between China and South Korea was held in Seoul on the 18th. Despite differences on issues of nuclear wastewater procession, seafood products ban, sovereignty over Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, and the Taiwan Strait, China continues to exchange views with Japan. Its discussions with South Korea on bilateral relations and Korean Peninsula and regional issues are more significant. China wants to demonstrate its strength to influence the situation in Northeast Asia as a reminding to Russia and North Korea not to contradict Beijing’s interests when starting bilateral cooperation.

From this perspective, concerns over the formation of a “three-nation axis” among China, Russia and North Korea are not groundless but it lacks sufficient willingness and conditions currently. The three countries are all dictatorship regimes, but their tight cooperation is driven more by thoughts of practical strategic interests than shared values and ideology. In the current stage, the respective cooperations by China-Russia, China-North Korea, and Russia-North Korea would be more practical to their individual interests.

Notably, Beijing is always concerned that its influence is not sufficient to constraint North Korea’s nuclear development which might potentially accelerate the tension in Northeast Asia to a dangerous level. However, Russia believes that North Korea should take nuclear weapons as a sole security guarantee against threats from the US. It indicates that there are still differences among China, Russia and North Korea. Like Putin’s being late and sudden change of his itinerary, the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership Agreement was eventually signed though, it is internationally believed that subtle variables exist among China, Russia, and North Korea relations.  

Translated to English by Tracy Chou