Russia-North Korea Summit and International Relations in East Asia

Release Date : 2024-07-01

Jinho Kim, Professor, Department of Political Science and International Relations, Dankook University, South Korea/Visiting Scholar, Academia Sinica

Vladimir Putin, who resumed an active policy toward North Korea at the beginning of his fifth term in office, visited Pyongyang for the first time in his 24-year tenure as Russia’s leader, and it was highly significant. During his visit, their traditional friendship was elevated to a “comprehensive strategic partnership,” the highest level of partnership in international relations. Both sides also added a clause for automatic military intervention to the 1961 treaty between the former Soviet Union and North Korea. With the approaching Korean War armistice anniversary, Putin’s intended to elevate Russia-North Korea relations above the level of China-North Korea relations. From the North Korean standpoint, China-North Korea relations are considered “blood alliance.” Although the Chinese involvement in the Korean War made it so, since the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and South Korea in 1992, the “alliance” has slowly become somewhat ambiguous. At this point in time, Putin’s visit to North Korea and Vietnam was probably aimed at restoring the Russia-North Korea and Russia-Vietnam military alliance so that Russia could obtain much-needed war materiel and support from the two countries, to strengthen the counterbalance to the growing hegemony of the US and China in East Asia, as well as to increase Russian influence against the US in the region.

The North Korea-Russia summit was convened in response to Russia’s need for weapons and strategic power support for the aggression against Ukraine. Russia also utilized the summit to demonstrate its influence in East Asia and to enhance its ability to counteract countries that support Ukraine, including the US, Japan, and South Korea. At the same time, Russia was also exerting diplomatic and strategic influence on both China and North Korea to emphasize the importance of mutual cooperation. North Korea, which is currently facing international sanctions for developing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, would like to enhance its security forces through an alliance with Russia, while leader Kim Jong-un would like to solve domestic political and economic problems and improve military technology. For Russia, it needs the help of North Korea in the Russo-Ukrainian War, which in turn, becomes a gift of security, economic and technological cooperation for the Kim, and an opportunity for him to strengthen his political leadership. Although North Korea has maintained basic economic stability through China, it has not made much progress in terms of national security and military technological development, including energy and food. This cooperation with Russia is a major achievement in North Korea’s external relations by getting something it desperately needed from Russia. The way Kim Jong-un waited and received Putin warmly at the Pyongyang airport, and the cordiality and friendship between the two, tells much about the process and results of the summit. In addition to the real issue of strengthening security capability through the alliance, other North Korean gains include solving the energy and food problems through Russia, improving the military science technology, expanding foreign exchange income through the export of its manpower, upgrading the weapon system and accumulating experience by putting them to use in war. On the other hand, Russia also gained strategic benefits, as it could obtain supplies and manpower from North Korea for the war and enhance Russia’s influence in East Asia.

Through this summit, interdependence between Russia and North Korea has increased as North Korea has gotten what it needed at Russia’s behest. Both countries view the US as an empire in international politics, so the cooperation is mutually beneficial because it strengthens their ability to indirectly resist US sanctions. In the long run, however, both Russia and North Korea will need to negotiate with the US to lift the sanctions against them, so their cooperation may change depending on future US strategy. At the very least, Russia and North Korea’s cooperation will be strengthened by the continuation of the Russo-Ukrainian war. In the short term, US strategy toward Russia and North Korea may change depending on its position on the Russo-Ukrainian war and changes in the US Indo-Pacific strategy. The year-end US presidential election, in particular, may change US-Russia relations and its strategy in the Korean Peninsula, depending on the next US president’s views and strategy. It will also determine the relationship between Russia and North Korea, and this will continue until the end of the Russo-Ukrainian War. China has maintained security and economic cooperation with North Korea so far, but it has to prioritize its relationship with the US and its many economic and cultural exchanges with South Korea. Therefore, despite its historical cooperation with North Korea, it cannot actively support North Korea alone. China also indirectly supports Russia’s war in Ukraine. These close ties between China and the international community, including the US and Europe, are the weak links in China-Russia relations, and its position on the Korean Peninsula has made it difficult to fully consolidate relations with Russia.

The situation in Northeast Asia is characterized by the confrontation between two groups: China, Russia and North Korea on the one hand, and the US, Japan and South Korea on the other. Among them, the US blockade of Russia is centered on Europe, while that of China is centered on security, economy and its influence on East Asia. Under these circumstances, Russia, China, and North Korea all have to face US sanctions and blockade, and their respective demands on the US vary. For example, Russia seeks an end to the war and the preservation of Russian interests, while China seeks a security response to US sanctions and trade negotiations. North Korea seeks a relationship with Russia or China that is favorable to its interests and creates negotiation opportunities with the US or Japan.

While major powers like Russia and China can withstand US sanctions as long as they have the resources, population, military and economic strength, North Korea relies on China for energy and food security, and cooperates with Russia to further develop its military science and technology in order to overcome the limitations of China’s economic support. In this sense, the China’s position was largely ignored at the Russia-North Korea summit. In particular, the right for China to use the mouth of the Tumen River was not mentioned. In other words, the Russian-North Korean cooperation was all centered on their current problems, rather than cooperation with China as a strategy against the US. This is because the North Korea seems to be interested in using Russia to increase its bargaining power in its foreign strategy, while Russia is interested in expanding its influence over the former to facilitate cooperation with China.

North Korea has always had diplomatic and cooperative relations with both Russia (formerly the Soviet Union) and China, but it has always been overly dependent on the latter in terms of economy or security. Under these circumstances, strengthening cooperation with Russia was a major diplomatic achievement. Russia’s weapons program provides North Korea the opportunity to clear its own weapons stockpile and upgrade its weapons systems. North Korea will also be able to develop more advanced missiles and nuclear technology, as well as space technology. North Korea will establish some level of cooperation with Russia before using it as leverage to seek greater cooperation with China. North Korea will also take advantage of domestic political and economic stability and increased military power to create opportunities for talks with Japan and the US. However, since South Korea, the US, and Japan emphasize trilateral security cooperation, and Korea, Japan, and China are also seeking room for cooperation, if the US reacts to the Russia-North Korea cooperation and China’s participation, it will also lead to a deterioration of China-US relations, making it difficult for China to keep a distance from Korea, Japan, and the US in Northeast Asia. Moreover, if China confronts the three countries in Northeast Asia, its room for maneuver may be further reduced. China must also have realized the influence of the US and Japan in both Northeast Asia and cross-strait relations.

Russia and North Korea may be seeking negotiation with the US through their hostile behavior toward the West, but China must negotiate with the US in order to maintain its own security and economy. Judging from an old international relations doctrine that “the enemy of one’s enemy is a friend,” the cooperation between Russia and North Korea could be an “alliance” or “cooperation” between “enemies of enemies.” However, China, which is unable to establish a completely antagonistic relationship with the US, cannot adopt the same strategy. China’s security interests are important, but so are its economic ties with the US and the West. If the US imposes Russia-like sanctions on China, the domestic economy of China may suffer even more. Neoliberal cooperation does not lead to neorealist confrontation, because economic stability and prosperity require a high degree of interdependence.

Russia visited Kim Jong-un in North Korea to strengthen Russia’s influence in Northeast Asia, and then visited Vietnam to emphasize the room for cooperation between socialist countries. This strategic behavior can be seen as Russia’s awareness of the ongoing war and the US. The US, on the other hand, is trying to strengthen its containment of either China or Russia through cooperation with Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines, and at the same time, the strengthening its security cooperation in Southeast Asia through economic cooperation with Vietnam. The US encircling North Korea in Northeast Asia and communicating with Vietnam in Southeast Asia is certainly conducive to the US sealing off China in East Asia, and compressing the latter’s room for regional expansion. China wants to build on the framework of the US as a potential enemy but also negotiate with the US for a “win-win” strategy for the two countries. However, the complex relationship between China and the international community forms the contradictory background of its external development strategy and the US containment. From the US strategic point of view, it is best not to let Russia and China join hands and appear before the US as a collective force. This is because the US not only has to participate in the wars in Europe and the Middle East, but also has to deal with domestic affairs, and at the same time has to implement an economic and security containment strategy against China in East Asia. The US view of Russia as a real rival or strategic negotiator and China as a potential enemy or existing negotiating partner is clearly different from the China’s view of the US as both a rival and potential partner. However, in view of the fact that the former Soviet Union had supplied Vietnam with weapons, it is possible that Russia’s visit to Vietnam was not only a request for weapons, but also for some assistance in the form of military and food supplies. It could also be said that Russia was using Vietnam to counter the US strategy in Southeast Asia while at the same time strengthening its hold on China.

Russia’s cooperation with North Korea in Northeast Asia poses a major security threat to Japan and South Korea. Japan and South Korea have responded to this security threat by strengthening their cooperation with the US. The strengthening of US-Japanese cooperation will eventually lead to the strengthening of South Korea’s deterrence against North Korea in the Korean Peninsula, which is also part of the US blockade of China. This US-Japan-South Korea cooperation in Northeast Asia will eventually link up the Taiwan Strait on the blockade of China, and possibly with the US Indo-Pacific strategy. A security alliance between Russia and North Korea could eventually lead to a strengthening of US-Japanese relations, which in turn would lead to a strengthening of Japanese influence in the region and create an atmosphere in the Korean Peninsula favorable to US-Japanese cooperation. The issue of nuclear weaponry of Japan and Korea is also a real issue. Under these circumstances, the Korean Peninsula will become the center of competition for security confrontation. In addition, the strengthening of North Korea’s military strength will also lead to the strengthening of Japan’s and South Korea’s security capabilities, including nuclear weapons. Under these circumstances, Taiwan, which is located in the beltline between Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia, may become a more important security interest in US East Asian strategy. In this way, the US will be able to intertwine its economic and security interests, reduce the burden on the US, and enhance the influence of US allies in East Asia.

In short, the escalation of Russia-North Korea relations affects the balance of power in the geopolitics of Northeast Asia, which has become a region where there is a risk of war if the balance of power is broken. At the same time, by expanding its influence in East Asia, Russia has to think about a new type of cooperation strategy with China, which has been expanding its influence after the collapse of the Soviet Union. From China’s perspective, it has been facing the challenge of Russia, Japan, and the US expanding their influence in Northeast Asia, and similarly in Southeast Asia. This problem is not only manifested in the cross-strait issue, but also in the difficult competitive environment between the US, Russia, and China in East Asia.

Translated to English by Chen Cheng-Yi